Supporting educators to provide high-quality computing education has always been integral to our mission. In 2018, we began creating more learning resources for formal education settings. The UK government had recently announced future investment in supporting computing educators. Schools in England were offering the national Computing curriculum established in 2014. (In the USA, a more common term for prescribed education content is ‘standards’.)
England’s Computing curriculum requires that all learners be taught the subject between ages 5 and 16, and it consists of only 25 statements outlining expectations for learners. To accompany this curriculum, we started developing a framework to help us describe the subject of Computing, and in particular the common threads running through it.
A 2012 report by the Royal Society presented the breadth of computing by dividing it into three areas: information technology, computer science, and digital literacy. Although this goes some way to describe computing as a discipline, in our view this model creates artificial divides between aspects of the subject according to whether they are seen as more or less technical. Our more holistic view of computing recognises that concepts and skills within the subject are far more interconnected.
Principles for our taxonomy
When we set out to develop our framework, the goal was to provide a way to look at and describe the subject of Computing as a set of interconnected topics; the framework doesn’t define standards or curricula. There are, of course, many ways of organising the subject matter, implemented through exam specifications, textbooks, schemes of learning, and various progression guides. For our framework, we reviewed examples of each of these, from England and beyond, and decided on some organisational principles:
- Our framework should describe the whole of Computing, incorporating computer science, information technology, and digital literacy
- The framework should be applicable across primary and secondary education, meaning it should be useful for categorising the knowledge encountered by all learners, from five-year-olds to our oldest secondary school students
- While inspired by England’s national curriculum, the framework should be independent of any particular exam specification and capable of adaptation to new curricula
- The framework should represent Computing as a discipline that combines a broad mixture of concepts and skills
Developing the taxonomy
Following these principles, we identified ten content themes, or strands, that thread through a learner’s journey in Computing education. We call this framework representing the knowledge and skills that make up the subject our Computing taxonomy. As the Foundation is part of the consortium that established the National Centre for Computing Education in England, our taxonomy became a cornerstone of the work of the Centre, providing a common language to describe Computing in English schools and shaping the educational content we created for online teacher training courses, the classroom resources that make up the Computing Curriculum, and the material on the Isaac Computer Science platform for A level and GCSE learners and teachers.
Computing is, of course, a constantly evolving field and as such, our taxonomy evolves with it. Since 2018 we’ve iterated our taxonomy to incorporate new things we’ve learned, for example relating to the rapid developments of artificial intelligence (AI) technology in recent years. AI now is a significant area of study and represented as its own strand in our current taxonomy, bringing the number of strands up to eleven:
- Effective use of tools
- Safety and security
- Design and development
- Impact of technology
- Computing systems
- Creating media
- Algorithms and data structures
- Data and information
- Artificial intelligence
Given the interconnected nature of Computing, we embrace a best-fit approach to content categorisation, choosing the most appropriate strand(s) for each idea. In developing our Computing taxonomy, we determined that four of the strands (the horizontal strands in the diagram) were best taught interwoven with the others, in context rather than as discrete topics. A good example of this is the strand ‘Safety and security’, which focuses on supporting learners to realise the benefits of digital technology without putting themselves and others at risk. While it would be possible to teach this strand as one discrete set of lessons, revisiting it throughout a learner’s journey provides regular reinforcement as well as grounding in the context of other strands.
Within the strands, we have also identified progressive learning outcomes for each stage of learning. These learning outcomes are illustrative of the kinds of knowledge and understanding that learners could develop in each area of Computing. They are not prescriptive and instead aim to illustrate the wide applications of the discipline.
Coming soon: The Big Book of Computing Content
On 24 October, we will publish The Big Book of Computing Content. Framed by our taxonomy, The Big Book of Computing Content presents our work so far in describing the diverse range of concepts and skills that comprise Computing. It also includes the illustrative learning outcomes we’ve identified.
This will be the second special edition of Hello World, our free magazine for computing educators. The new Big Book complements our first special edition, The Big Book of Computing Pedagogy, in which we lay out 12 key principles for teaching the subject.
Share your thoughts on our taxonomy
We hope our taxonomy and the new Big Book enable you to reflect on the breadth of Computing and resonate with your teaching. Please share your reflections, in the comments below or by tagging us on social media, if you’d like to help us develop the taxonomy further.