Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Addressing the gender imbalance in computing: creating a firm foundation in primary education

( Also published at http://code-it.co.uk/genderarticle )
Once you realise how much of the modern world is digital, equality becomes so much more important. Take a minute to think about the number and variety of digital devices in your life.
I wonder if you listed the boiler, washing machine, fridge, set top box, TV or did you start with the obvious smart phone and PC? Volkswagen would like us to forget about the computer chips in most of our cars.
Approximately 96% of the algorithms and programming that govern these devices was written by men. Whilst I don’t want to denigrate the industry’s achievements I doubt I am alone in wondering how our modern digital world would look and feel if women had an equal say in designing and creating it.
So how can we create a solid foundation in primary education that leaves all pupils excited about using computational thinking to think, design and create because make no mistake both sexes are equally capable of wonderful computational thinking and doing.
Firstly we need to create conditions where every child will flourish and to do this we need to stop solving things for pupils and we need to stop them solving things for each other. If one pupil in a group solves something and then shares their solution with their neighbours then only the original problem solver has had opportunity to develop their thinking skills. The helper is not really helping, in fact they are often making the helped more helpless and less independent and I have written in much more detail about this here. Hints rather than solutions are the way to help someone to help themselves. Removing the false help of a fully formed solution forces all pupils to think for themselves and develop their own thinking skills. Even when knowledge consists of simple instruction, where to begin is much more helpful than a full solution. Our quieter less confident pupils of both sexes flourish when the tyranny of false help is removed.
Secondly we need to remove the acceptableness of teachers being openly helpless at computing in the classroom. Admitting to colleagues that you struggle in an area and need support to move forward is to be encouraged as it can be the beginning of change. I lead lots of computing inset in schools across England and in nearly every school, before I start, teachers come up and tell me, often with a certain level of challenge, that they are rubbish at using technology. When team teaching and working in schools I hear teachers tell their pupils that they don’t get a certain technology or do a certain aspect of computing. The problem with this is that if a teacher models a helpless attitude towards technology then pupils are given permission to do the same. I can hear teachers reading this saying “ok Phil, do I have to fix my interactive white board or computer?” No of course you don't! Hopefully there is someone you can call on to do these things and our core role is to teach.  What I am saying is if I was stuck on an aspect of the literacy or maths curriculum, I wouldn’t say in front of my class “oh I don't do adjectives” or “fractions have never been my thing”. I would have given my students permission to not engage with these important areas. This is just as true for computing, computational thinking and general technology use. We can admit we don't know how to do something yet and offer strategies that we will use so that we model effective problem solving/ knowledge gathering, but how we do this is important. If we are negative about the value of the knowledge or imply it is not important for us or say that it is not something we do then our pupils will be negative about it and fail to see its value either.
Why could teacher helplessness be such an important issue in maintaining gender imbalance in primary schools? I see no evidence to suggest there are a greater percentage of male or female helpless teachers. Let us say for arguments sake that 5% of male teachers and 5% of female teachers are helpless (a number plucked from the air as there are no statistics available) In primary education 3/4 s of teachers and 4/5 ths of classroom support assistants are female. So our nominal 5% of female teachers represents a much higher number of teacher. All research suggests that positive role models are important in encouraging children to believe that something lies within their domain and computing is no different.
I lead lots of parental online-safety sessions and these are nearly always attended by a greater proportion of dads than mums – often directly the reverse of parents evenings or other meetings where there is parity or mums are in the majority. I have no hard statistics about this but I suspect that if this trend represents parental involvement in technology use at home then boys are getting more active role models than girls in many homes. More research is needed to determine the extent of this problem, but we need to find a way to challenge parental attitudes to technology so our girls get more active female role models at home.
We know that many male teachers challenge male students to solve problems and solve problems for their female students. I have written before about falling into these 1950s attitude myself in the past and my dismay at realising how I was perpetuating inequality. A recent US study (1) suggests this is not so much a thing of the past as we would like to believe and still needs challenging and changing where we discover it. We can’t underestimate the power of negative stereotyping in damaging girls’ beliefs that technology creation and understanding is for them.
It is important to make sure that the programming projects pupils create reflect a variety of subjects. Children are complex and whilst there are no “boys programming projects” or “girls programming projects”, some pupils of both sexes will enjoy game creation, some will connect with the beauty of Maths inside programming, others literacy, music or design and technology. By linking programming to a wide variety of stimulus we also demonstrate how it is relevant and important for all of us.
I have yet to meet a teacher that didn't want their students to achieve more than their own generation was able to achieve, to push the boundaries and remove ceilings. I am confident that when, like me, primary teachers realise how our practice needs to change we will rise to that challenge and that will make a difference. I have certainly seen this to be true in the schools where I teach.
Harder to affect are the stereotypes I suspect that are happening in the home but light shone on these areas through research would make a difference. If parents realised that their attitude to technology was affecting their children's life chances I have faith that many would affect change.
I look forward to the technology inspired, thought through and programmed by girls and boys, women and men in increasingly more equal numbers. I have a hunch that it will be even more amazing than what we have now.

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