Simon Humphreys, one of the founders of CAS, has been awarded the Kavli Education Medal by the Royal Society. In a statement, the Royal Society said the award was in recognition of his “impact in the field of science and mathematics education, and for his transformative contribution to computing education, influencing both national policy and the lives of thousands of practising school-teachers.”
Until July 2019 Simon worked as the CAS National Coordinator overseeing its growth from a small group of 20 to over 30,000 members. He spoke to Claire Penketh about his reaction to the Royal Society Education Medal award, setting up CAS and his wide-ranging career.
“I taught for 25 years before working for CAS, starting my career as a music teacher before a hearing impairment forced me to change direction. I went back to university to read Computer Science in 2002, graduating with a first-class honours degree and went on to teach computing and computer science. One of the things I brought to computing was that children with an interest in music start young and I could not see why that wouldn’t be the case with computer science. We encourage our children to get involved in music, even before school and there is a natural progression. It was completely weird to me that the same thing was not happening with computing and computer science. Why weren’t we teaching our children early on more about how computers work, so that when they get to university, we weren’t teaching them the basics?
During my time at CAS I served on the committee that wrote the new curriculum for Computing, was a member of the Royal Society Advisory Group Shut down, or Restart?, led a national training programme for computing teachers, the Network of Excellence funded by the Department for Education and helped to develop the National Centre for Computing that grew out of this programme. I advised widely on the development and implementation of computing and computer science in schools and co-authored several papers on the professional development of teachers through the community of practice model implemented by CAS and I am a subject expert for Ofqual.
How do you feel about being awarded this prize by the Royal Society?
I am honoured and humbled to be recognised for this award. CAS has been one of the highlights of both my professional and personal life and being able to work with the many wonderful teachers committed to developing high-quality computing education for the young people in our country has been a real privilege. The impact of the Royal Society in this endeavour cannot be underestimated and for the ongoing work of CAS to be thus recognised is a huge honour.
Can you provide a summary of your area of research, and its wider applications and significance?
CAS has two aims:
- to establish computing/computer science as a foundational subject for all children
- to support teachers in the classroom delivering computing and computer science
Critical to the success of the first aim is the second! The second only happens when teachers are sufficiently confident to embrace new ideas, new curricula and new resources.
To build teacher confidence CAS adopted the community of practice model. We established a network of local groups where teachers could share their ideas and classroom resources. Computing departments in schools are small and may lack subject expertise. Therefore, connecting the more experienced with the less experienced across schools has been really important. This model builds confidence in changing practice and behaviour and has been the foundation of the CAS ethos.
In 2009 we started the first of these CAS Hubs which then grew to over 300 across both primary and secondary schools, each run by volunteer teachers or university staff. The hubs meet once a term to develop an understanding of the subject, looking at new classroom resources and receiving training. They are 'safe places' for teachers to collaborate and share their professional development and further their computing knowledge, thus, meeting both aims of the community.
These networks are then supported through an online forum where teachers can further discuss and share their resources, connect with like-minded professionals and find events being run in their area. Our annual conference was also a highlight moment to celebrate and disseminate good practice to a wide audience.
Meaningful, ongoing,continued professional development (CPD) that brings real change for time-constrained teachers is a difficult issue, but it need not cost a fortune or take teachers out of the classroom for extended periods. CPD is something we do for teachers, not to them and the expertise needed is in our local community, our neighbouring school or university. The CAS community has helped thousands of teachers make those connections and transition into teachers of computing through its community of practice.
Core to the philosophy of CAS is its inclusivity. CAS is for all who have a passion for computing education. The many and varied contributions made by university academics, researchers and those working in industry have been critical and we are all in their debt.
Looking back at your career, what are the highlights that have shaped your research?
When looking back at over 30 years (!) I could never have envisaged being involved in this field. My career goals were firmly in the arts, as a musician, composer, and teacher. This was quite a different world, and moving from one subject into another provided a perspective I might not have had.
Also, as I transitioned from music to computing I was lucky to draw on the knowledge and expertise of other teachers in my school who “held my hand” as I took the steps from 'artist' to 'scientist'. In the days before online courses, their generosity was invaluable. There is something powerful about being able to raise your hand in a meeting of peers and say, “I’m a new teacher of computing, normalisation of floating-point numbers is new to me, can anyone share how they teach it?” and then finding other teachers more than willing to explain - it’s just wonderful! For many teachers in our schools', computing is brand new, there is much to learn about how to teach it but within our local communities, there are experts who can help.
CAS has been tremendously fortunate to have been associated with some brilliant organisations who have given their backing to us, not least BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, which provided much-needed credibility and status. Bringing change in education is not straightforward; CAS has been a truly collective endeavour.
Have you had any thoughts about how the award could help further your work?
I sincerely hope that this award will, once again, raise awareness of the need for a computing education in all of our schools. We have made a lot of progress; the subject is in the National Curriculum something we could only dream of back in 2009 but there is still a long way to go.
The National Centre for Computing Education has been a tremendous development and will be hugely beneficial. A high-quality computing education for all our young people needs to be front and centre of our 21st-century curriculum. We’ve often said in CAS “We teach Physics because we live in a physical world; we teach Chemistry because we live in a chemical world etc”. We need the same imperative for computing and our burgeoning digital world.
In 2017 the Royal Society, in it’s report, After the Reboot said: “Our evidence shows that computing education across the UK is patchy and fragile … neglecting the opportunities to act would risk damaging both the education of future generations and our economic prosperity as a nation.” This remains the case. As we emerge, post-COVID-19, where schools have embraced new ways of delivering classroom content and we have all been reliant on our digital infrastructure to keep us connected, it is a good time to remind us all about the importance of high-quality computing education for ALL our young people."