computer science

Computer Science History in Secondary Education?

Sue Black’s wrote a great blog post about whether the history of computer science should be part of the GCSE Computing programme. This is a new programme offered initially by OCR as a pilot, and now as standard GCSE. It offers a qualification in three practical parts, lacking completely a more philosophical approach to Computer Science.

Although a mainly practical approach to computing might be justified at this level, a total absence of the wider issues of Computer Science is appalling. So Sue’s idea of adding the History of Computer Science to this qualification would improve not just the quality of the qualification itself, but also the understanding of the contribution of Computer Science to our society. Joining voices with Sue, I would like to highlight some simple points about why Computer Science history is important:

  • from a purely technical perspective, learning how things developed leads to better skills; we require nuclear physicists to study Newton’s laws, and astronomers to have a grasp of Kepler’s ideas. Knowing the history of punched cards and batch processing on mainframes will make today’s developers deal with their work more effectively.
  • Computer Science made a substantial contribution, most famously through the work of cryptoanalysts at Bletchley Park, to the Allies’ victory in World War II. Computer Science made the difference between a Europe dominated by dictatorships and a democratic one.
  • The history of businesses in Computer Science is one of visions and missions, one of intense fights over the improvement of efficiency, effectiveness and commitment to users; it’s a story of genius ideas and financial mistakes; it’s a story of alternative views of how to get to the market, of giants that created giants. In short, it’s a story that every aspiring entrepreneur should learn before even trying.
  • Studying the more philosophical aspects of Computer Science, the complexity and computability theories, the halting problem, the Goedel’s theorems, can give a student an amazing insight of how humans perceive reality and approach problems.
  • The history of people in Computer Science is a history of science, knowledge, research, passion; it’s also a telling story about civil liberties and bigotry. Ada Lovelace, a woman, is hailed as the first programmer of history; Alan Turing, a gay man who was persecuted (not a typo for prosecuted) for what he was, is credited with developing modern computer science and leading the effort to decrypt Nazi communications. Knowing this story is a way to learn the contribution of each and every person to the development of a great science.

Studying the history of Computing as a science is part of my background. The path going through Babbage, Lady Lovelace, Turing, Goedel, and Dijkstra was possibly the most mind opening of my life. I would really like to see new generations enjoy the same mind opening experience.

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10 thoughts on “Computer Science History in Secondary Education?

  1. I think you missed out a vital point: studying the history of computing makes you a better programmer.

    If you understand (even a little) of how a processor works, why a language is the way it is, or the system by which commands are interpreted you will write better code.

  2. Peter Onion says:

    Why should the cryptographic work of Turing be considered part of Computer Science when it happened before computers existed ? It should be considered as a mathematics triumph !

  3. puntofisso says:

    I don’t see a clear separation of computer science and mathematics, to be honest. Teaching the history of computer science embeds teaching of part of the history of mathematics. If you want to talk about Turing in a mathematical context, that would be great.
    Also, I would question your claim that Turing work is before computer existed. Babbage machine was a computer. Colossus was a computer. It really depends on your definition of what a computer is or does.

    However, my focus was on teaching computer science history in the context of a computing course, not on teaching Turing by itself. If you want to teach Computer Science History, you have to teach Turing.

    Hence, I would argue that the history of mathematics in the context of a maths course is interesting as well: it’s just not the focus of my post.

  4. Peter Onion says:

    “Computer Science made a substantial contribution, most famously through the work of cryptoanalysts at Bletchley Park, ” There were no computer scientists at BP! People who were at BP went on to become computer scientists. It’s a bit “chicken and egg” I agree, but your falling into the frequent trap of mentioning Turing an Colossus together. Turing had no part in the design or construction of colossus.

  5. Peter Onion says:

    “I don’t see a clear separation of computer science and mathematics, to be honest.” Then you really ought to or you’re going to potentially upset mathematicians AND computer scientists !

  6. puntofisso says:

    I think you’re missing my point. Possibly because you’re reading every point in isolation.

    I claim that computer science history should be taught.

    Within this context, which you seem to be forgetting, it is a fact that what happened at Bletchley Park was seminal to the history of Computer Science.
    As a consequence of this, if I want to tell the history of Computer Science, I need to include Bletchley Park, Turing, and cryptoanalysis. Not the other way round.

    As you say: “There were no computer scientists at BP! People who were at BP went on to become computer scientists.”. Which is exactly what I mean when I say “the story of the people who contributed to the *development* of computer science”.

  7. Peter Onion says:

    I’m not convinced that teaching the history of CS to school children is either sufficiently valuable or interesting to take any time in a CS syllabus (and I have a great interest in 1960s hardware and software).

    I think the BP story fits much better into a history syllabus where it can be explained much better in the context of WWII.

    If there were no computer scientists at BP then there was no computer science there either. There was maths and electronics engineering. You will note that Tutte was a Mathematician and Flowers was an GPO Engineer.

    The work at BP remained secret until well after CS had become established, so the actual influence of BP on early CS must be very insignificant. That’s not to say Turing’s post BP work was not influential.

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