Computing: Closing the gender gap

Written by: Dave Gibbs | Published:

One of the keys to making computer science a success is to close the stark gender gap. Dave Gibbs looks at how we can get more girls to consider the subject

Computer science is hard. This is according to some well-known names in computing education and this sits alongside the results day news that students are likely to do less well in computer science than in mathematics, business studies, design and technology and most other subjects, even after accounting for “innate ability”.

I am confident this isn’t an intractable problem, but that there are a range of causes for the current situation.

In computing, only 26 per cent of teachers have a relevant degree qualification – lower even than ICT, which hovered at around 30 to 35 per cent for years.

Compare this to physics, where 62 per cent of teachers have a relevant degree, and biology where 82 per cent are subject specialists.

However, the lack of specialist teaching hasn’t slowed the growth of computer science as a subject. During a five-year period, computer science entries have increased even though more and more students are being taught by teachers without a relevant post-A level qualification.

The pipeline of newly qualified computing teachers is a steady trickle, not a gush, meaning that subject expertise remains thin on the ground.

The outcome? GCSE students typically achieve half-a-grade lower in computer science than in their other subjects and A level grades are also a little lower than those for other subjects (about a sixth of a grade). No groups of schools are performing strongly in computer science compared to all other subjects.

With more than half of all teaching delivered by teachers with no relevant qualification and students with a wide range of ability continuing to study computing, you would expect the grades might have taken downward turn.

The good news is that this appears not to be the case – grades are stable. This solid foundation is built on the hard work and dedication of the computing teacher workforce, which has ridden a wave of unprecedented change. Self-teaching coupled with reflective practice and knowledge-sharing among peer networks have been crucially important to maintaining grades. That together with access to high-quality CPD and resources.

So outside of upskilling teachers, how can we improve the state of computer science in schools and colleges?

The gender gap

At GCSE, the typical computer science student is academically strong, mathematically able, likely to be taking triple science (despite computer science counting as a science for the EBacc), from a relatively affluent family, and overwhelming likely to be male (SecEd, June 2018).

Evidence shows this needn’t be the case and a University of Toronto study found that there is no “geek gene”. Differences in achievement could be put down to teaching quality and the hard work of students, both of which can be influenced.

If we want to have greater successes in computer science, a good place to start is by diversifying the pool of students who opt to learn about it. We are at an all-time low in terms uptake by girls of computer science, and programmers working in industry reflect this narrowing trend.

The appeal of the subject must be widened, bringing in more girls and young people from all backgrounds, if growth and improvement is to be sustained. It is vital for our society that the whole community contributes to the digital economy, touching every aspect of our modern lives. Plus girls tend to achieve higher grades in computing, so it is good for the “bottom line”.

Maths skills and computational thinking ability have an important part to play in computing success but research suggests that there is more to it. Self-efficacy, being open to experiences, conscientiousness and extraversion are all influential factors. If young people believe they can perform well in computing, they are more likely to achieve better results. The differences in self-belief between the sexes may go some way to explaining the inequalities found within the subject.

Recent developments in our understanding of how the brain learns show that there is potential in all students. Despite some recent negative reports against an overwhelmingly positive tide, encouraging a growth mindset could help students to achieve success. Messages such as “to FAIL is just the First Attempt In Learning” can contribute towards a more inclusive and supportive classroom environment.

Not only can we broaden the pool but we can also learn from other subjects and how they teach their students to succeed. There is no denying that learning to program computers is hard but according to research based on fMRI scans of the brain, the process shares similarities with learning a foreign language.
Dedication, practice and repetition remain important but modern teaching of foreign languages focuses on communication – learning happens when students are immersed in the practical application of the subject, so a technical focus on grammar may be less effective.

These parallels with computing seem clear – reading and writing code for a practical purpose should tap into the same motivations and light up the same parts of the brain. It is said that languages cannot be taught, only learned, so classroom activity must be considered in this light.

If you have not been in the languages classrooms recently, try popping in to a lesson. Are there transferable practices that are worth experimenting with?
Other subjects have had decades to develop a body of shared practice, although debates remain and all subjects can improve their teaching. Computing has come a long way in a very short time, with teachers pulling themselves – and each other – up by their bootstraps.

The subject is at a fork in the road, and the forthcoming National Centre for Computing Education has a key role to play. I hope we can look back at these challenging days in a few years’ time and smile, as computing strides confidently into a rosy future.

  • Dave Gibbs is a STEM, computing and technology specialist with STEM Learning. STEM Learning runs the National STEM Learning Centre in York and provides professional development, leadership support, resources, bursaries and tools to teachers, technicians and teaching assistants across the country. Visit www.stem.org.uk/what-we-do

CPD support

STEM Learning’s computing CPD – via the National STEM Learning Centre – is listed at www.stem.org.uk/computing-cpd while support for key stage 3 computing non-specialists can be found via www.stem.org.uk/cy253

Further reading

Gender gap in computing set to worsen as ICT is scrapped, SecEd, June 2018: http://bit.ly/2PrV9pF


Comments
Name
 
Email
 
Comments
 

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 
Claim Free Subscription