Our education system is failing, and worse, it is destroying students

The 34th episode of the Isto Não é Pera Doce podcast reflects on the integration of computing as a fundamental subject in the education system in Portugal. Luís Neves, co-founder and president of ENSICO - Associação para o Ensino da Computação (Association for the Teaching of Computing) - explains this educational project and the goals set to integrate computing into compulsory education by 2025.

Our education system is failing, and worse, it is destroying students
Fígura de ondas técnologicas azul

It is a bottom-up pilot project with several phases. An initiative that started with a blank sheet of paper so that creativity wouldn't be limited by the programme they had to develop. Watch the full interview:

«In Portugal, copy-paste is absolutely delicious at all levels and understood by everyone»

ENSICO was born at the end of 2019 with the desire to integrate computing into compulsory education by 2025. After starting work on the ground in 2020, they made a commitment from the outset that they would need five years to do everything possible so that by 2025 a decision could be taken that would have the national reach they were aiming for with this initiative. 

A new project that, according to the ENSICO team, does not exist anywhere else in the world. An enormous challenge, because "in Portugal, copy-paste, at all levels, is absolutely delicious and well understood by everyone", while what is new can be more difficult to accept, says Luís Neves. 

We chose teachers as our first target. We wanted to bring together a wide range of teachers. We really wanted to explain what computing is, what the aim is, why we are trying to do this. These teachers wanted to go on to phase two. Phase two was to start working with schools and pupils. And so we started a first school year of working with teachers and students.   

«In fact, we often use a very Portuguese expression, which is 'we did all the cooking'.»

After the start of the first school year, the programme they advocated was put into practice. Classes are held weekly and teachers are prepared for this type of teaching.

When presenting the project to the schools, ENSICO only asked for time. The only condition was that if the school considered the project to be a valid proposal, it would commit its time and that of the teachers who would be involved in the project.  

In the beginning, it was the ENSICO team that went into the schools to teach the computer classes, taking up the time of the subject. The aim was to accompany the team, to gather feedback, to understand how the model could work, to get to the stage where they are now - stage five: teacher training.

So in the first three years of school, until we got to this year, we've always worked with these teachers, they've accompanied us, they've given us feedback, opinions and so on. As a result, we began to understand how all this could work, so that we could get to something else that was defined, which is the phase we're in now, which is to train school teachers, because they're already in the education system, in computer education. And so that they are now the computer teachers.  

The subjects to be taught are prepared by ENSICO, which builds the content, exercises, references, everything a teacher needs to explore during the school year

[We have developed everything. In fact, we often use a very Portuguese expression, which is "nós fizemos a papinha toda". And when I say everything, it's much more than people realise. Basically, all the materials used in class have two levels. We provide all the teachers with slides to use in class - to accompany the lesson - and these slides are divided into two specific levels. We also have what we call two-colour slides. There are the white slides, which are the slides that are projected in class, and the slides that the teachers get are white slides - this whole sequence - with blue slides in between, which have a whole series of explanations, which are called "teacher's notes".  

In this way, teaching materials are made available to teachers in such a way that, in many classes, they can literally be guided by them and tell a story to their students. This story introduces characters who are closely associated with computing.

Everything is provided by us so that the teacher can do two very important things: the first is to study and then to know exactly what we are proposing to work on in class, and then there is another level that has to do with a whole series of concrete activities and objectives that we want to achieve, but always safeguarding one principle: the teacher is completely sovereign in what he decides to do in the classroom. And this sovereignty is sacred to us.

The workload is also sovereign and should not be increased, says Luís Neves.

We are not advocating an increase in working hours. On the contrary, we're in favour of reorganising things and reducing the workload. We believe that students should have moments of boredom. And that they should have moments when they literally look at the sky, or the ceiling, or somewhere else.

«The desire to learn diminishes with age»

The workload shouldn't be a problem. The difficulties identified by the ENSICO team during the preparation of this project are sufficient:

The desire to learn diminishes as the years go by. For us, this is a very clear sign that our education system is failing and, worse, destroying students.

Given this knowledge, it was - and still is - essential for ENSICO to have a good understanding of the current state of education in Portugal and, in particular, of the teaching of scientific subjects and, of course, of how mathematics is learned by students.

We started with mental models and it was important for us to start there. We started with second and third cycle students to see exactly what was happening and whether students had the knowledge and skills to take advantage of another discipline, such as computing, which relies heavily on mathematics. We realised then that we really had many, many problems.

They decided to start in the middle - in the second and third cycles - but, as a twelve-year programme, they knew it would extend to the younger levels of education. Thus, the first phase is marked by teachers; the second by the first school year with students in the second and third cycles; the third by the first cycle - only the third and fourth years were covered, as the pandemic made it impossible to reach the first and second years - the second and third cycles (up to the ninth year); and the fourth phase is marked by the first, second and third cycles in their entirety - up to the ninth year.

«In the modern world, we must continue to emphasise language »

But how can teaching computer science benefit students' overall learning? For Luís Neves, it all comes down to language. He explains:

The order is actually: mother tongue, mathematical language and then computer language. These are all languages. And it's important that we understand, once and for all, that human beings begin their journey, each of us begins our journey, through communication and especially through communication with others. This is done through language. We create and define languages to communicate with each other. So why can't we play with learning mathematics? Because mathematics is already an embodiment of native language learning. In other words, in order to learn mathematics, or any other language, students end up having to express themselves, but first they have to think and reason and communicate in their mother tongue.

It is therefore through this dimension - language - that the problems and difficulties of the students with whom ENSICO works - around five thousand - are perceived. The biggest problem is interpretation, says Luís. And it is in this context that he says the focus should continue to be on language.

The biggest problem we have on a daily basis in our computer classes, when I say we, every teacher says this nowadays, is that the students don't know how to interpret. They don't know what words mean. They don't know how to express themselves. It's so dramatic that at the moment, when we want to give a student a questionnaire, we put a sheet of paper in front of them and the question has two lines and they don't even look at the two lines. They look at the teacher and ask what to do. That's how we are. That is the reality. And so the new trio that we're defending here is precisely that in the modern world we must continue to emphasise language. It all starts with language, especially our mother tongue.

Watch the full episode on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes or Google Podcasts.





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