Computing: Supporting effective teaching

Dec 01, 2014

Miles Berry

Now that the new computing curriculum is in place and we’ve a fairly clear idea about what we should be teaching, it’s perhaps worth considering how to teach this new subject most effectively. The way ICT was taught in the past is a good starting point, at least as far as primary schools are concerned: in their last subject survey, Ofsted reported that ICT teaching was good or better in two thirds of the primary schools they visited. The creative, practical projects which characterised many primary ICT lessons will certainly have their place in new computing lessons, not least because there’s very little from the old curriculum which hasn’t made it onto the new.

Whilst media coverage has focussed on ‘coding’, the computing programmes of study include a balanced mix of computer science, information technology and digital literacy, that is the foundations, applications and implications of the discipline respectively. The new curriculum, even at primary level, does place much more of an emphasis on computing as a body of knowledge to be studied rather than a set of skills to be acquired: that said, I’m convinced that hands-on activities in programming and digital media are much more likely to be the best ways to develop computational thinking and creativity than any number of theory lessons or worksheets.

Looking to the past, there’s much that we can learn about the effective teaching of computing from Seymour Papert’s early work with Logo programming back in the 70s and 80s. Logo programming was never meant to be an end in itself, nor was it about early vocational training for software developers. It was about giving pupils mastery over technology: programming, rather than being programmed, and about providing pupils with tools to think with. Programming activities in the new curriculum, shouldn’t be the goal, rather they should both draw on and aim to develop computational thinking (that is, ideas such as logical reasoning, algorithms, decomposition, abstraction and generalisation). Papert also recognised that learning happened particularly effectively when pupils were consciously engaged in making things for others. The web makes this easier than ever for primary pupils: software like Scratch, Google Apps for Education and WordPress not only make it easy for pupils to create their own programs and digital content, but they also provide ways for them to share these safely with a potentially global audience.

Whilst Code Club and others have done great work in providing opportunities for those who are interested to “learn to code as an extracurricular activity, it’s important to recognise that the whole of the computing curriculum is an entitlement for all. With the removal of levels, the emphasis now needs to be on all pupils mastering the content of the curriculum. This is less about a fixed model of pupils’ ‘ability’ in computing, than their willingness to explore, to learn through debugging and to persevere when things don’t go well. It’s also about teachers going into computing lessons with high expectations of what all their pupils can achieve, and passing on this sort of ‘growth mindset’ to the children.

The entitlement to computing for all also means making good use of appropriate adaptations and assistive technology: for pupils learning English as an additional language, remember that Scratch has built in language packs and that Google translate is pretty good these days. Similarly speech recognition and touch or gesture based interfaces can make computing much more accessible for those who would otherwise be excluded.

The education research which the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) summarise in their Toolkit provides pointers for effective computing teaching. EEF identify feedback as one of the most effective interventions: in programming, there’s a tight feedback loop for those writing code – it’s usually clear whether the code runs correctly or not, and there should be ample opportunity in lessons for pupils to fix their own code: teachers should try hard to avoid debugging pupils’ code for them, although encouraging pupils to help one another and to search online for solutions are quite reasonable strategies. By posting their programs online, either through a class blog or to the global Scratch community, pupils can get feedback on their coding from others alongside their teacher.

EEF also recognise ‘meta-cognition and self-regulation’ as high impact: in computing, give pupils chance to take charge of their own projects, encouraging them to plan these by decomposing them into smaller parts, and to take some responsibility for learning what they need in order to accomplish these. It’s also important to have pupils reflect on their learning – not just what they’ve done in a project or activity, but more importantly how they learnt. Papert recognised the importance of this in programming work: “I began to see how children who had learned to program computers could use very concrete computer models to think about thinking and to learn about learning and in doing so, enhance their powers as psychologists and as epistemologists.”

Peer tutoring is also very high on EEF’s list of successful interventions: in computing lessons look for ways to include collaborative project work: this mirrors the way that real world software (and digital media) gets produced through teamwork, with each individual contributing something distinctive to the process and, crucially, learning much through working alongside peers with complementary skills. Many find it far easier to learn about programming and debugging through adding to or remixing another’s code than when staring at a blank screen. Even when pupils are working on individual projects, look for ways in which they can help one another if they get stuck, or explain their thinking to each other, or debug one another’s code, or provide feedback to one another on their work.

HMI David Brown, Ofsted’s national lead for computing, put together some helpful slides on what the inspectorate would be looking for in computing. David suggests that an approach in which pupils demonstrated little creativity or originality but merely followed instructions would be judged as inadequate; on the other hand, pupils who could solve challenging problems, demonstrate imagination and innovation and show independence in their use of computing would be evidence of good or outstanding achievement.  David also emphasises the importance of teachers’ subject knowledge and technical expertise, and for many this will be a challenge, as few primary teachers studied computer science at school or university, or have done any programming. Fortunately there are some high quality resources around to help here, such as the CAS / Naace guide to the new curriculum for primary teachers, the BCS Barefoot Computing project and the subject knowledge and software tutorials filmed for Rising Stars.

These are such exciting times for computing education – not only have we an ambitious new subject to teach, but there’s also a wonderfully empowering sense of developing the new pedagogy to go with this. For everything else we teach, we can think back to how we ourselves were taught and our teacher training. For computing though, few of us have these models to fall back on, thus giving us the responsibility to establish what looks like good practice here. I hope that some of the pointers in this article can help us to do this well.

Originally published by Headteacher Update, November 2014. © all rights reserved.