Ok computer: eight ways to teach computing with confidence (Sponsored article)

3rd November 2017 at 16:00
Teaching computing can feel like a daunting prospect for the less digitally savvy. But it can be simple, structured and, most of all, fun.

When the 2014 computing curriculum was introduced, I was excited that technology in schools was finally catching up with the world outside. Some of my colleagues, however, were not so thrilled. Many of them had only just mastered Excel, so to be told that they would now be teaching coding and have to explain terms like “algorithm”, “computational thinking” and “logical reasoning” left them feeling understandably worried.

The computing curriculum is filled with vocabulary that will probably be new to teachers (and a lot of pupils). It is essential, then, that we understand these terms and use them fluently. Children as young as four are capable of grasping these concepts and the terminology should not be replaced by substitutes. But it needn’t be daunting. Here are my tips on teaching the subject with confidence.

Try computing without a computer

An algorithm, for example, is simply a set of instructions and rules for performing a task. But we still need to use the word “algorithm”, not “instruction”. Algorithms are fascinating and, although they can be quite complex, the concept is actually quite simple – and it doesn’t even require a computer to teach.

You could encourage your class to write out their morning algorithm, or the algorithm for a simple task like brushing their teeth or eating cereal. Without knowing it, they’ll be exploring important computational concepts like repetition (brush bottom left teeth five times), sequencing (put cereal in bowl and then milk), and conditional logic (if the bowl is empty, stop eating). You could challenge older children to be specific with their instructions as computers don’t understand intentions, so if they don’t specify that you need to get out the bowl first, they’ll end up pouring milk on the floor.

Get with the program (and the network)

Younger children can begin to develop their understanding of programming by using resources like LEGO® Education WeDo 2.0, these are simple robots that they can program with instructions. More information on how these type of classroom coding resources work can be found here.

For older children, the new curriculum focuses on learning about computer networks and how the internet functions. Again, these lessons can be more effective when taught away from the computer. A good example for secondary and beyond are resources like LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3. Resources like this can really tap into the computing curriculum and tick the boxes you need to deliver a hands-on engaging lesson for pupils.

In addition, you can even get pupils to explore how computer networks function by using drama, with individuals playing the roles of the server, the router, the electrical currents and the devices used.  

You could also look at how the internet works by making physical ‘data packets’ that are passed around the classroom and put back together to create a message. Here, you are showing them something that cannot be seen in real life, helping to embed their understanding.

Steer clear of spoon-feeding

In computing, you need to let pupils be independent. We all want to help our classes, making sure that they understand what they are doing, but coding requires problem-solving. Just as we wouldn’t tell pupils the answer to a maths problem, we cannot spoon-feed them in computing.

A child may write a sequence and realise that it does not run correctly. If you point out to them why it doesn’t work, they will not learn how to debug a program. Let them work it out and they will develop this knowledge for themselves.

Plan for play time

When we start using a new program, I often have a lesson where pupils can play, experiment and discover what they can for themselves. And they come away feeling excited, confident and ready to learn.

It sounds obvious, but you need to learn the program you are going to use before you start teaching it (this can be time-consuming but will be worth the effort). I recently wanted to teach my class how to build a game on Python, so I read a book on the basics of the program, built a very simple ping pong game (which I was particularly proud of) and shared this with my class. The children were amazed – but also wanted to create better versions to compete with mine. When they came to make their own games, I was able to help them using my own experience.

Make the most of existing skills

You may find that you have children who are already very skilled on particular programs, they may spend time at home working on them, too. Use this to your advantage and let them teach part of a lesson with you. Peers learn well from each other and this will boost the confidence of the child sharing their knowledge.

Look for links to other subjects

Computing lends itself perfectly to linking to the wider curriculum through project-based learning. There are obvious links between algorithms and maths, for example. You could plan a project to create a maths game that tests players on their multiplication tables, this would enable pupils to develop an understanding of the algorithm for multiplications, as well as sequencing, selection, repetition and various requirements of the computing curriculum. Or they could work on a project to create an animation about their current history, English or language topic. The possibilities are endless.

Show off pupils’ work

Always try to find an audience for pupils’ computing work, whether they’re presenting to one another, writing for a public blog or creating software for younger pupils. Not only will they learn more effectively from showing their creations to others, they will also learn from the work they see, picking up new ideas or blocks of code to use in their projects.

Turn to the internet (and enjoy the enthusiasm)

The internet is a treasure trove of computing resources. There are many sites offering free programs and materials, so take the time to look at these as they could improve your lessons and the view your class has of them. But ultimately, this is a subject that you don’t need to work to get pupils enthused about – they already are. So you should enjoy the process of seeing them develop as young coders.

Children grow up with computers now, learning to use them quickly and confidently (unlike some of their teachers). Now we have to equip them with the programming skills that they will need in the future. In giving our pupils with the skills to grow with the technology around them, we are enabling them to create a better world.  

Sian Ward is assistant head and a computing lead in a school in south west London