Computing: Resources, ideas, advice

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The move from ICT to computing continues to challenge schools, especially those relying on non-specialist teachers. Fiona Aubrey-Smith looks at some useful resources and offers three steps to help move your computing curriculum forwards

Computing is one of the subject areas that has posed the greatest challenge over the last few years. The majority of both headteachers and teachers are not computing specialists, and the shift from ICT to computing has been a sizeable one.

As one headteacher said: “It’s effectively a brand new subject that I didn’t know anything about, so it’s felt quite overwhelming.”

There is a direct relationship between technology-confident headteachers and technology-confident schools, so with all this in mind, here are three considerations to move your school forwards in computing.

Think of computing like a science

When the national curriculum changed in 2014, computing replaced ICT, a subject which had often become used as part of the wider curriculum – word processing in literacy, spreadsheets in maths and robots in geography.

Computing is a very different subject with its own set of building blocks, origins in science and practical applications. As Phil Bagge, computing advisor, inspector, and founder of Code-It (one of the most respected primary computing resources) has said: “While computer science can be a useful support to other areas it’s important to realise that it’s not a servant to other subjects in the curriculum,”

Mr Bagge works with coordinators across the country to revise their curriculum over two to three years, importantly recognising that where teachers and children haven’t been exposed to the computing curriculum historically, they often won’t have the building blocks in place for their current learning. This, he says, is a common situation that can be fixed with practical planning.

For non-specialists, the coding strand of computing often poses the greatest challenges, and four sources of help in particular are to be recommended (see further information for links to all resources mentioned in this article):

  • Code-It: offers free planning, resources and guides.
  • Barefoot Computing: offers free teaching resources and support workshops.
  • Python Code: offers free planning and resources.
  • CAS Master Teachers: local to you, offering a variety of support in computing teaching and CPD.

It is important to have the right mindset when introducing these materials. Some computing concepts are complex and sophisticated and knowing that can put even the most confident teacher off. But, to mitigate for this, the websites above start with some simple ideas, and then offer more sophistication through careful progression across the computing curriculum.

Ensure that progression is built in

As with changes in other areas of the curriculum, children are now often tackling areas of learning in one year group that are dependent on their having learned the building blocks for these skills in previous years.

This can be hugely problematic for both teachers and children. Children become easily frustrated when they are introduced to seemingly complicated ideas which would have been straightforward if they had had those building blocks in place from previous years (which they often will not have had because this curriculum only arrived in 2014).

As a consequence, teachers require both the knowledge of computing skills as well as subject-specific pedagogy about how to address these misconceptions. It is a familiar sounding situation across the country, and one which can easily be addressed. Mr Bagge recommends gradually revising the curriculum over two to three years and has identified the resources that both teachers and children will need to support this process, including progression frameworks and curriculum planning.

With the breadth of curriculum that we need to squeeze into each week it is tempting to cover each aspect of the computing curriculum once then move on to the next. However, there are an underlying set of computational ideas or concepts which each need to be developed and strengthened.

In the same way as there are lots of different skills that come together in literacy, within each area of computing knowledge there are building blocks that need to be learned, practised, revisited, and developed further.

The six accepted concepts of computational thinking, for example, are: logic (predicting and analysing), algorithms (making steps and rules), decomposition (breaking down into parts), patterns (spotting and using similarities), abstraction (removing unnecessary detail), and evaluation (making judgement).

Children need multiple opportunities to look at and experience these things across each key stage. Decomposition for example, features in the key stage 2 curriculum, but taking things apart and looking at how they are constructed can easily begin in key stage 1, and certainly extends through to key stages 3, 4 and 5.

Teaching transferable behaviours in computing

While it should be respected as a subject in its own right, with discrete teaching and dedicated time, computing also offers huge opportunities for teaching much broader life lessons.

Mr Bagge explained: “In programming is something called Conditional Selection. That’s where we say ‘if I do this, then I do that, and then this happens’. This kind of thinking is highlighting important life-skills about cause and effect, consequences, and impact. If we start this kind of computing teaching by using role play and real-life examples, the children understand the basic principles of what we are doing. As well as making computing ideas easier for children (and teachers) to understand and apply, this also offers a subtle way of teaching broader life-skills.”

Research has shown that when children begin to learn programming, they learn from the part of their brain that handles language rather than mathematics. It is about learning to construct something in a particular order – speaking and listening, re-reading and checking. These literacy links can be powerful messages to children, helping them to develop skills that are widely transferable.

Similarly, debugging is a vital skill within computing – identifying where things have not worked, then adjusting and improving aspects and trying again. The important lesson for both teachers and children here is that even the most advanced programmers working for the best technology companies have to go through debugging processes as part of testing and launching software. It’s an absolutely vital part of the process.

This is a great way of helping children to understand that mistakes are a good learning tool; they enable us to reflect on what we have done, identify areas for improvement, and then try the task again so that we see the impact of those improvements.

This doesn’t often happen in other subjects, where marking and improvements often take place between lessons or are applied in future stages of artwork, or during the next maths lesson.

Even more exciting is when you look at the debugging support resources available and see how they align with the SEND work that we do with nurture, problem-solving, tolerance, communication and resilience. With ever increasing mental health demands in our children, opportunities to use technology as a vehicle for addressing emotional and behaviour needs, is one not to be missed.

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who facilitates a number of national networks. She sits on several MAT boards and is chair of governors at a maintained primary school. Email fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com. Read her previous best practice pieces for Headteacher Update, go to http://bit.ly/2IPHfe4

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