Computing: Supporting effective teaching

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: MA Education

The computing curriculum is now in place and we have a fairly clear idea about what we should be teaching. Two months in to the new curriculum, Miles Berry, of the University of Roehampton, discusses effective teaching strategies and how schools can suppo

In thinking about how to teach computing, 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 is very little from the old curriculum which hasn’t made it onto the new one.

While media coverage has focused on “coding”, the computing programmes of study include a balanced mix of computer science, information technology and digital literacy which are the foundations, applications and implications of the discipline respectively.

The new curriculum, even at primary level, places an emphasis on computing as a body of knowledge to be studied rather than a set of skills to be acquired. That said, I am convinced that hands-on activities in programming and digital media are much more likely to develop computational thinking and creativity than any number of theory lessons or worksheets.

Looking to the past, there is much that we can learn about effective teaching of computing from Seymour Papert’s work with Logo programming back in the 1970s and 80s. Logo was never meant to be an end in itself, nor was it meant as vocational training for software developers, it was about giving pupils mastery over technology and about providing pupils with tools to think with.

Likewise, coding activities in the new curriculum, should not be an end in themselves, rather they should draw on and develop computational thinking (that is, ideas such as logical reasoning, algorithms, decomposition, abstraction and generalisation).

Papert recognised that learning happened particularly effectively when pupils were consciously engaged in making things for others. The web makes this easier than ever for pupils: software like Scratch, Google Apps for Education and Wordpress make it simple for pupils to create their own programs and digital content, but also provide ways for them to share this content safely with a potentially global audience.

Code Club and others have done great work in providing opportunities for those who are interested in learning to code as an extra-curricular activity. However, it is important to recognise that the whole of the computing curriculum is an entitlement for all pupils.

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 pupils’ willingness to explore, to learn through debugging, and to persevere when things don’t go well. It is also about teachers going into computing lessons with high expectations of what all their pupils can achieve, and passing on this “growth mindset” to the children.

The entitlement to computing for all also means making good use of appropriate adaptations and assistive technology. For example, pupils learning English as an additional language can make use of Scratch’s built-in language packs, and Google translate continues to improve. Similarly speech recognition and touch or gesture-based interfaces can make computing accessible for those who would otherwise be excluded.

The education research which the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) summarised in its now-famous Toolkit provides pointers for effective computing teaching.

The EEF identifies feedback as one of the most effective interventions: in programming, there’s a tight feedback loop for those writing code – it is 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 good strategies enabling pupils to learn from their mistakes.

By posting their programs online, either through a class blog or to the global Scratch community, pupils can get feedback on their code from their peers as well as their teacher.

The EEF also recognises “meta-cognition and self-regulation” as high-impact. In computing, give pupils the 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 complete these.

It is important to have pupils reflect on their learning – not just what they have done in a project or activity, but also how they learnt it. 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 the EEF 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 easier to learn about programming and debugging through adding to or remixing another’s code, rather than working alone and 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. Encourage them to 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. He suggests that an approach in which pupils demonstrate little creativity or originality but merely followed instructions would be judged as inadequate, whereas pupils who could solve challenging problems, demonstrate imagination and innovation, and show independence in their use of computing would provide evidence of good or outstanding achievement.

Mr Brown 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, such as the Computing at School and Naace guide to the new curriculum for primary teachers, the BCS Barefoot Computing project and the subject knowledge and software tutorials in Rising Stars Switched on Computing CPD.

These are such exciting times for computing education – not only have we an ambitious new subject to teach, but there is also the wonderful empowerment for teachers which comes with developing the new pedagogy to go with this. For everything else we teach, we can look back at how we ourselves were taught at school, as well as our teacher training. For computing though, few of us have these models to fall back on, thus giving us the responsibility to establish good practice for ourselves.

Although this may be a challenge for teachers, hopefully, with the help of some of the ideas in this article combined with a new determination to succeed, the next generation of learners will benefit from fresh and open-minded attitudes to the teaching of computing. 

  • Miles Berry is a principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton. He was part of the drafting group for computing in the 2014 national curriculum and is author to Rising Stars Switched on Computing resource.

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