Computing challenges and resources

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There are plenty of challenges in delivering the new computing curriculum, but plenty of help and resources to be found as well. Computing teacher Ray Chambers offers his advice.

 

Three years ago, January 2012 marked the start of considerable change for ICT teachers. Lots of us had heard rumblings and rumours about the national curriculum but it came as a surprise when Michael Gove, the then education secretary, announced that the whole ICT curriculum was to be abolished.

The old national curriculum was very much focused on the application of ICT tools. Students would learn how to use spreadsheet models, desktop publishing and word processing. These were all valid skills for the work industry but were slowly starting to be taught as part of other subjects. For example, many English lessons would get students to use word processing skills to produce creative writing pieces.

In September 2014, the policy that Mr Gove first put forward launched, and a new national curriculum for computing focusing much more on skills, theory and content came into being.

Primary school students are now expected to learn the theory of computing as well as computer programming. They must offer logic, algorithms, data representation and networks. 

Secondary schools must provide similar content but are required to use a combination of visual and text-based programming languages as part of their curriculum.

This is not to say that the application of ICT is gone completely. This is still part of the curriculum but it allows teachers to be more creative in the way they deliver this element. For example, in the old curriculum students might be required to build a spreadsheet for its own sake, but now teachers can be a lot more creative and use these tools around other projects.

For example, if a student had to build a computer, they might investigate how much each item costs and build a spreadsheet. Alternatively, you might use desktop publishing as part of a revision tool, but you wouldn’t just focus on desktop publishing as a unit of work. You would apply it to whatever task is being carried out. 

Challenges in the new curriculum

Although my subject specialism is computer science, it hasn’t meant that the new curriculum has been easy for me to develop. I am very lucky with my subject knowledge but the biggest challenge has been the pedagogical approach to computer science. 

It is one thing to make a game in Touch Develop or Scratch, but it is another to explain the reasons and concepts that exist in programming. Many students find it difficult to understand the different loops or the reason we use variables.

A variable is like a storage bucket within a piece of code. You use it to hold a value. It is this pedagogy and the CPD around it that is important.

Another difficulty has been making sure that I deliver a balanced and enriching curriculum. There has been a huge focus in the media on computer programming, but it’s important to remember that students need to learn about the whole curriculum. For instance, they need to understand the workings of a computer system and should have the opportunity to develop their understanding of networks as well as learn to program.

Teacher-to-teacher support

I am very thankful for the network of people I have established through social media, as we are able to share good practice and ideas. I am part of the Microsoft Educators Network which has linked me to fellow computer science teachers and introduced me to new tools such as Kodu, which allows students to immerse themselves in programming.

Social media platforms such as Pinterest are also great tools and allow teachers to share resources with each other. All you need to do is search “computing” and it is like a mood board, but the ideas are pinned by other teachers!

As well as online, I have learnt a great deal about using unplugged activities to teach computing. These don’t use technology at all. I originally discovered this approach through the Computing At School network. 

Unplugged activities are a great way to demonstrate computing terms without introducing lots of computing jargon that can confuse students. 

For example, if you are teaching students about the concept of variables you might demonstrate the concept using physical storage containers and talking to students about labelling the content correctly – this is a much more memorable why to learn about an important concept.

Unplugged activities are really useful and there are lots of resources available on Computing Unplugged – for instance there is a great example that introduces new teachers to binary (see further information).

Our approach as a school

Our school has been fortunate to have a lot of success since applying the new national curriculum. I am very thankful to a forward-thinking headteacher who has allowed us to try out a whole host of techniques.

We introduced programming to our students through the use of Kodu. This allowed our students to learn about the basics of computer programming. They learnt about algorithms, variables and operators. They continued programming in their own time and they even started making their own apps using Touch Develop, some of which have been published.

We have also been able to get our year 7 students dissecting computers. They have been able to open up the computer and look at the hardware inside the case. The previous curriculum did not allow students to see how the machine worked. Instead this sort of thing was covered in extra-curricular clubs which only attracted children that thought of themselves as computer enthusiasts. Now every child learns to dissect a computer.

The new computing curriculum has really allowed me to encourage my students to be creative in computing. I can encourage them to make and create and to tinker. The previous curriculum was very restrictive and did not allow students to explore in this way. 

Resources and help for teachers

Many teachers will not know about the resources available to them. This is why CPD is really important. I have teachers in my department from PE, science, maths and business and it is important that these members of staff are given the support to learn both the content and the pedagogy. 

We have been successful as a department because we have had the opportunity to train and support each other. I have been allocated one hour a week when most of our ICT teachers are off timetable. We use this time to train and improve our overall knowledge of the new national curriculum.

The free QuickStart Computing, which has just launched, will really help our department build on our initial successes. This has been produced by Computing At School, part of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, and designed to help secondary teachers get to grips with the new computing curriculum. It aims to support teachers to plan, teach and assess this brand new subject and has been funded by the Department for Education and Microsoft.

Rather than being a prescriptive, top-down training course QuickStart gives teachers a set of tools to plan and develop CPD that will meet the needs of teachers in their department, school or cluster. And, whether you are a teacher or a head of department, the need for CPD is ever-present within a field like computing – not least as this is the first time it has been taught!

  • Ray Chambers is a computing teacher and lead practitioner at Uppingham Community College and he advised on the secondary QuickStart Computing toolkit.

Further information
Photo: iStock

   


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