A recent report from Computing at School (CAS) and Microsoft found that 68 per cent of teachers are concerned that their students know more than they do about computing, which is not ideal for delivering successful lessons.
Teachers need to build-up their confidence, and I believe the key to this is providing the appropriate technology to allow for a self-learning environment, meaning that teachers can take on a more facilitative, coaching role while they up-skill themselves.
OCR’s proposed new computing GCSE for 2016 includes a practical programming project worth 20 per cent of the final grade, where students create algorithms which will provide a solution to a problem, and then code their solutions in a suitable programming language.
Although coding is only part of the course specification, it is the ideal, practical way to help pupils develop computational thinking skills, such as recognising patterns in information, breaking a problem down into its component parts, and coming up with creative solutions to problems.
These skills are beneficial to students not only in computing lessons but also in later life. It is therefore crucial that they can be taught effectively – but the many non-specialist teachers in the field need more support in order to do so.
The IDE approach
The technology used is integral to the way pupils learn and practise computer programming. A web-based integrated development environment (IDE), including a code editor and course content, is a good option, enabling teachers to sidestep the time-consuming task of downloading, setting up and configuring software and programming tools for the various operating systems on every single computer within an ICT suite and on students’ own machines. A web-based IDE means that all students need is a browser and an internet connection, and they can quickly log-in and get started on their code projects, coursework or revision right away.
Moving on to delivery of computing lessons, Shahneila Saeed, a former head of computing, a founder CAS board member, and leader of the Digital Schoolhouse (a government-backed initiative aiming to raise engagement and achievement in computer science in London schools), emphasises the importance of fun in the classroom. She said: “We don’t use the word ‘play’ in classrooms enough sometimes and there’s real value in it.”
Shahneila uses magic tricks to teach programming and algorithms. For example, show pupils a magic trick, then ask them to deduce how it works and what steps are involved. This teaches decomposition, which is a key computational skill. Next, give pupils the steps for the trick and ask them to follow it themselves – that’s algorithmic thinking. Then ask pupils to rework, modify and make the trick their own – which builds in other key computational concepts, such as abstraction and generalisation.
These techniques not only develop the computational thinking skills in pupils, they also make them accessible for a non-specialist teacher who perhaps would not feel comfortable diving into the coding aspects of the course straight away.
Another tip from Shahneila is simply to substitute the word “task” for the word “challenge”, and tell your pupils to discover how to make a virtual ball bounce off the wall in a computer program or something similar, and just see what they come up with.
This shift in teaching style is perfectly suited to teaching coding, which cannot be taught by watching somebody else do it or listening to lectures. Encouraging pupils to be less dependent on the knowledge of the teacher and explore the subject themselves is usually far more successful. Let pupils get stuck in!
Shahneila also highlights how important it is that computing lessons are relevant to pupils’ lives and the world around them, as that is when they will be most engaged. She says that even the toys that their parents buy for their children will often contain an embedded computer chip – moving robots for example. Pupils don’t necessarily see or recognise those as computers, so when you help them to make that leap to understanding how it works, you get the Eureka moments.
First, with so many changes to the curriculum in a short period of time, it is crucial that teachers are completely sure of what they are being asked to teach. Study the specification, the objectives and the assessment methods. It also helps if you can practise what you preach.
Rob Leeman, CAS board member, subject specialist for computer science and ICT at OCR and a former computing teacher, agrees: “Learn how to code yourself. Practise as much as you can so you know how to do the problems. Once you’re familiar with it you’ll be able to imbue your students with that confidence and ability to succeed.
“You can learn computer science using any language you want, but it is the understanding behind the language which is really important – the computational thinking, deconstruction and decomposition can then be applied to any language.”
It is now a well-worn phrase that the jobs of the future haven’t been created yet, but by investing in the right technology, making computing relevant to everyday life, and embracing self-learning, teachers can equip pupils for those jobs, whatever they may be, in the best way possible.
- Phillip Snalune is co-founder of the Codio coding and content platform and has been working with Shahneila Saeed from Digital Schoolhouse and OCR’s Rob Leeman, among others, to help create a platform which meets teachers’ needs.