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Computing At School (CAS)

20/07/2017
Computing At School (CAS)

Introduction

The introduction of computing into the English National Curriculum in 2014 presented significant challenges for teachers in Primary schools. Where once teachers focused on developing pupils’ understanding of the use and application of ICT, the focus shifted towards the nurturing of problem solving skills based upon the principles of computation. This significant change meant that teachers felt they lacked sufficient subject knowledge and didn’t understand the pedagogies useful in cultivating this important set of skills.
 

Background

Computing at School’s (CAS) Network of Excellence remit is to ‘inspire, motivate and support teachers’ in implementing this new computing curriculum. Primary school teachers in England are experts in understanding how best young pupils learn, but many lack the prior understanding of what the subject of computing actually is or how it is ‘learnt’. Initial professional development provided by CAS focused on increasing awareness of the subject amongst teachers by identifying gaps in their subject knowledge and providing training to begin filling these gaps. As this need began to be addressed, teachers soon recognised that the subject was a significant step away from their experiences of ICT. They could no longer focus on demonstration and application; they would have to take steps to encourage pupils to think about solving problems and designing solutions that could be actioned by computers.

A few hours of ‘Scratch training’ would only break the surface of what teachers would need to know and it was found that teachers recognised this issue throughout their training, which in turn impacted their confidence to deliver it week-in, week-out in the classroom. If teachers were to embrace these changes they would need to become confident about how pupils would develop an understanding of computing, whilst at the same time incrementally enhancing their own subject knowledge as and when needed. The complexity of the training needs had to be addressed in a way that encouraged teachers to begin to take ownership of their teaching. A few hours working on subject knowledge in isolation was clearly not working in creating self-developing computing teachers. Once the support was removed the teachers were not able to continue to develop effectively, resulting in them side-lining the teaching of the subject due to lack of confidence.

In an experiment to re-engage with Primary teachers and establish a lasting sureness about their teaching, the CAS West Midlands Regional Centre run by Birmingham City University looked to evolve a model of practice that would utilise the experiences of the CAS Master Teachers. These subject experts were teachers already well-versed in the teaching of computing in schools and trained to help develop teachers less confident in their approach. Rather than provide specific training on an isolated set of subject knowledge and skills, the Regional Centre changed tack to focus instead on using the Master Teachers as mentors and coaches for those less experienced. The expectation was that those teachers would then be able to recognise how to teach computing and what they could do to sustain this in future years.
A pilot project involved a learning trust of seven Primary schools in Sutton Coldfield just north of Birmingham. The Learning Trust for Excellence (LTE) work together in ‘inspiring excellence and furthering opportunity for all’ sharing best practice and ways of working amongst all seven schools. The trust was approached by the Regional Centre offering to use Master Teachers to work alongside the usual class teachers who would have been expected to deliver computing lessons.

 

Process

An initial meeting was held with the computing curriculum coordinators of the trust schools and representatives from the CAS Regional Centre including one of the region’s leading Master Teachers, Dawn Walker from the Bentley Federation in Walsall. It was agreed that, in a school curriculum full of competing requirements, computing could be used as a context to deliver other subject topics. The schools wanted to primarily focus on developing mathematical capability using programming and this became an underpinning concept for lessons as planned.
Three existing Master Teachers were identified to work alongside the usual class teachers of Year 3 groups to jointly plan, resource and deliver a short topic-based series of lessons. Rather than using the Master Teacher as a resource to deliver the lessons entirely, they instead were used to support and coach the usual class teachers. The aim for this model of training was to empower the teachers so they could understand the best practices of planning and teaching computing. This would then build the confidence of these teachers so that they could continue teaching the topic once the Master Teacher had left, recognising how to embed these principles in any future planning.
As a review and a means to encourage wider engagement with the subject, each school dedicated a whole staff INSET session to review the progress made by these teachers. The staff were also encouraged to appreciate the breadth and potential of the subject for the pupils they teach by exploring how to develop Computational Thinking skills as a normal part of their teaching. The CAS Tenderfoot materials were used as a basis for this.
 

Outcomes

The arrangements for each of the seven schools was bespoke. Each Master Teacher met with teachers from the school to outline and co-plan a series of lessons based around a theme.
One such example was a project based on aviation developed by Master Teacher Jacintha Smith from Yardley Wood Community Primary School. Working with Year 3 teachers from Whitehouse Common Primary School they set about planning a series of lessons that explored the use of sequence, selection, repetition and variables in simple flight-based games. Links to maths were developed though the basic use co-ordinates to help pupils understand the position of sprites on the stage. This extended to the manipulation of these co-ordinates using basic mathematical calculations that altered the position of the sprites. What was particularly pleasing for the teachers was the relative ease by which pupils grasped the concept of positive and negative numbers; a topic which is not usually covered until Year 4. Pupils understood the relationship between a reference point and adjustments of an object in relation to this.


In a different project, Master Teacher Dawn Walker worked with Coppice Primary School. The teachers were just starting a topic based on plants and the teachers wanted to find a way to include a computing aspect. They were especially interested in observing how unplugged activities could be used to teach this. The focus for the lessons was on controlling a robot to mow a lawn. Pupils were encouraged to act out what the robot needed to do in an attempt to understand the need for precision of instructions. In subsequent lessons, pupils used these experiences to create simple sequential programs within Scratch. This naturally extended to exploring different ways of solving the same problem, progressing on to the use of iteration to repeat blocks of code.

 

Evaluation

Across all schools involved, teachers reported an increased confidence in how to plan and teach computing lessons. Year 3 teacher, Clare Charles, from Whitehouse Common School said “I found the training really beneficial because I didn't know how to do anything of what was covered. It was really interesting watching the children cover a range of skills and build up their game. The children loved it all! They couldn’t wait for their lesson each week.” It was a similar experience for the year 3 teachers, at Coppice Primary School. They said it increased confidence and skills could be used again  next year, the experience also provided lots of possible extension activities.
Pupils as well were enthused. At Whitehouse Common, Year 3 pupil Josh explained that he enjoyed being able to continue his work at home using Scratch. Such was the motivation of the pupils, they often tinkered with their programs excited to try and make minor revisions to get their games just right. Pupils such as Imogen identified that they had “learnt lots of new skills” and Laura was proud that she could “use the arrow keys to move the Scratch across the screen”. Certainly the context for the lessons motivated pupils and encouraged them to explore and develop their creative skills.

 

Conclusions and going forward

The positive feedback received from the teachers involved shows how effective a coaching model of professional development can be. Teachers felt empowered to recognise what good computing teaching looked like and how best to engage and enthuse pupils. The added benefit was that pupils engaged with their work and took ownership of their learning. The mathematical skills they developed were useful introductions to content they will cover in later years of the curriculum. Having a context from which they could apply their learning helped the pupils appreciate what they were learning about and why.

These ideals are nothing new and many of the themes of this project echo the work of Seymour Papert summarised in his seminal book from 1980 ‘Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas’. Birmingham City University hopes to develop many more of these ideas across schools in the West Midlands to promote the National Curriculum aim of “[a] high-quality computing education [that] equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.”
We are looking to work with like-minded teachers across the region. If you are interested in applying to become a Master Teacher, or are a school that would like to work with us, contact Stuart.Davison@bcu.ac.uk.