Primary Computing – Classroom Tips and Advice

computing lcassThe new primary computing curriculum becomes statutory in September with the introduction of the National Curriculum for Computing at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.  Primary schools are now beginning to think seriously about, not only how to teach this new subject, but what it means for them in practical terms.  I’m being asked lots of questions in the run-up to its introduction, the most common, aside from improving subject knowledge, being: Should it be taught in a cross-curricular way or discretely?  How long for?  What about new hardware/software?  How will they cope with pupil support?

I’ve been teaching computing to primary children for a long time and here are some of my tips for what you will (and won’t) need; along with advice on how to manage your class and some possible teaching techniques you could use when you start teaching computing in September.

Timetabling

Children benefit from being taught subjects in meaningful contexts. I advise all schools to continue with their best practice of embedding Information Technology across the curriculum.  Come September, children have a statutory entitlement to be taught computing (how computers and computer systems work) and computer science forms the major chunk of the new national curriculum objectives.  Information Technology (IT) focuses on how to use computers and applications and is now much less significant.  In order to teach computing well, Key Stage 2 children at least, will need to be taught computing as a separate subject for some of the academic year.

In my opinion, deciding at the outset that you’ll teach computing in a cross-curricular manner is a bit like saying you’ll teach Maths when it crops up in other subjects.  The teaching and learning of both subjects will be diminished.  I’m all for children applying what they learn in computing in other subjects – after all nobody designs and develops a website with no particular purpose in mind – but the children cannot possibly learn how to design and develop a website in the middle of, say, a History topic.  They need some separate lessons.

I suggest that KS1 can be taught within other subjects – although our scheme does actually involve separate lessons.  My hope is that teachers take the lessons as inspiration and see where they can fit them elsewhere within their curriculum.  For Key Stage 2, the children are learning more complex concepts and skills and they will need discrete computing lessons for this: I teach it an hour a week all year round.  The knowledge, skills and understanding the children gain from computing are then consolidated and applied to enhance and enrich other subjects using iCompute Across the Curriculum.

Hardware

There’s a lot of talk about the digital divide between schools.  A number of vast, urban, primary schools with lots of pupil premium funding have fabulous banks of Apple computers and iPads.  Whilst many small schools struggle to get by with less then ten computers to their name.

I firmly believe that schools do not have to buy a thing in order to teach the new computing curriculum creatively and well.  I teach computing from Year 1 to Year 6 in a mixed-age setting school with 63 pupils on the role.  When I began developing iCompute  I had access to a paltry one Beebot and 8 computers running Windows XP!  At the time, I was aghast that I’d have to teach my specialist subject using such primitive tools but I’m really glad that I did, because it forced me to be creative with the tools that I had.

All of the software I use within iCompute works on old bangers as well as fancy new computers and I’ve tested them on everything.  The units involve creative use of ‘unplugged’ activities (necessary because I had access to so few computers) to help support children’s understanding.  One such activity I devised (because I didn’t have enough computers to go around) was an activity to physically simulate how a search engine works.  Having taught computing for so long now, I now know those kinds of physical activities are extremely important for young children. I recommend schools use unplugged activities regardless of how much stuff they have as they help make concrete abstract concepts that young children can struggle to grasp.  Thinking beyond using computers for every activity actually improves teaching computing.

Teaching Approaches

If you have a limited number of computers there are some approaches you can take that I recommend all schools try, even if they have a computer suite offering one computer per pupil, as they have proved to really effective in enhancing and enriching teaching and learning.

Pair Programming

A powerful technique where children work in pairs.  There are two roles: a Pilot and a Navigator.  The children take turns (every 10 minutes or so) acting in each role.  The Pilot controls the computer or device but must follow the instructions of the Navigator, who is standing behind him/her.  In my experience this not only solves the problem of lack of space in the classroom – and the temptation for one partner to dominate the use of computers – but also has proven a great way to open up constructive debate where the children learn with and from each other.  Highly recommend it.

Carousel Activities

If resources are limited, I suggest organising a carousel of computing activities.  For example, if you only have a few programmable toys, you can have one group of children working with actual programmable toys, another group could be ‘programming’ either each other or small-world toys with a final group using virtual programmable toys on computers.  In timed intervals, the groups switch until everyone’s had a go at each.

Peer Support

Computing can be very teacher-intensive if you let it.  Arm yourself with a few techniques to reduce your pupil’s dependency on you.  I use an ‘ask three before you ask me‘ technique where the children have had to have approached and asked for support from three other pupils before they resort to me.

I also use a ticket system involving rolls of numbered cloakroom numbered tickets.  When the children feel they need help, they take a ticket and stick it on their computers with blue-tac.  I then work my way systematically (and fairly) around the room calling ‘Customer number N please’ in a Post-Office counter voice.  I tell the children that, whilst they are waiting for me, they should work with another child who also has a ticket to try to resolve their problems.  I usually find they’ve sorted it out before I reach them and they’ve removed their ticket.

Software

I’m assuming you’ve got the usual suspects in terms of word processing, spreadsheets, presentation and possibly database software here so my software suggestions are based on some additional extras (all free) that will help you teach the new computing curriculum. There are plenty more, again free, tools that are browser based and we use in our scheme but space prohibits an exhaustive list here.

Here are are selection of the free software we use in iCompute, links to download them are available here:

Scratch  – A visual programming environment where blocks of code can be dragged and dropped and click together like Lego blocks.  We use 1.4 because you can download it to computers and it therefore does not rely on an internet connection which many rural schools struggle to get a good service with.  It also has a cleaner interface and better debugging functions which I find better for teaching younger children.  Scratch 2 is also available as a browser version or to download and use as a stand-alone application.

Microsft Kodu – Another visual, icon-based, programming environment which uses the concept of the senses (e.g. when see/hear/bump …. do) to develop 3D computer games.  Kids love it.  I use it higher up Key Stage 2 because (a) Scratch is better for teaching real computer programming syntax/structures and (b) Kodu looks much better than Scratch.  Once seen its all the children want to use.  I use it to teach how to design and develop multi-level X-Box games.

MIT App Inventor 2 (AI2) – This is a browser based application for developing mobile apps. You only need download software if you do not have any Android mobile devices.  If you don’t, you can download and use AI2’s mobile device emulator – a pop-up screen that looks and, to some extent, behaves like a mobile device.

Robomind – A visual programming environment that can also be used as an introduction to text-based programming. Use the freeware version and ignore the prompt that there’s a newer version – it’s paid for and the features provided in the freeware version are perfectly good for teaching at primary level.

TurtleArt – Another blocks-based (drag and drop) visual programming language useful for drawing shapes and creating art.  If you have iPads there are lots of apps that are similar to this.

There are, of course, a myriad of fantastic iPad apps we use in our iPad and Cross Curricular packs, some of which are listed on the computing resources section of our website.

As with all subjects the primary factor in improving learning is the quality of the teaching not the equipment you use.  You wouldn’t consider yourself the best maths teacher because you had the best calculator, so don’t think for a moment that you’re going to be negatively affecting your pupil’s learning because you’re using older computer systems or don’t have many.

Spend some time on the subject, use what you have creatively and get enthusiastic.  I often say that there’s not many National Curriculum subjects that would result in a resounding hands-up if you asked who in the class likes it.  Come September Computing will start from that point and it’s your job to keep those hands up.  If you are negative about computers and computing, your pupils will end up being.  No amount of fancy kit beats enthusiasm for any subject you teach but especially not for computing.  If you haven’t got it yet, I’m confident that in time you will.  I wish I could show you how much my pupils enjoy their lessons but I’m sure you’ll see it yourself in your own very soon!

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About Liane O'Kane

Liane is a Computer Scientist (BSc (Hons)), Software Engineer & author of iCompute for Primary Schools which supports schools with schemes of work for teaching computing in the EYFS, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. ERA Awards Finalist 2016-2019, BETT Awards 2014-2018. Featured on BBC Bitesize for Primary Computing and The Hour of Code (code.org)
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