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Teaching children computer skills to ensure they are never lost in forever loops and sub-routines

St Marys School, Cambridge
St Marys School, Cambridge

Andrew Severy - newly appointed computer science co-ordinator at St Mary’s Junior School in Cambridge – talks about the school’s commitment to effectively delivering the computing element of the national curriculum, and the challenge for parents and grandparents who may feel out of their depth with the subject.

In 2014, the new primary national curriculum was launched and ICT (information and communications technology) was replaced by a new subject: Computing.

Computing is split into three strands – computer science, information technology and digital literacy – with the aim of providing pupils with a clearer understanding of how computers, software, the internet, search engines and so on work, and to enable them to design systems, understand the impact technology has on our lives and to develop computational thinking as a means of solving problems.

The result has been a visible shift in focus – towards the often discussed skills of programming (or coding) and problem-solving (within the computer science strand). However, the more traditional ICT skills – such as using spreadsheets, creating presentations and manipulating graphics – all still feature in the curriculum, within the information technology strand.

The third strand, digital literacy, encompasses e-safety and highlights the ‘real world’ applications of using technology, by educating children on how best to evaluate and select the most appropriate digital content for their requirements.

This digital literacy aspect of the curriculum is embedded into all of the activities in lessons, and is explicitly reinforced at intervals throughout the year.

Our youngest girls, in reception, are taught the concepts of computational thinking by learning about sequences of instructions and the need to ensure that they are precise, accurate and in the correct order.

This very quickly moves on to the use of Bee-Bots – small wheeled robots which look like bees – which have a very limited range of commands (forwards, backwards, left turn 90º, right turn 90º and go).

The girls programme the Bee-Bots using large and colourful buttons on the backs of the robots, providing an important physical link between a list of abstract instructions and them being carried out in the real world.

The girls are set tasks which involve navigating a Bee-Bot around a particular route or towards a specific destination.

The tasks are such fun for the girls that genuine collaboration and discussion are stimulated, and the girls begin to develop a mind-set of problem-solving as they work out how to overcome hurdles.

We build on these programming skills with the girls in Year 1 and Year 2 by using a combination of more complex physical and virtual scenarios, such as greater angles of turn or avoiding hazards.

The girls are introduced to Scratch Junior – a piece of software that has a colourful and easy-to-use interface – which allows the girls to select sequences of command functions without yet using code themselves. At this stage, the girls are also introduced to the components of a computer and each component’s specific functions, in simple terms.

By Year 3 and Year 4, the girls are able to use a much wider range of scenarios, such as programming a set of traffic lights to display the correct sequence or designing a burglar alarm system to protect all the rooms in a house.

A greater emphasis is placed on becoming familiar with specific programming ‘languages’, such as LOGO or Scratch, which enable the girls to use a much broader palette of commands – including ‘repeat’ commands and simple ‘procedures’ – and, now using a graphical user interface (GUI) for greater accessibility, they are able to generate actual computer code, which some of the group will be able to edit directly by this stage.

The girls in Year 5 and Year 6 aim to use a wide range of programming languages and user interfaces to transfer their computational thinking skills to any new piece of software or situation. This is vital preparation for secondary education (and beyond) as programming continues to evolve with new technological developments.

By the end of Year 6, pupils are familiar with concepts such as ‘if/else’ statements, simultaneous sequences, variables, sub-routines, forever loops and RGB (red, green and blue) colour detection, and should be able to debug their programs.

Those who are most comfortable are able to try text-based coding using languages such as C#.

Computer science lessons should – and at St Mary’s Junior School, Cambridge, they regularly do – stimulate discussion, foster collaborative working, provide a sense of achievement and, most importantly, be fun experiences that promote technology as valuable tools for learning and for life.

This has regularly been my experience, and junior school-aged children love to talk about their experiences at school with their parents, grandparents and carers etc, which in turn contributes greatly to supporting their learning as they review the activities of the day.

Having a meaningful conversation related to computer science can be a bit daunting, though, for those whose own experiences of ‘computing’ are limited to the more traditional ICT activities of, for instance, word processing, desktop publishing or web browsing.

But it’s important that grown-ups are not disheartened, and the good news is that it is actually very easy to become substantially more au fait with terminology and theory; much of the software used in our computer science lessons can be freely downloaded at home for investigation, and there are many free learning resources available online too.

Tackling a project alongside a child who is gushing about theirs is a great way to gain a better understanding of the skills and thought processes that are being developed in school – and also to acquire these skills yourself!

Good starting points would be the Bee-Bot app or Scratch Junior (free via the App Store) or the full version of Scratch (free PC download or online web-based application).

There are also family-oriented workshops taking place across the country, for example the HackLab sessions in Cambridge, where adults and children work together to, for instance, aim and fire mini Nerf guns at each other.

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