Who’s afraid of the dark?

John Ronane believes that a lack of prior computing experience is no reason for teachers to stay in the dark and fear the new curriculum

I’m a great believer in the need to constantly evolve and to make learning dynamic. So when the new computing curriculum was announced, I was determined not to see it as an impossible challenge, but rather a great opportunity to better prepare our students for the real world. That’s not to say it hasn’t been daunting, and with none of the staff at Ickford (myself included) having previous experience in programming, we needed to think carefully about how we were going to tackle it. 

The situation we found ourselves in was certainly not unique. Research carried out earlier this year found that with only weeks to go until the computing curriculum was put into practice, more than 130,000 primary school teachers were not feeling confident enough to teach their pupils how to code.

However, one term into the adoption of the new curriculum, and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. Not only are our students learning ‘real’ programming, they’re enjoying it, which will certainly impact the new computing curriculum’s success. That said, I find that while students usually achieve better in subjects they are interested in, it is often the subjects that they feel most confident with in the first place that they have the most passion for. Consequently, schools need to seek solutions which not only instil a sense of confidence in teachers, but also make computing both accessible and exciting for students. 

Make the most of the resources available 

For teachers who are concerned about having a lack of prior computing experience, comfort can be found in the abundance of resources available which do not require this. Even better, there are tools that cater for all levels, so it’s also easy to teach computational thinking to the younger years. At Ickford, we use Floor Turtles and Bee-Bots, for example, to introduce the younger children to coding. We also invested in a scheme from Rising Stars which incorporated some aspects of programming. Probably the most interesting for me though has been the FUZE, a programmable computer and electronics workstation powered by the Raspberry Pi (RPi), as it comes with a series of project cards which make it incredibly easy to navigate and for students to progress to high levels of understanding very quickly. Using hands-on resources can really spark the interest of students, as rather than coding for coding’s sake, they are actually able to see the practical application of what they’re learning. We’re even planning to let students set up a burglar alarm around the computer room using the FUZE!

Give students ownership

Another benefit of many of the resources available to teach computing is that they enable teachers to take a step back and to let students take control over their own learning, in turn providing them with the motivation and resilience to really excel at computing. Playing a supportive rather than instructional role, means that while teachers are on hand to help if needs be, students are able to try things for themselves and to find their own solutions to any problems they come up against. Encouraging students to be more proactive in their learning, either working individually or in teams, is a great way to help them feel more confident in their abilities, which often has a direct impact on how much they enjoy a subject.

Make your classroom a hub of ideas 

While coding is a key element of the computing curriculum, it isn’t all about teaching students technical skills. Integral to technology is the ability to think creatively and to come up with ingenious solutions to real world problems. This is something I am always keen to portray to my students, and it’s a great way to help them realise the true potential of what they are learning. For instance, as part of a lesson earlier this term, I asked my Year 6 class what one thing they would do if they could create a program for anything. A simple question, but one that sparked a number of brilliant ideas, from preventing wars to controlling the minds of pesky siblings. While of course they aren’t actually in a position to create such things (yet), it was a great way to demonstrate the infinite possibilities and exciting opportunities associated with coding; think quantum computing, artificial intelligence, working for the secret services. Taking that even further, it’s a skill which will prepare students for jobs which don’t even exist yet and therefore it’s incredibly important to encourage them to see beyond what’s possible and to have the confidence to think outside of the box.

Don’t just save learning for lesson time 

I believe that learning should not be confined to the classroom, and that teachers should trust students to use resources and computer rooms outside of lesson times. While most computer rooms aren’t large enough to accommodate all students at once, devising a rota based on year groups can be a good way to ensure that all students have equal access to this. Student-led clubs are also a very effective way to boost engagement and are something we actively encourage here at Ickford. When we first introduced the FUZE, for example, one of our students who was particularly adept at using it set up a mini code club to help other students develop their programming skills. Considering that she hosted the club during lunchtime, it was wonderful to see so many students forfeiting part of their break to take part; I think there’s definitely something to be said for student-to-student learning. 

For us, computing has been a welcome addition to the new National Curriculum. While it’s a change that has, and will undoubtedly continue, to challenge schools, it also has the potential to equip students with the skills needed for a better future. Therefore, schools should not be afraid to reassess their current scheme of work and teachers should not be put off by a lack of prior computing experience; utilise resources, challenge the status quo and enable students to lead their own learning. After all, it’s very possible that they’ll be leading the future of the technology industry one day, and they’ve got to start somewhere. 

John Ronane is Headteacher at Ickford Combined School in Buckinghamshire

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