by Susan Ward, DHT Kingsland Primary, Scottish Borders
Finding the time for computing science can be tough. With a slimmed-down recovery curriculum to contend with and a ‘to do’ list stretching to infinity and beyond, primary teachers could be forgiven for consigning CS lessons to the ‘would be nice’ pile rather than firmly rooted in the weekly plan’s must haves.
But computing science is too important to be sidelined.
There’s a viral video doing the rounds just now of a toddler demanding that an Amazon Echo play her favourite song (Baby Shark, in case you’re wondering). The person filming watches with great amusement as the little girl talks to the machine as if it is alive: “Alexa, play my favourite song!” When Alexa obliges, the little girl claps her hands in delight: “Alexa you my friend!” she squeals.
And as any stumped parent will tell you, ‘asking Google’ quickly becomes a regular response to the steady stream of “But why?” enquiries from curious offspring from their earliest days.
The message inadvertently given to children is that technology knows best, that Google and Alexa are the smart ones, that they just magically “know”.
The point here is that to a generation used to asking machines to do everything from play CBeebies to shutting the curtains, making computing science visible becomes a real struggle. Technology is now so integrated into the fabric of everyday lives it becomes unseen, unknowable, just ‘there’.
In the absence of good-quality computing science teaching, we are faced with a generation growing up who will believe Alexa is the ghost in the machine. All-seeing and all-knowing, machines will provide all the answers and children won’t think to question how they know.
But if our children and young people don’t know how the machines work, how can they design them to work better?
Teaching children to think computationally is essential learning and should start as young as possible. Children in nursery can understand the importance of sequencing and pattern making, the idea that instructions have to be clear and sensible. Tinker tables where children can take machines apart and look inside make technology visible and encourage curiosity about how things work. Like the technology all around us, the principles of computing science are woven into our everyday lives. We just have to show our children where to look.
There are lots of nifty gadgets out there that can help and one of the best and most underused is the humble Bee-Bot. Sturdy enough to cope with enthusiastically sticky hands yet sophisticated enough to demonstrate simple programming, Bee-Bots are a brilliant option. In our school, P4 learned to program using Bee-Bots, initially by using paper ‘fakebots’, available free from Barefoot Computing, to design and debug before moving onto the real thing. Problem-solving and collaborative working were in plentiful supply as children sought out and tested their own solutions.
Once confident in their programs, P4 created some furry costumes and story mats and, in the era before class bubbles, they were able to head to nursery to teach the younger children what they had learned. Big fans of ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen, the Bee-Bots became bears and the nursery children learned how to program the bears to go through the swishy grass and oozy mud, just like in the story.
This is a small example of how computing science can open doors to learning and collaboration across the curriculum and across your school. It is a great leveller, a chance for children to shine in unexpected ways when the pursuit of a logical solution becomes a shared goal.
Computational thinking doesn’t require lots of resources or even constant access to a computer. It’s not about ‘doing coding’. We can grow problem solvers, careful sequence checkers, creative thinkers and logical predictors long before the word ‘algorithm’ is ever mentioned.
Showing children and young people how machines work, drawing back the curtain on the ‘magic’ and opening their eyes to the amazing and inspiring power of computational thinking will ignite your classroom and the potential that lies inside every child.
When you get right down to it, computing science is about careful attention to a problem and the curious and methodical pursuit of an effective solution.
What weekly plan cannot make space for that?