In the new National Curriculum there is a switch from ‘ICT’ to ‘Computing’. While the use of ICT and digital content, and ‘digital literacy’ (including e-safety), are still key parts of the curriculum there is now an explicit focus on ‘computer science’ in particular the theory and practice of computer programming.
The new curriculum applied in Year 1 in 2014/15. The school computing policy reviewed in Autumn 2014 reflects the new curriculum, and in practice all year groups have been starting to reflect this new focus in their work. In effect this has been a trial year. Under the policy, the use of ICT to process information is mainly done through other areas of the curriculum e.g. using netbooks during English or maths lessons. Computer science is taught in specific computing lessons and this was the focus of the visit. Year 1 pupils have computing lessons with experienced Teaching Assistants on Wednesday afternoons (40 minutes per session, done 2 weeks out of every 3). Year 2 pupils work with one of the Year 2 teachers for around 30 minutes every Friday afternoon. Computing activities e.g. bee-bots are also available in Foundation Stage.
In introducing the new curriculum, the subject manager introduced the plan to all staff in a 1-hour session at the end of last year. She has been working closely to train the Year 1 teaching assistants.
The school has purchased a resource, the ‘Switched on computing’ scheme for around £200 which provides suggested lesson plans and other materials.
The subject manager has drawn up an overview of the computing curriculum for Year 1 showing how this links to other topics. The aim is to do similar plans for computing in Year 2 and FS2 for next year.
In FS2 we saw some groups of children doing an activity with the bee-bots. These are toys which will perform a sequence of moves on a surface (a combination of going forwards, going backwards, rotating right, rotating left). The children were encouraged to guess how many forward moves would be required to reach a toy car and then test this out, then programme the bee-bots to move back again. Those who had used the bee-bots before (some had in FS1) were confident. The teacher encouraged them to try effectively and kept them on task. It was important for the children to press ‘clear’ to remove any previously programmed moves before giving the bee-bots new instructions. Some children didn’t seem to grasp that the bee-bots were given a programme which was stored and activated every time the ‘go’ button was pressed – this was perhaps difficult to grasp at FS2 and in a less structured environment. The children were very interested and engaged and pleased when they got the bee-bots to do what they wanted.
In Year 1 we saw a class being reminded about key terms including ‘algorithm’ defined as a set of instructions for a computer and to ‘debug’. They then carried out an activity suggested by the ‘Switched on computing’ resource. They had to design a series of instructions to guide ‘pirate bee-bot’ round a treasure island. The staff had prepared four islands made of paper on the floor with colourful obstructions on them such as forests, lakes etc.. and on each an ‘x’ to mark the place for the treasure. The children split into four groups and first wrote down the sequence of instructions they thought the bee-bot would need on a small whiteboard. They then tried these out with the bee-bot and if they didn’t work in practice, they had to review and amend the instructions and try again. The groups got to grips with this well, they were confident in thinking through a set of steps and writing these down and then trying them out. Some were very confident and spotted immediately the problems with their instructions. The treasure island maps (with grids) were a very good way to clarify what the bee-bots should do. They worked well when the maps were absolutely flat – any creases tended to move the bee-bots off course. There was then a final exercise of looking at some proposed instructions by a novice pirate on ‘how to reach the forest’ or ‘how to reach the lake’ on the grids which the children had to check (without programming the bee-bots) and debug. In some of the groups more confident children tended to take charge and it is clearly important to make sure other children continue to progress at the same pace and don’t miss out on the learning – the teacher worked on this during the lesson. The teacher discussed driverless cars as an example of the importance of getting instructions right for computers – the children were very interested. There wasn’t chance to show them a video of driverless cars the teacher had in mind in the lesson due to lack of time but we hope the children had chance to view it later. The driverless cars coming to Milton Keynes may make a useful example.
In Year 2 the class were continuing work on the ‘Espresso’ website for basic coding. The teacher asked them to explain ‘debug’ and ‘algorithm’ and interestingly the first answers were based on a pirate bee-bot exercise they had done earlier in the year. They were learning how to programme an on-screen character to move in response to key presses. The site allowed them to associate particular actions with the character (Little Red Riding Hood) and with particular keys and there was some discussion about what would make a good set of keys to use to make this an effective game for others to play. The children then created a path on the screen to Granny’s House which they could use the keys to make Red Riding Hood follow. The children worked in pairs with the Key Stage 1 netbooks. They were confident in using these and most completed the activity though the netbooks were slow in general and some didn’t perform particular functions on the espresso site. The teacher encouraged them to be creative. The children seemed inclined to be creative, one team drawing Granny’s House itself (not just a path to it) and many discovering that the site would allow them to import photo backgrounds into their designs. One pair which had already completed this activity were asked to move onto the next step which involved creating a new character and having a wider range of commands to choose from. There was scope for links to other subjects e.g. writing up your own game scenario in English - which one boy was already preparing in his head. Perhaps these links will make it easier to allow more time for Computing but still developing English skills at the same time.
The subject manager explained that the children were acquiring language they hadn’t had before. They were understanding computers more, and thinking logically about sequences of instructions. This also fits well with maths.
This understanding of the language and logical thinking were certainly evident in the lessons we saw, in particular in the Year 1 lesson. In each lesson in seems that children had been making progress in their computing understanding and skills.
The school seems to be making good progress in implementing the Computing curriculum and it is impacting on children’s learning. There was a growing understanding of the terms, concepts and ways of thinking required though it was sometimes hard to tell how far the children had generalised the ideas or if they were still thinking about specific examples (such as the year 2 pupil recalling the bee-bot exercise when asked to describe what ‘debug’ means).
There are two particular issues to consider, time and equipment.
The time for these lessons was tight and we appreciate they were moved to a Friday morning to accommodate our visit, which probably interfered with the usual scheduling. However it is clear that the computing lessons occupy a relatively small amount of curriculum time, which is likely to limit progress. The school leadership may wish to consider the time devoted to computing whether the balance is right – which it may be, given the importance of other subjects and core skills at this age.
The equipment was a constraint in the computing lessons. The 30 netbooks available at KS1 seem to be used flexibly between classes – while each class normally has 6, 15 were gathered for the single Year 2 session which we saw. However, they were slow to start up and to access the website. (This may reflect the school’s current slow internet connection, which is being fixed.) They also seemed to be buggy – sometimes specific parts of the espresso site didn’t work on one or other laptop. With an additional class next year, the school should consider whether more devices which children can use in lessons should be purchased; whether they should be the same kind or different e.g. tablets; and whether the existing netbooks need to be replaced. (Perhaps after seeing how they perform with the better internet connection). We didn’t explore in detail the foundation stage laptop situation but understand these can no longer be used with batteries and must be plugged in which limits their use. However, of course the case for upgrading them would depend on what they would otherwise be used for which we didn’t explore. Staff also mentioned that replacing the batteries on the bee-bots is time consuming and that rechargeable models are now available. This may be worth considering particularly if more are needed in future. The bee-bots seem to be a well-used and effective tool for helping children to understand computing. Just possibly in future an equivalent with some kind of display explaining the currently entered programme might be useful in making it easier to understand how to use them.
On the positive side there was some very good use of the visualizer and whiteboard in the Year 2 lesson and in general the whiteboards were getting productive use.
Peter Clark and Sheena Cresswell
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