Category: computer science

GCSE Computing (legacy spec) exam revision practice

With the run up to exam season well and truly underway it’s time to consider how best to support students. The answer? Practice, practice, practice.

To help students I’ve gone back through the available past papers and collated exam questions (and mark schemes) into topics so that students can practice questions for specific topics. Each section contains:

  • A knowledge organiser for students to self evaluate their starting point for each topic.
  • Key vocabulary that they need to remember.
  • Past paper questions by topic for practice.
  • Mark scheme to check their answers.

This is just one of several strategies that students will use to aid their learning over the next few months.

Download A451 GCSE Computing practice booklet here: [.pptx] [.pdf]

Knowledge organisers // New OCR GCSE Computer Science

Having used knowledge organisers with students for almost two years now, it’s always a great starting point when planning for a new specification of GCSE. Inspired by Joe Kirby’s post, knowledge organisers seek to…

Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail.

I’ve written before about knowledge organisers (read more here).

In planning for the new GCSE Computer Science specification I’ve created a number of knowledge organisers (making use of the OCR specification booklet). Feel free to download, use, share, edit, e.t.c.

Paper 1 – Computer systems

Paper 2 – Computational thinking, programming & algorithms

*some of the topics have been combined into one knowledge organiser.

Knowledge organisers for GCSE Computing

Always in the pursuit of doing better for the students I teach, two posts have made me reflect deeply on my practice this week.

1. Knowledge organisers by Joe Kirby.

In the post Joe describes how he specifies the subject knowledge required for a given topic in meticulous detail. This is useful for a few reasons:

– it clarifies for the teacher exactly what the students need to know and enables more precise planning.

– it serves as a good benchmark for students at the beginning of a topic. Seeing the required knowledge laid out in front of you on a side of A4 is extremely powerful and will enable students to highlight what they are already know.

– when it comes to revision, students have real clarity about the knowledge they need to know.

During my relatively short time as a teacher,  when starting a new topic I may have shared a vague outline of what the topic will involve but never to the detail suggested in Joe’s post. I feel like a trick has been missed here, which is why I plan to experiment with knowledge organisers from this point forward.

2. Sequencing lessons in the run up to exams by Andy Tharby.

Andy’s post puts into practice Joe’s knowledge organiser for a GCSE English class. Andy also describes in depth his approach to a series of lessons leading up to an exam. Lessons follow a similar routine (although the stages of each lesson might involve different delivery styles / mediums):

1) Begin with a ‘memory platform‘ where they will be tested on key knowledge/quotes from the knowledge organisers using a wide range of  quizzing methods. Students need to be fluent in this knowledge and to do this they will need to cover it repeatedly. They will be encouraged to elaborate on these points of knowledge, exploring their wider significance.

2) Revise and extend a key area. OMAM and AIC – the green lessons – will be taught side-by-side, whereas the poems will be revised in pairs.

3) Lessons will end with 15 minutes of deliberate writing practice where students will be expected to hone the finer parts of their analytical style by writing a paragraph at A/A* standard – this is a top set – based on the content of the lesson (modelling and scaffolding will feature here too).

When planning revision sessions (and in a broader sense planning a curriculum structure) it’s worth thinking about the following:

dwillingham

profcoe

If learning happens when we think really hard about something and we remember what we think about, then engaging students in activities, practices and routines that encourage this is probably a sensible course to take.

GCSE Computing revision.

As a result of reading the aforementioned  posts and adopting the collective thinking of Professor Coe and Daniel Willingham, I have developed a revision structure for a GCSE Computing class I teach. It follows this cycle:

Revision cycle

1. Start with a memory platform, usually a multiple choice quiz (these are deliberately rigourous with any one of the three answers a potential correct answer, forcing students to study the different answers and think hard about theirs).

memory platform

2. Knowledge organisers. I have only just started using these as prompted by Joe and Any’s blog posts earlier this week. But I intend to use them at the beginning of teaching a topic as well as revision. It’s a collection of documents that will be referred to throughout the entire course. in revision sessions the knowledge organiser is an opportunity to see an overview of the knowledge and pick out the things they can remember and the things that they need to revisit first.

knowledge organiser

3. Key subject specific vocabulary. Students are then given time to recall key terms from memory for a particular topic. This is followed up by the TLAC technique ‘Check or change’ where students check their definitions against correct definitions and make changes if needed.

key vocab

4. Flash cards. Students are then given time to create a set of flash cards based upon the key subject specific vocabulary. Flash cards have previously been identified as a more effective revision technique. I’m working on the premise that if students are comfortable with the subject specific vocabulary then they should be able to at the very least attempt every question for that topic (obviously they need to understand the context of each question, that comes next). Feedback from students has been really positive as the motivation to use the flash cards appears to be higher than to write out copious notes.

flash cards

5. Past paper questions. Finally students attempt past paper questions, using the subject specific vocabulary in different contexts. I have also experimented with working through long answer questions with students using the following routine:

  • students attempt a question in exam conditions
  • teacher works through the answer with the class using students answers to prompt discussion and supportive critique
  • students attempt the same question again in exam conditions
  • teacher works through answer again with the help of students to model an answer
  • a similar question (that requires the same knowledge but uses a different context) is then used as a starter in the next lesson.

past papers

Impact.

It’s hard to evaluate how much of an impact the above strategy will have on exam performance but…

… from a teaching perspective, revision sessions certainly seem more focused with a greater clarity of what students need to know for each topic which lends itself to more precise deliberate practice.

… students have a much clearer picture of what they need to know and the work they are producing is of better quality and a greater depth. Students are more inquisitive and motivated to increase their knowledge.

… lessons have a greater sense of urgency to them.

RESOURCE: GCSE Computing knowledge organisers.

Computer systems [.PDF] [.PPTX]

Programming [.PDF] [.PPTX]

Hardware [.PDF] [.PPTX]

Software [.PDF] [.PPTX]

Networks [.PDF] [.PPTX]

Databases [.PDF [.PPTX]

Data representation [.PDF] [.PPTX]

Complete set of knowledge organisers in one file [.PDF] [.PPTX]

Updated GCSE Computing revision pack.

Below is a link to a GCSE Computing revision pack that i have recently updated (and simplified) which focuses on past paper exam questions.

A451 revision booklet [.pptx]  [.PDF]

The booklet is split into theory topics and allows students to:

  • identify gaps in knowledge before attempting questions.
  • define keywords and build subject specific vocabulary.
  • mind map key areas of each topic.
  • attempt past paper questions by topic.

You can read more about my thoughts on revision here.

Feedback welcome!

**Also check out this great resource from @teknoteacher – GCSE Computing revision.

Here’s a video in which he explains the use of the resource – click here.

He is also running a series of free computing webinars for teachers – click here to find out more.

#TMCOOP presentation – Raising attainment at KS4.

On Thursday 22nd May I presented some ideas at #TMCOOP about how to raise attainment at KS4. Below is a summary of my presentation.

Raising attainment at KS4.

I’ve noticed in my relatively short time of being a teacher that one of the overwhelmingly strongest indicators of how well a student achieves is effort. This may sound obvious. It is. Angela Duckworth discovered this in her research on GRIT (persistant effort towards a long term goal). If we want to do well at something that’s difficult it will require a huge amount of effort. How often do students not realise this until it is too late… “I wish I’d put more effort into revising.” When I look back over the past few years and analyse why some students have performed well at KS4 and some didn’t, the main differentiator is effort.

DONT BE UPSET

During last two terms I have attempted to build an ‘ethic of excellence’ in my classroom. I want all students to aspire to achieve the very top grades and I want them to know it will take a huge amount effort. I also want them to know that I will match their effort by supporting them through rigorous marking and feedback. Students aren’t always the best at following instructions from adults but they can be extremely good at mimicking behaviours.

An ethic of excellence.

Having read Ron Berger’s remarkable book ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ I was motivated to get my students working their socks off. In the book Berger talks about how he spends a lot of time ensuring that the work he asks his students to do is as close to a ‘real life’ as possible. He also discusses how he built a culture in his classroom whereby students only received one of two grades for their work – ‘Excellent’ or ‘Not finished yet.’ What a powerful system. I decided to give it a try with a GCSE class that were about to start a 10 week coursework project. Target grades ranged from A to E.

An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger

An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger

High expectations.

Do target grades have an adverse effect on effort? If a student is targeted a D/E grade, is it possible that they might see that as an opportunity to adjust their effort to reflect the low target, i.e. not try very hard. To test this hypothesis I started by setting a default expectation of all students in the class: A*. Was I confident that all students would achieve this? Realistically, probably not as there are many factors out of my control (attendance being one of them). But I was confident that this strategy would help everyone achieve or exceed their target grade (something that I hadn’t managed to do in the past).

Slide used in lessons.

Slide used in lessons.

Talent isn’t born.

I spent sometime explaining to students about the David Beckham’s and Jonny Wilkinson’s of this world and how much effort they put into practising. At the beginning of most lessons we would watch a short clip that actively demonstrated how high levels of effort matched with deliberate practice can lead to very impressive results. I found the work of Daniel Coyle (and his book ‘The Talent Code’) particularly helpful in shaping my thinking around this.  In his book, Coyle explains how he spent almost two years scouring the world researching groups of talented people – from teenage Brazilian football players to young musical prodigies. A recurring theme was shared amongst all these successful groups. Lots of effort coupled with deliberate practice that was guided by a master coach.

'The Talent Code' by Daniel Coyle.

‘The Talent Code’ by Daniel Coyle.

Students were beginning to understand that the more effort they put in, the more they asked for my advice, the more they thought about their work the better the chance they had at achieving an A*.

Re-drafting

This is where the effort manifested itself in the classroom. I introduced Berger’s idea of grading work as either ‘Excellent’ or ‘Not finished yet.’ Berger describes the art of re-drafting brilliantly in the video ‘Austin’s butterfly’ which is about a young boy who is asked to draw a butterfly by copying a photograph. You can see the difference in quality from the first attempt to the final attempt.

Austin's butterfly.

Austin’s butterfly.

 

I attempted to build a culture in the classroom where it was typicality that all students would re-draft their work. Students were asked to re-draft their work several times which often led to a small incremental increase in marks between drafts but a huge difference by the time the final draft was submitted. Students also learnt to take a bit more pride in their work which appeared to come about because they had put so much effort into the redrafting that when it came time to submit a final copy they wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible.

Feedback – no grades.

The re-drafting was helped along by precise feedback in which I gave no grades. Instead I opted to simply tell students how many marks they were away from an A*. I then broke the mark scheme down into very small specific chunks which when added up would give full marks. This helped me move away from phrases like “Explain more” and enabled me to give really precise feedback to students. If a student was 15 marks from an A* they were able to tangibly see where they could add those marks to their work. With a potential A* on the line they were happy to continue to re-draft.

Feedback form.

Feedback form (page 1 of 2)

Impact.

I’d like to say a class full of A* grades but that was not the case. However all students did either achieve or exceed their target grade with no student scoring below a C and four students securing an A*. It wasn’t just the grades that pleased me but also the students attitudes towards their work. In class they were more focused and keen to give me work to mark. The students were proud of what they had achieved and I was extremely proud of them.

Focus.

Focus.

What I have described in this post is by no means an exact science and I’m certainly not telling you to change what you’re doing, but this worked for these students.

And remember… “Don’t be upset with the results you didn’t get from the work you didn’t do.” I think this applies to us all.

#neverstoplearning

 

GCSE Computing revision materials.

GCSE Computing revision materials.

Image by @gapingvoid

Image by @gapingvoid

This is a work in progress. This post will be updated regularly over the next few weeks to cover the OCR GCSE Computing syllabus. The resources can be easily adapted if needed. Feedback welcome!

Read more about the approach to revision I’m trialling here.


 

1. Computer Systems

Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]

2. Hardware

Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]

3. Software

Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]

4. Data representation

Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]

5. Databases

Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]

6. Networks

Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]

7. Programming:

Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]


#neverstoplearning

Increasing bandwidth – Planning a revision session.

Talent isn’t born. It’s made. 

In Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code’ he travels the world to seek out groups of very successful people and in an attempt to discover why they are so successful. Through his observations of multiple different groups from musicians to football players he noticed one recurring trend – deep practice. In fact he has created an equation that summarises the elements needed to make progress and succeed at something. It looks like this…

'The Talent Code' by Daniel Coyle.

‘The Talent Code’ by Daniel Coyle.

Ignition or primal cues relates to the motivation a person has to be successful in the first place. As a teacher I believe it’s part of my job to talk to students about what motivates them to succeed. Some students are able to easily articulate this. whereas some will need some help finding the reason why they need to be successful. Either way I need to support the students I teach in understanding their ignition to succeed.

Continual deep practice is about increasing the amount of myelin in the brain*.  Have a look at this great interactive guide to Myelin on Daniel Coyle’s website. Myelin is…

Myelin is a lipid and protein sheath-like material that forms an insulating cover that surrounds and protects nerve fibres. 

Structure of a typical neuron from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin

Structure of a typical neuron from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin

The general idea is that the more myelin you have insulating your nerve fibres, the faster impulses (or information) can travel between nerve cells.  Some scientists believe that myelin can be increased with regular deliberate practice. It’s similar to bandwidth in the speed of an internet connection. The more bandwidth you have the faster the transfer of data. The more practice you put in, the more the myelin wraps around the nerve fibre increasing the bandwidth (the diagram below shows this in a bit more detail). It’s worth noting that this works both ways and needs to be maintained with regular practice.

Cross section of a myelinated axon taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin

Cross section of a myelinated axon taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin

 

Daniel Coyle uses the example of Brazilian soccer players to explain deep practice in action. From an early age they play a game called Futsal and they continue to play it into their teenage years. Futsal is played on smaller court with a smaller ball which means that players will touch the ball more often than playing 11 a side on a full size pitch. This is deep practice. It’s quality controlled by a master coach (someone with expert knowledge of the game / subject) who intervenes with striking impact to ensure learning is meaningful. The video below examines more examples of where deep practice has produced successful outcomes.

How does this apply to revision?

If we want students to be successful in exams then they need to practice – sounds simple enough, but is not entirely true. If we want students to be successful they have to fine tune their practice so that it is deep, deliberate and regular in order to build up a thicker insulation of myelin. What follows are few strategies that I am currently trialling to achieve this.

1) Regular self assessment with input from the teacher.

It’s important to let students assess their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to a topic to revise. Teachers are the master coaches described in ‘The Talent Code.’ We have to know our students well and track their learning and use this information to intervene with self assessments so that students know what they are actually good at and areas that they need to improve. The key to good revision (I believe) is to focus more time on the weaker areas (being deliberate) rather than spending lots of time revisiting knowledge/skills that a student is already competent in. Below is an example of a self-assessment I have used with students. The black ‘X’ represents the student response. The green Y’s represent my response based upon prior testing and my knowledge of the students competencies through questioning and classwork. If I have agreed with the students response I have not added an additional symbol.

Self-assessment grid example - used prior to starting revision for a particular topic.

Self-assessment grid example – used prior to starting revision for a particular topic.

The grid provides a clarity. Students get validation for what they think they already know or an opportunity to discuss area for improvements. It also helps students to focus in on the weaker areas and thus provides a starting point for revision.

2) Chunking information.

Once students have self assessed their strengths and weaknesses and they have been agreed, they can then begin revising required knowledge. In order to not overload the students working memory I have created a resource that chunks the information down in smaller sub-topics (see the list on the self reflection diagram above). Each sub topic has a series of questions that students answer in an open book environment. Example answers to these sections are released to students once they have attempted to answer them. They also have access to past paper exam questions and answers. Students are free to work through this revision pack using the self assessment as a rudder to guide them towards topics that will require more attention.

Example revision pack split into sub topics with past paper exam questions.

Example revision pack split into sub topics with past paper exam questions.

3) Regular rigorous multiple choice tests.

The ‘chunked’ revision materials are sync with a multiple choice test. I have created the tests using Joe Kirby’s brilliant posts on designing rigorous multiple choice tests (Post 1 | Post 2). I’ve attempted to increase rigor by adding more incorrect answers that are based on common student misconceptions.

Example question from a multiple choice test for GCSE Computing.

Example question from a multiple choice test for GCSE Computing.

The tests can be taken multiple times and using a platform like Edmodo means the tests are also tracked and scored without the teacher lifting a finger. Edmodo also allows students to go back through the test and see where they dropped marks.

An example of automatic feedback generated by Edmodo coupled with a comment from the teacher.

An example of automatic feedback generated by Edmodo coupled with a comment from the teacher.

 

A key element here is frequency and over a 6 week revision period it’s important to space the timing of these multiple choice tests to aid retention. As Joe points out in his most recent post on curriculum design,

Repeated retrieval improves long term retention: frequent quizzing prevents forgetting.

Read more about this here at Joe’s blog.

4) Regular ‘Walking – Talking’ mock exams.

One new strategy that has been trialled at my school this year has been ‘walking-talking’ mocks in all subjects. For those not familiar here’s how they work. The students revise for a mock as normal. When the mock exam takes place the teacher walks them through the first question and then gives students an appropriate amount of time (depending on the number of marks available usually) to complete the question and then get some instant feedback on how well they did. It’s hard to judge the real impact of doing this exercise but it certainly helps students feel more comfortable in exam conditions. I know I have been guilty in the past of running a mock exam in ‘exam conditions’, students tend to score poorly on it, get feedback but didn’t get an opportunity to re-draft answers (my fault) and the whole scenario was demotivating and not very productive. A walking-talking mock provide students to feel success in an exam environment. This new found motivation can then be used to drive revision sessions. As the year goes the strategy is to get students to sit 3-4 mock exams and by the end of the process provide them with less and less support as their confidence grows.


This post is by no means a ‘you should run revision sessions like this’ post. It’s a reflection on some of the ideas that have inspired my thoughts around how to do revision better. It is very much a work in progress and feedback is very much welcome!

I often tell my students to not be upset with the results they didn’t get from the work they didn’t do. I feel the same and care deeply about their results. When my students walk into the their exam I want to make sure I’ve done everything within my power to ensure they succeed.

Image via @gapingvoid - http://gapingvoid.com/

Image via @gapingvoid – http://gapingvoid.com/

Further reading:

Myelin – by Daniel Coyle

How to grow a super athlete – by Dainel Coyle

The myelin in all of us – by David Shenk

Why use multiple choice tests – by Joe Kirby

How to design multiple-choice questions – by Joe Kirby

Research on multiple-choice questions – by Daisy Christodoulou

Walking, talking mocks: are mock exams the way forward? – by Martin Jones

Hardwiring learning and effort = success – by Domini Choudhury

*I am not a scientist. For more information on myelin please see this interactive guide or even better still, read Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code.

#neverstoplearning

#Nurture1314

20131224-174135.jpg

2013 in no particular order…

1. Remarkable colleagues.

I work with some remarkable people. People who think good is not good enough and will go the extra mile for their students and fellow teachers. These people are remarkable in many ways and continue to inspire me to do and be better everyday. Check out a few of them on Twitter: @mr_bunker_edu, @mrtleahy, @artedu_kheath, @sporteredu, @mrgillenglish, @mrdaymentmaths, @gwilliams195, @jonericjones, @dominichoudhury, @bristolbrunel

2. Safe is risky.

To provide the best possible outcomes for the young people we teach we have to provide remarkable experiences for them. In order to do this you have to be prepared to take risks in the classroom. Great teaching is not a ladder to climb, rather a jungle gym to explore. 

3. #neverstoplearning

I was successful in securing a leadership honorarium at my school in September to drive the improvement of teaching and learning. Since then I have set up a small team of pedagogy leaders and created the brand #neverstoplearning (http://neverstoplearninghub.com/) to share remarkable ideas around teaching, learning and leadership in schools. A teach meet is also in the pipeline for 2013!

4. Leadership is not a position, it is a choice.

This is my 5th year as a teacher (4 of them as a programme leader of Computing) and I’m beginning to understand what it means to be a leader. It’s not a title. It’s about leading by example, high expectations, good habits, strong moral purpose and growing other leaders. 

5. Computing.

This is one of my passions and I love teaching it! It has involved me having to work hard to ‘re-fresh’ my skill set & subject knowledge, but that does not feel like work because one of my other passions is learning.

6. Teach Meets.

I’ve attended a few teach meets this year and I am convinced it’s the best CPD out there. Created for teachers by teachers. No hidden agendas. I always walk away feeling inspired, more motivated and with a long list of ideas to explore further. 

7. Reading.

Simon Sinek. Seth Godin. Malcolm Gladwell. Chip & Dan Heath. Hugh Mcleod. Doug Lemov. John Hattie. Jamie Smart. Ken Segall. David Didau. Hywel Roberts. Zoe Elder. 

8. Distributed leadership works.

I work in school full of leaders. The forward thinking SLT have dissolved more power to the people closet to the action. They have invested time and effort into growing more leaders and as a result there is much more purpose and collective accountability about what our school does. I’m excited to see where 2014 takes us.

9. Make more art.

A realisation I’ve had this year. If you view something as work you tend to find ways to do less of it. If you view something as art you tend to find ways to do more of it.

10. Ultra running.

Running is part of my life. It helps me to achieve clarity and feel good. Ultra running tests me physically and mentally. This year I completed my longest ever continuous run – 54 miles in one go, as well as a few other shorter ultra marathons, marathons, half marathons and 10k’s. 

11. Students.

They’re incredible.

12. Twitter.

It’s the ultimate staff room. Lots of interesting debate, ideas and an overwhelming willingness to share. Teaching is an emotional, people orientated art form and without the support, kindness and gift giving of fellow professionals I don’t think the profession would grow. So I thank you Twitter for connecting me with many marvellous artists! 

13. Next steps.

I recently attended my first interview for the role of Assistant Principal. Didn’t get the job but learnt an awful lot! Why Assistant Principal? I want to influence more students than just the ones I teach. I like to be challenged. I like to connect, collaborate and work with other people. I like to learn from other people and help them to do their best possible work. I have a passion for teaching and learning that I want to share. I’m devoted to meaningful work. 

2014 in no particular order…

1. Keep exploring pedagogy.

2. Take more (measured) risks in the classroom.

3. Blog / reflect more often.

4. Listen more.

5. Read more – looking forward to Simon Sinek’s ‘Leaders eat last.’

6. Deliver a teach meet in Bristol (keep diaries clear for 20th March 2014).

7. Encourage more people to share remarkable ideas through http://neverstoplearninghub.com/
8. Run 100km in one go and complete 5 ultra marathons.

9. Keep expectations high. 

10. Continue to work through Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach like a champion’ book, trying out different techniques in the classroom (if you don’t have this book get it!).

11. Organise and run CPD sessions with pedagogy leaders.

12. Exercise everyday.

13. Eat less chocolate biscuits.

14. Never stop learning.

20131224-174305.jpg

Extended Guardian post: Teaching Computing for the first time

Below is a piece written for the Guardian Teacher Network , before being edited down to size. I’d really like to hear from other teachers who have recently started teaching computing or are planning to in the near future and share experiences (please leave a comment below).

A reflection on teaching computing for the first time.
It was around this time last year I began to fret a little. The novelty of the summer holidays had started to wear off and ‘the fear’ began to settle in. After a couple of years of teaching ICT, I was getting a little bored of churning out coursework and was looking for a new challenge that would really make my students think. Don’t get me wrong, ICT has its place but I felt like students were missing out by not getting a mix of computer science(CS) and ICT. So I made a bold decision and came up with a plan to start delivering Computing from September (2012). My decision to do this was made somewhat easier a few months before, after listening to Dr Tom Crick (@drtomcrick) speak passionately about the merits of a curriculum that combined CS, IT and Digital Literacy.

Starting point
Having previously studied Internet Technology at university, taught ICT for almost 4 years and being a bit of a geek, I felt quite secure in my subject knowledge for Computing (networks, the Internet, data representation, hardware, software, e.t.c.) but was not feeling confident with my my programming skills. The first thing thing I did was sign up to code academy (http://www.codecademy.com) and began working through the Python exercises. I decided to choose Python as my language of choice because it is quite close to written English and there were plenty of support materials online.

After a few weeks of spending 30-45 minutes a day working through the Python tutorials (little and often) I decided to attempt one of the GCSE programming projects and immediately became stuck! Online tutorial sites are great for learning the syntax of a programming language but don’t necessarily teach you to solve problems. This is where computational thinking comes in. After a call for help on Twitter I quickly found myself being tutored through the problem solving side of things via Skype and email by two amazing computer scientists (@codeboom and @colinthemathmo). Problem solving is the essence of computer science, using a computer as a tool to solve real world problems. The only to get good at problem solving is practice.
In terms of planning for the new school year (2012/2013) I had decided to shrink the change to allow myself time to develop my programming skills further. I incorporated some new units at KS3 looking at hardware and how computers operate and process instructions, computational thinking and an introduction to programming in Python. I also sought to explicitly raise awareness in lessons and across the school of the differences between computer science and ICT, with the latter having a little bit of a negative stigma attached to it. At KS4 I offered OCR GCSE Computing and managed to get 14 students signed up. I roughly planned out the year against the spec and used lots of the many outstanding resources already available on the Computing at Schools website.

Teaching Computing
Returning to school in September with the annual ‘fear’ instilled after 6 weeks off I was actually quite excited to get started. Teaching the problem solving / programming side of things provided a really interesting contrast to the ICT I had taught previously. Lower ability students were feeling success quicker and gaining in confidence by solving relatively simple problems whereas the higher ability students had come across something that they weren’t getting right first time. The problem solving lessons provided a great platform for differentiation by task and it was amazing to see the students take a step back and really think about the problem and plan out a solution. When I got the level of challenge just right, sessions had ,a really nice flow to them and a 100 minutes flew by. There were plenty of times when students got stuck and I didn’t know the answer so I advised them to do what I did when I didn’t know how to do something – use the Internet. Students started becoming quite proficient at searching blogs and forums to seek out the bit of code that would help them.

In hindsight I think I focused a little to much on students learning the syntax of particular language rather than embedding wider programming concepts, something I’m going to change in my approach for the upcoming school year. I’m also going to give students more open ended problems to solve rather than step by step guides. I found that students really responded well to challenge of solving problems rather than just following step by step guides. Obviously they need a starting point, and tutorial sites / syntax guides will give students that. What I will do differently from September is start getting students thinking about problem solving sooner and try and get them to see programming as a tool for solving problems rather than an exercise that they must get right at all costs.

Computing club
Computing club was a real success this year and has gone from strength to strength. I initially set it up as an informal laboratory for me to try out some ideas for lessons on a group of extremely keen students wanting to find out more about Computing and specifically programming. If you haven’t already set one up – do so as soon as you get back to school! It was through this club that culture quick grew of students sharing things that they had been working on at home, outside of lessons. One student had been making apps online and had already tried out a number of sites and was able to give me a comprehensive review of each which helped me choose one to use in class. Andover student had been making text based adventure games in notepad++ and running them in a command prompt – an excellent idea for a KS3 project! In the final term I managed to secure some funding to buy a class set of Raspberry Pi’s, and who better to test them out but Computing club! It’s a great way to get confidence with new technologies before introducing them into a formal lesson.

Department CPD
This is potentially the trickiest obstacle to change. Thankfully I work in a great department with teachers willing to learn new things (our mission statement is ‘never stop learning’). I provided a number of after school sessions and helped staff with planning lessons whilst always returning to our moral purpose of WHY we were implenting change – trying to provide a more enriching and challenging experience for the students we teach. We reviewed things every few weeks in department meetings to find out what worked well and what needed tweaking for next year. It has been hard work but extremely rewarding to see both staff and students develop.

Final thoughts
I’m really glad I decided to ‘dive in at the deep end’ with Computing. I believe the students have benefitted from much more challenging and engaging lessons which the subject matter of computing tends to lends itself to. With computer science all around us it’s easy to make links to ‘real world’ scenarios that students can relate to. An example of this was a starter I created for a lesson on the Internet where students had to use Google street view to go inside of a data center and locate a stormtrooper (yes a stormtrooper!) that Google had placed in one of their server rooms.

I will continue to develop my knowledge base and schemes of work to ensure students at KS3 get a balanced mix of computer science, IT and digital literacy to enable them to manipulate the digital world in which they live. Above all I want students to be challenged in lessons and enjoy them. I think Computing provides us with a great platform to achieve this. As Dr Sue Black (a senior research associate in computer science at the University College London) said in a recent tweet to students considering Computing as a GCSE, “Knowledge of computer science gives you access to and control over your future. Everything we do is depending more and more on technology and understanding computer science gives you the key to unlock its potential.”

#neverstoplearning

Guardian Teacher Network articles

Here’s a link to my first two articles for the Guardian Teacher Network about teaching Computing for the first time.

Teaching computing for the first time – learning to code and getting started.

The best websites for computing resources and lessons

#NeverStopLearning