Project-based learning in the Computing curriculum

John Partridge, Assistant Head for eLearning, explains how Computing is taught through a project-based learning approach at his school.

I remember clearly looking at the first draft of the new curriculum and just being totally shocked by the degree of change. It had been clearly signalled that the new draft would be a step-change, but I didn’t appreciate the shift which was about to take place. Almost nothing remained from the previous programme, save a few references to digital resources and, in a later draft, safe use of technology. So it was clear that some serious work was going to be needed to make sure our school adapted.

Thankfully, we had already begun the process of moving our curriculum towards computing. I have been in the fortunate position of leading a team of very capable and highly skilled teachers, all with computing backgrounds. In addition, I’ve long felt that a good ‘ICT’ curriculum needed to include elements of computing to equip learners with the broadest skill set possible and also give my students a fighting chance at Computing A level.

The approach I’ve taken for some time in ICT (now Computing) is that it works best when students see the relevance to their real life. For me, that doesn’t just mean making a spreadsheet about a disco model. It’s going further than that. I believe that students really engage in projects where they see technology working in different ways and are given some element of control over how that happens.

To explain my approach to project-based learning I’ll use an example from my year 9[i] curriculum. I’ve found that age group to find real world projects particularly engaging. They’re at a point when career advice is coming in, GCSE[ii] decisions are being made and long term futures talked about. Therefore showing them how technology is going to be part of that really hits home.

A unit which has been particularly successful in that respect is our ‘You’re the Boss’ unit. A short summary is that students are given a picture of an empty shop (chosen from a small selection) and given the chance to setup a business in it. The unit then goes through a number of different tools using technology they would use. For example; graphics editing to change the empty shop into a thriving business, modelling to predict cash flows, databases to manage customer mailing, computer programming and interface design to create a working EPOS (Electronic Point of Sale ) and safe use of technology in discussing the business data protection policy. Some of these activities take just a lesson, others up to three but none any longer. All of the knowledge and skills covered are then returned to and developed later in other projects later in the year.

The last part of the previous paragraph is the other crucial part of project learning and why it works for me. It allows you to revisit prior learning and consolidate it before building on it. When I first came into teaching I taught a traditional ICT model of a DTP unit, a spreadsheet unit, a database unit, a presentation unit etc. The difficulty I found was that returning to spreadsheets in the next year, so little knowledge and skills had been retained. I strongly believe, as advocated by Bruner’s spiral curriculum and Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve, in small and regular visits to both knowledge and skills if they are going to retained and embedded.

A Representation of the project-based learning approach taken by the Minster School

All of the above makes real sense with the new curriculum. After reading the draft I wrote a Computing focused unit for year 8. It was successful but student voice told me it just hadn’t been as engaging as the other work in the year. The reason consistently was, they didn’t see how it fitted the bigger picture. That surprised and to some degree frustrated me, as a real focus in the planning had been just that. Most lessons had video introductions of computing in action, each lesson had a ‘how this is used in the real world’ discussion or activity. Even so, students couldn’t make the connection. Projects do that. They put knowledge and skills in context, they support pace and challenge as well as extension.

Sometimes making a particular skill or knowledge gain part of the project can be a challenge, but I find it’s always possible and always worth it.

About John Partridge

John PartridgeJohn Partridge is Assistant Head for eLearning at the Minster School in Southwell. He has ten years experience as a subject leader for Computing/ICT and has spoken at a number of events across the country about the new curriculum changes. His wider work in the subject area was recognised through a Naace Impact award in 2013.

[i] Year 9 is the third year of secondary (high) school in England; pupils are 13-14 years of age.

[ii] GCSE is the General Certificate of Education in England, taken (usually) at 16 years of age.

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