Achieving stuff straight away in Computing lessons

Look, I’m not going to assume a guise of false modesty here, or a “humble brag” (“Am so humbled to have just been voted as the best thing since sliced bread”): the fact is, I am known to play a mean blues harmonica. However, as I haven’t played with a band in over a year, I thought I’d get back into the swing of things by going on a course. In the first lesson, the tutor got us to play two main things.

First, he showed us how to create a train sound. I had already taught myself how to do this, because any self-respecting blues person understands that you need the right sound effect to accompany lines like “My baby’s leaving on that midnight train” and “I heard that lonesome whistle blow”. He also taught us how to play When the saints go marching in (swing it, brothers). I’d already taught myself to play that eons ago, but never mind.

I didn't think my playing was THAT bad...

The point of all this apparent persiflage is that I was impressed that the tutor got us to play actual stuff rather than just a load of techniques that we didn’t apply.

I have always adopted the same approach in my own teaching, as far as possible. For instance, I see little point in teaching the kids how to create an IF statement, without having them create something in which the IF statement actually makes sense. As an example, I used to get them to create a simple program or spreadsheet that would evaluate their age. Depending on what they entered at the prompt “How old are you?”, they would be shown a message that read “Sorry, you are too old”, or “Sorry, you are too young” (just my warped sense of humour: there wasn’t an OK age!).

That little program held principles that are applied in many different contexts. It’s of little consequence in itself, but showing them how to create IF statements in isolation would have had even less consequence in my opinion.

I also believe that the same principle applies even to less tangible aspects of the curriculum. Take the laws about data protection, computer misuse and copyright. Do the pupils go away from the lesson having actually achieved something and, crucially, with something to show – even if that something is a heightened awareness of some of their rights and responsibilities?

A quick note: I’m working on the next issue of Digital Education – the first one if the new school year! Articles will include one from Anna Shipman on how she got into coding and one by Kathryn Day on the Suffolk Computing Curriculum. I’m also working on a competition, conference reports, and news. So do sign up today. Or tomorrow. Well, soon anyway!

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