BETT 2014: A is for algorithm: first steps in primary computing

Some big changes are taking place in UK primary schools this year with the new National Curriculum set to kick off in September 2014. There’s no getting away from it: subject coordinators have got their work cut out for them. Not least ICT coordinators, because ICT as a subject will be replaced with Computing.

I won't deny the fact that my first impression of the new Computing programme of study (PoS) wasn’t a completely positive one. While it didn’t appear to be very long, it did contain a lot of new terminology: algorithms, debugging, sequencing, variables - where to begin? The problem was, how could I teach these new topics when I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what they all meant in terms of computing? When I was asked to write Switched on Computing: take your first easy steps with Microsoft, a free computing resource jointly produced by Microsoft and Rising Stars, I had to think carefully before saying yes.

Tackling new terminology

The first line of the new PoS states that pupils in KS1 should be taught to ‘understand what algorithms are.’ Algorithms? In KS1? Really? I was shocked. So, I decided my first job would be to unpick this word. A bit of rooting around lead me to a pleasing discovery: an algorithm is a set of instructions that perform a specific task or solve a specific problem. Suddenly, it didn’t sound too bad - I’ve done work on instructions and instructional writing in KS1 in the past so algorithms didn’t seem so alien. I could relate the concept of algorithms to something practical and familiar like recipes or instructions for games. This lead to the creation of Unit 2 in the Switched On resource, which is all about creating interactive recipe books and is aimed at KS1. Through this unit children are taught how to create a range of digital content as well as gaining understanding about the concept of algorithms. Unpicking new terms and relating them to what you already know is a useful way to approach the more unfamiliar parts of the new PoS.

Keep it practical

Another thing that I’ve discovered is that more abstract computing concepts can sometimes be explained best away from the computer. For instance, I’m sure many primary teachers have headed out in the playground to act out the solar system in order to help explain how the planets orbit the sun in science - I know I have. This kind of practical modelling can work really well in computing. I have been following Unit 6 from the resource, which has involved teaching my class to code their own computer games. Before they had a go at programming the character in their game to collect different objects, I got the children to ‘program’ each other to collect beanbags from around the room. It was a useful way to explore the importance of being specific when creating algorithms and also debugging incorrect algorithms.

Build on the great ICT you have developed

Lastly, don’t feel the new Computing curriculum means you have to completely start again and ‘throw away’ some of the great ICT that you have no doubt be developing across your school - there is still place for it. The Computing PoS in both key stages requires pupils to be taught to ‘create a range of digital content.’ When you think about it, ‘digital content’ can mean a whole host of things: blogging, animation, podcasting, film editing, photo editing, spreadsheets. Although there may be a greater emphasis on programming, the new Computing curriculum doesn’t begin and end there. Continue to teach children to use a wide range of technology in rich, purposeful and exciting ways.

To help you prepare for the Computing curriculum, download Switched on Computing: take your first easy steps with Microsoft and its resources here:

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