You don't need computers to teach computing

Computing will be uploaded to the curriculum later this year, but you don't need to log on to learn it, says Sue Sentance.

Log outFrom September 2014 we’ll have a new subject on the curriculum: Computing. But the principles of this science can be learned without the need for expensive hardware – or indeed any computers at all…

Look away from the screen

There are several reasons why students don’t need to log on for every lesson:

  • Schools might not always be able to provide access to computers
  • Getting away from the computer can mean more opportunity for collaboration and team working, developing skills that can later be applied in computing classes
  • Plenty of ‘unplugged’ activities can be used to introduce computational concepts in a fun and engaging way

The new Computing curriculum will be based around a number of accepted principles of computing1: computation, communication, coordination, recollection, automation, evaluation and design.

Coming to understand these principles will enhance logical skills, as well as help introduce students to important ‘computational thinking’ techniques like abstraction and generalisation.

Computing without computers

It might seem counterintuitive, but there are plenty of activities that can help students develop the kind of mind set and toolbox of skills that will help them get to grips with computing – none of which involve the machinery itself. It also helps students learn an important lesson: it isn’t the computer that solves the problem, it’s you that solves the problem. Computing isn’t all about “coding” or “programming” – there are a lot of other topics and loads of great hands-on activities to learn them.

We can learn about encryption by writing and deciphering codes, digital images and compression with blocks in a grid, networks with lengths of washing line and tubes, and sorting and searching algorithms with children in a line. Debugging skills, the most sought after skill in a budding computer programmer, can be taught in a whole host of practical and fun ways. Students all the way from primary and through secondary school respond well to a more kinaesthetic approach to learning, and these concepts can be readily incorporated across the curriculum.

Many resources have already been created that teachers can use to help their students cultivate these skills. Tim Bell and his team at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand have developed a huge range of activities that have been used worldwide, translated into many different languages and can introduce computer science principles in the playground, in the school hall, or in the classroom, with students working cooperatively and actively, and without any computers needed.

Meanwhile, the team at CS4FN at Queen Mary’s London has also developed many activities which illustrate the same principles, linked to magic tricks, sport and other topics to engage and enthuse students.  These creative teams have inspired many others to come up with ideas that can be used in classrooms with all ages.

Reflect, and learn

Since the 1980s, Seymour Papert has been very influential in helping us to understand how to teach with computers, and introduced the idea of constructionism2 (building on constructivism) which has as its central tenet that we can learn effectively while using tangible real world objects.  This physical engagement in the ‘unplugged’ activities described above is therefore not just motivational and engaging, but helps children to grasp quite complex concepts.

However, activities alone will only initiate the learning. As Paul Curzon points out in this book, Computing without computers3, we can best understand how computers do things by analogies with everyday concepts that we understand. The key though is to consider and reflect on the analogy, and this is where good teaching comes in.

When introducing the Logo computing language in 1980, Papert said “Everyone works with procedures in everyday life…But in everyday life procedures are lived and used, they are not necessarily reflected on.”4  We can engage children effectively with kinaesthetic approaches to learning computing principles, but guiding them and encouraging them to reflect on their meaning will be what creates a generation of true computer scientists.

Sue Sentance is the National Academic Coordinator for the Network of Excellence, Computing At School

  1. Denning, P. (2010). The Great Principles of Computing [PDF].
  2. Papert, S. & Harel, I. (1991). Constructionism, Ablex Publishing Corporation.
  3. Curzon, P. (2014). Computing without Computers. Queen Mary University of London. February 2014. Available from Teaching London Computing.
  4. Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms. New York: Basic Books.


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