Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Thoughts on the Computing Curriculum for learners with severe and complex needs


From 5, children will learn to code and program, with algorithms, sequencing, selection and repetition; from 11, how to use at least 2 programming languages to solve computational problems; to design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems; and how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system.

Michael Gove speaking at the BETT Show January 2014


I started receiving emails a few months ago from colleagues working in special schools asking, “What is an algorithm?” or “What is object oriented programming?” These questions were prompted by a review of the UK ICT curriculum, which as Gove’s speech above confirms, will require teachers to teach programming as an integral part of our ICT lessons. Colleagues I've met seem genuinely worried that they don't have the skills or experience to teach this new strand. A few braver souls asked me the more pertinent question, “What will my students get from learning this?”



I've thought long and hard about that last question. Anyone who knows me or has heard me speak anywhere in the world will know that ICT has to be meaningful to our students. It has to be delivered at their level, drawing on their real life experiences and teach skills that have value both to them and to the world around them. I still remember meeting three students who had been taught to copy type despite the fact that they couldn't read even a single CVC word … or the class from a special school in the UK who were video conferencing with a class in Norway. Sadly, when I asked "What is Norway?", none of the students could answer the question. I don’t use technology for the sake of it or to tick the ‘ICT included’ box on lesson plans. I use technology for lots of reasons, none of which is ‘because I can’.

So what can our students with severe and complex needs learn from the new computing curriculum? What skills will they acquire from learning about algorithms, programming statements and debugging? In my opinion, there are some important skills we can teach here. Not for everyone of course. Anyone that tells you they can differentiate programming languages for students with profound and multiple learning difficulties is quite simply deluding themselves. For me, our students will learn important and transferable problem solving skills.

Let’s look at what writing a program entails:

Analyse the problem
What is it that we need to do?

Devise a solution using algorithms

How might we do it? 
Break the task down into smaller steps we can give as instructions.

Write the program using statements
Put the instructions into the right order.

Test and debug the program
Did it work? If not did we get something in the wrong order? Could we try different instructions?

The only thing we may not have come across before is the computing terminology. Here’s how I would define those words.

Programming Statement
An instruction we can give to somebody or something.

Algorithm
A set of instructions to complete all or part of a task.

Program
A sequence of instructions.

Debugging
Checking that your instructions are correct and in the right order.

Again, I don’t think there is anything new here for teachers in special schools… giving and following instructions, sequencing etc. 
Here’s four statements from two very different computer programs. The first is from visual programming language called Scratch and makes a cat move across the screen before saying hello.


The second was written using photographs by some youngsters from a special school.



They are both valid programs. Each has a sequenced set of statements designed to complete a task. Each has been debugged. One of them has a complicated ‘IF THEN ELSE’ statement. Did you work out which?

IF the toast pops up THEN butter the toast ELSE wait until it pops up.

With some careful thought and planning, there is so much that our students can learn from the computing curriculum. They can learn to identify problems, come up with workable solutions by breaking the task down into smaller steps, then sequence, test and refine their solution. We can teach them in a way which has meaning to our students. Sure some of our students will LOVE the real programming tools, but some will need a less abstract approach and lots of real life examples they can practice. As ever, we are led by the needs of our learners.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post more about the computing curriculum and the training I am able to offer special schools who are keen to get involved with it. I’ll finish today with the funniest moment from the video conferencing lesson with the school in Norway. One of the UK students turned to their teacher and asked; “Can we turn it over and see what’s on BBC?”         


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