OK computer

By Sam Shallcross

Why we must give junior-school children the knowledge and skills to make sense of the digital age

Change is afoot in the world of ICT education. Five years into the new national curriculum, there is a growing awareness that the focus on teaching computing is shifting from how to teach the necessary digital skills to why we need them. Essentially it is about giving children the knowledge and skills that will enable them to make sense of and contribute to a digital society. The ‘why’ of a computing education can be supported by using computational thinking – essentially understanding how a computer ‘thinks’ and how it can be made to work to reach a desired goal – and it is important that we start teaching it to even the youngest primary school children.

Computers can be used to help solve problems. But first, the problem itself and the ways in which it could be solved need to be understood, hence computational thinking. It allows us to take a complex problem, understand what the problem is and develop possible solutions. We can then present these solutions in a language that a computer can understand.

And it can be taught from any age; you don’t need a computer in order to think like a computer scientist. Children in nursery can understand the importance of sequencing and pattern making. We can grow problem solvers, careful sequence checkers, creative thinkers and logical predictors long before the word ‘algorithm’ is even mentioned.

But why teach it to children as young as five? Firstly, because the job market is changing rapidly. A recent report from Google has highlighted the growth of new jobs emerging as soon as 2027. That is the year that our current Year 6 will leave school after A-level. It is the year that my three-year-old daughter will be leaving junior school.

Students need to develop problem solving alongside digital skills so they will be better prepared for these unknown future jobs where it will be algorithmic and creative thinking that will be highly valued. It is more important than ever that we start to broaden the horizons of our primary-age students with real-world problems and give them the tools to be able to solve them.

Secondly, computers are here to stay and are already part of children’s lives, but most don’t know how they work. Many children have access to Alexa in their bedroom, they believe this is an all-seeing, all-knowing entity, rather than a machine that has been programmed with coded algorithms. We are in danger of raising a generation of children who think computers know best. In order for our children and young people to design the machines to work better, surely they need to know how they work in the first place?

Of course, understanding how tech works is fairly sophisticated stuff. So how do you teach it to five- or seven-year olds? I debated this recently with other primary school teachers at a coding conference. Some felt they don’t have the training or knowledge required to teach computing. I’m not so sure; as junior teachers we may not be specialists in the subject, but we can make links across learning for our pupils and help them to recognise these transferable skills.

When I teach younger children, I try to make lessons relevant to their everyday lives. I might ask them to describe and plan their walk to school. Or we might use Rapid Router – a coding programme which mimics delivering parcels. I relate it to Amazon – they all know about Amazon! – and ask them how they think the driver is able to get their presents to them so quickly. How are the routes planned? What is the system that gets that exciting new parcel to their home? Sat nav is already part of their vocabulary but now they can see what its purpose is.

Many subjects such as writing and maths – anything that involves planning or problem solving – can be used to lay the foundations of a computational thinking mindset. Computational thinking is not simply coding – rather coding is an important medium through which to teach computational thinking. It is through the practical experience of programming that computational thinking can best be developed and exercised. It teaches students how to think through a problem, how to tackle a problem and how to continue to work at a problem even when the result is not as expected. It teaches students patience and resilience and trains them to spot errors more easily.

Computational thinking is essential learning in order to make those connections between computer science, other areas of the curriculum and the real world. And it makes so much sense when we want to produce girls who are leaders of the future. So, it’s best to start young.

Sam Shallcross is a Trust Consultant Teacher for Digital Learning at the GDST.