Computing is to be enjoyed rather than endured, writes John Galloway
The principle of entitlement enshrined in the National Curriculum holds good for all pupils, regardless of ability, even those with more challenging and complex special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
However, making that entitlement a reality brings challenges for classroom teachers, especially for the new computing curriculum. And that's why teaching and assessing the computer science element of computing will be fully explored at the new Difficult to Teach? SEND and Computing event on Friday July 1 in Tower Hamlets, London (UPDATE: event now cancelled).
The new subject of computing has three strands, one of which is computer science, within which is the discipline of ‘computational thinking’. This requires learners to understand a number of concepts, including 'decomposition' – the ability to break a problem down into component parts. And there's 'abstraction' – removing any unnecessary details.
New concepts for teachers and to make intelligible for learners
Alongside this is the need to use logic, and to know how to develop an algorithm (a series of steps to reach a desired result). To do this effectively they will need to 'debug' any glitches that might occur, and demonstrate the perseverance required to see it through to the end. For many teachers these are new concepts they have to come to terms with, let alone make them intelligible to learners with complex learning difficulties.
The other two main threads of computing are of less concern because they involve knowledge and activities that many teachers are already generally familiar with. They are about using technological tools to complete tasks digitally, like being creative and publishing the results of that work, whether that's a composition, a video or an image.
Or it could entail finding out information and displaying it in a way that makes it comprehensible to a particular group. Such things can be as straightforward, for example researching a role model online and creating a poster or presentation.
It could also mean making a greetings card, writing a letter, measuring and plotting temperatures, or recording an animation. These are all fairly commonplace tasks in British classrooms. But programming a robot, whether a real one that moves across the floor, or a virtual one on a screen, brings a different set of challenges.
However, none of this is new. Despite the brouhaha, the difference between computing and its predecessor, ICT, is more about emphasis than content. Programming ('coding') was always a requirement, but it's now re-framed as writing algorithms and debugging programs. The shift is more than cosmetic, but the challenge is not new.
The difficulties faced by the children and young people learning the subject are not new, either. While the increase in the number of learners in our classrooms deemed to have autistic spectrum orders, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, or a myriad other conditions is real, the challenge of creating lessons that are meaningful, rich and rewarding for all of them remains the same.
When barriers become opportunities
Seen from another perspective, however, what may seem like barriers to learning appear as opportunities to discover new strengths. Learners with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) for instance, may have characteristics that lend themselves to coding, such as thinking in a clear, logical, order, and they may have resilience and tenacity which help when carrying out repetitive activities.
Some of those with dyslexia are thought to be good at lateral thinking, and this is a useful ability when confronted by a problem in coding where there appears to be no straightforward route to progress.
Learners with speech, language and communication difficulties can benefit from the need to be precise in the choice of language, to sequence it in the right order, and to use correct syntax. And those with physical disabilities can control a device and make it behave in a precise, predictable way that may present a real challenge when it comes to their own bodies.
Across the board, meeting the demands of the computing curriculum can support learners with diverse special needs. It can also be fulfilling, create confidence and be a lot of fun too.
When teaching the computer science strand there is a need to move from the concrete to the abstract, from making connections with what learners already know and understand, to what is new knowledge, and from actual robots and devices to virtual ones on the screen. Then there comes the challenge of different approaches to coding and the language employed.
For some learners, those with the greatest learning difficulties, the first step, and one which a few may find it difficult if not impossible to move beyond, is understanding cause and effect. That when a switch is clicked it brings about a response that is predictable and consistent.
This can allow the child or young person to take control of an element of their immediate environment. It could be turning on and off a toy or a fan, playing a piece of music, or cycling through the colours of an LED light.
Others may need to start by developing an understanding of giving and receiving instructions, and of what a sequence is. For instance, they could talk about the steps in a known routine, like getting ready for school, making a sandwich or crossing the road. The more able learners could add decision loops about what might go in the sandwich, or whether there is a ‘pelican’ crossing handy.
Drawing a simple two-by-two grid in the playground to navigate while giving and receiving directions can help pupils appreciate the needs for accuracy and getting things in the right order so that they successfully move from one place to another. It is helpful from the beginning to insist on accuracy in the language used as this is a key discipline in coding.
Parents can support by trying similar activities outside school
To reinforce this they could take turns to navigate a ‘robot’ teacher around the room, with only correct commands being followed. Parents can be asked to support by trying similar activities outside of school, along with talking about routines, and reinforcing directional language.
A common starting point in the classroom is to use a floor robot which responds to simple commands. This might be preceded by using a remote control car to get across the difference between steering a device and programming it; one is predictable and consistent while the other can seem less so.
Most floor robots also have on-screen resources associated with them. This could be a means of programming the device remotely, through a cable or Bluetooth connection, or a virtual emulator. These help bridge the step from working with the actual device to working with a representation of it.
Beyond that there are number of options for teaching coding. When using a structured course of small steps from a specific provider, learners can work at their own pace, with the faster moving ones having open-ended activities to extend their learning while others progress through the stages.
There are also plenty of options for progressing on to programming with freely available software such as LOGO or Scratch, both from MIT. These offer different approaches to coding, one text based the other using drag-and-drop segments, and each with their own challenges advantages. The latter can allow learners to quickly create complex activities on-screen. And both can be downloaded for home use.
A number of websites have also become available, such as code.org, that teach computing at a variety of levels with different approaches using a range of familiar games, such as Angry Birds, Frozen, or Minecraft. Again, ideal for individual study outside school.
It is at this stage that children and young people will be working towards the expected outcomes of the National Curriculum. But a small, but significant, number of them – perhaps 2.5 per cent of the school population – might never get to this point. These are pupils whose achievement is recorded using the P Scales.
Despite the revision of the National Curriculum, and the move to ‘life after levels’, these are still in use for learners with more complex and challenging SEND, and they have not been updated. So there is a disparity between the curriculum content and the means to record achievement.
Teachers have created their own 'P scales' for computing
Whatever level children and young people are working at, valuable learning can be found in the computing curriculum. Remember, it can also be a lot of fun, and offer them opportunities to achieve in ways that might not be easily available in the rest of the curriculum.
The good news is that educators are making every effort to make sure that ALL children get a look-in. For those within reach of London the challenges of teaching and assessing the computer science element of the Computing Curriculum will be explored at “Difficult to Teach? SEND and Computing” on Friday July 1 at the Tower Hamlets Professional Development Centre in Bethnal Green.
Difficult to Teach? SEND and Computing on Friday July 1 at the Tower Hamlets Professional Development Centre, 229 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6AB in Bethnal Green. Further details here http://ictandinclusion.edublogs.org/send-and-computing-conference
John Galloway is an expert in the use of technology to support teaching, learning and communication for children and young people with SEND. He is also a successful author. His latest book, Learning with Mobile and Handheld Technologies, co-authored with Merlin John and Maureen McTaggart, won the Book of the Year category in the Innovation and Technology Awards, 2016.