The new draft English National Curriculum for Computing (direct link to the document here) has been causing quite a stir… particularly the first section of the Key Stage 1 programme of study which says children in the first half of Primary Education must learn what an algorithm is. As many in the know have been quick to point out, although even teachers may not be familiar with the language, an algorithm is potentially as simple as ‘making a cup of tea’.
Of course, most Primary schools have been doing the basics of this by another name forever; instructional writing. There are some subtle differences, and it is worth exploring the technical context further to develop this into computing, but essentially all those lessons on ‘writing instructions explaining how to make a cup of tea’ are close to doing the job already.
Or are they? I remember when I was training sitting in on a year 1 lesson where children ordered pictures of the stages of tea making and then wrote instructions for the procedure. I remember wondering how many of them I would feel confident in allowing to use a kettle… Quite apart from the safety issues, how many six year olds drink tea?
The procedure for making a cup of tea is an excellent way to explain algorithms for many adults, but I can’t help thinking it is rather lacking in cultural resonance for primary age children. For some children, seeing parents making a cup of tea will be commonplace, but that isn’t the same as doing it. When we teach children to program floor robots like beebots, or work with co-ordinates we encourage them to walk the route first, or at least do so in their heads. Precise instructions require a precise understanding of the task, and when this understanding is developing this often means a concrete experience. Call it Piagetian, or just common sense, if you are at the early stage of telling someone how to do something you need to know how to do it yourself. Not have some appreciation of, know.
It is a big assumption that children know how to make tea, perhaps an even bigger one that they are used to seeing their parents do it. For children from some cultural backgrounds this will be commonplace, for others it certainly won’t be. This could be down to ‘Cultural Background’, or simply individual family culture; some people just don’t like hot drinks… some people may even bond over this to the extent they start a family, who knows.
This big issue this has brought to the forefront of my thinking is finding examples that are genuinely relevant for children, that fit into their culture, and not relying on too many assumptions to do this. Clearly if you are teaching something like algorithms you need to show examples, explaining the abstract concept to a six year old and then expecting them to map that onto real experience is not likely to be successful. This is where the wider understanding and cultural empathy that primary teachers need to build up with the children they work with comes in.
Rather than making tea, what about something they will have done like… getting ready for school (does everyone have a set procedure?), making the bed (do all families insist on this?), getting ready to go to sleep (look at this C4 programme for some examples of ‘procedure here’). See the challenge?
Image: CC BY Evan Wood