Primary Computing: As easy as making tea?

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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





10 responses to “Primary Computing: As easy as making tea?”

  1. Ian Lynch Avatar

    This is why prescription is dangerous. Adults have a habit of assuming what is interesting to them will be interesting/relevant to children simply because it seems to be to a small minority or it seems obvious to the adult. The development of Sesame Street is a good example of that going wrong and being fixed by empirical data from direct observation. Context is very important to motivation and for systems and processes, context is mostly arbitrary so it makes sense to choose contexts that are of immediate interest to individuals. That is also linked to ownership.

  2. Waltatek Avatar

    Got it! The algorithm used in the ‘Build a Bear’ shop (and yes, there is one – including ‘keep stuffing the bear until it feels nice and plump’)

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Now that comment shows you have som serious cultural capital moving the opposite way across the age ranges than it is usually depicted as doing. 🙂

      Great example!

  3. Julia Skinner (@theheadsoffice) Avatar
    Julia Skinner (@theheadsoffice)

    Very thought provoking Oliver. As you say it is easy when you think of it in terms of instructions but using a procedure that KS1 will be comfortable with will be tricky. Not everyone can afford Build a Bear. However, I suspect they know a lot more procedures than we grown up are aware of so as usual – ask the children!

  4. Rashida Mustafa Avatar

    I think this is true all the way into KS2 as well. Throwing the jargon into the learning is making children pseudo-learned – sound intellectual, when there is so much below that is amiss.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      I’m not sure I agree with this. Whilst many people characterize jargon as being about over complicating things, I think it is about precision. Expressing something precisely is in some senses expressing in the simplest way possible whilst still being accurate.

      Use of words like ‘algorithms’ will only lead to children learning empty jargon if that is how their teachers teach it. If there is a focus on learning the concepts and the precise language to discuss and describe them then this can lead to better understanding, especially at the next stage when they come to build on this. Precise language, underpinned by understanding of that language allows precise discussion of it in other contexts.

      As Greyling said, ‘clarity of language is clarity of thought’.

      Simply teaching children a definition for the word ‘algorithm’ will not lead to such clarity of thought. Understanding, engaging with and constructing algorithms using precise language to define them may well do.

  5. Julia Skinner (@theheadsoffice) Avatar
    Julia Skinner (@theheadsoffice)

    Being devil’s advocate – it may cause a bit of a problem with parents who have not been brought up with the same language. We already have lots of parents saying they didn’t do it like that when they were at school and they can’t help their children.

  6. Teresa Avatar

    I agree with Oliver. The use of precise language is vital in learning. Using the word ‘algorithm’ does not mean memorising it without understanding. It can be a starting point from which to build simpler concepts that make sense to pupils. The thinking they do in this process may help them tackle more complex concepts and develop their critical thinking.

    Using precise language from the start, helps refine ideas and communicate with confidence. Enriching pupils’ vocabulary, allows them to express their thoughts and feelings more effectively.

  7. Tom Crick Avatar

    I also agree with Oliver and Teresa — precision is paramount here. While I appreciate that terminology (“jargon” is pejorative) can be problematic, we are doing a disservice to learners if we do not use the appropriate language and domain terms. Clearly this does not mean rote-learning of definitions, but it is vital that learners are able to communicate using the appropriate terminology (especially in the sciences!).

    With regards to the new Computing programme of study, the restriction of the 2(ish) pages was from the DfE. Hence why there was a longer set of guidance notes produced during the initial draft phase:

    The point about parents not having been brought up with the same language is hugely restrictive; surely that could apply to any discipline e.g. “I didn’t do much maths at school, so I am not comfortable with you using the phrases differentiation and integration…”. But that’s the correct name for these techniques and we must not dumb them down. Define them, explain them, illustrate them with real-world examples, but we should introduce and use appropriate terminology as early as possible.

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