Cracking the codes

Introducing primary-age pupils to computer coding can be a challenge. ICT manager Simon Haughton reflects on his experiences

Parkfield Primary in Middleton, near Manchester, is a small one-form entry school with seven teachers and a 237-strong pupil roll. The school’s motto is that “every learner matters” and its mission is to develop successful lifelong learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens. Rated “good with outstanding features” in its last Ofsted inspection, the school has been embracing the new computing curriculum developed to equip young people with the foundational skills, knowledge and understanding of computing they will need throughout their lives.

As ICT manager at Parkfield, it is my role to introduce computing to pupils and staff – helping them to learn how computers and computer systems work, to design and build programs, to develop their ideas using technology and to create a range of content.

Of the subject’s three key elements – information technology, digital literacy and computer science – it was the coding element of the computer science section which proved the greatest challenge. I found that many of the programming environments available either didn’t work properly on iPads (which I use in all my computing lessons now) or weren’t challenging or interesting enough to hold the attention of older pupils (focusing mainly on directing virtual characters around mazes).

The solution came in the form of Discovery Education Coding (formerly Espresso Coding) which, to my delight, worked well on iPads and offered a variety of programming challenges which showed a good progression in skills from year one to year six. For example, it tasks young children with the job of animating on-screen characters, while older pupils are invited to create apps featuring animated characters and games with conditional statements and variables within them.

The service is divided into two modules for each year group, which are then further sub-divided into individual lessons in which the children work their way through a variety of programming challenges, eventually creating an actual executable program as the final outcome. There are also exercises which require the children to debug some existing source code, as well as ‘free code’ areas that offer children the chance to create their very own programmes (just showing age-appropriate commands for them to use, which is a nice feature).

One of the key requirements of the new computing curriculum is for children to design their own app with a purpose and this solution provides the perfect environment for achieving this objective. In each year group, pupils using a very child-friendly graphical interface can paint a design for the background of their app, insert characters/objects from a gallery to programme, add variables (for a score counter or to do calculations with) and easily add commands to write a computer programme alongside it. The collection of commands available for children to use grows as they progress through the different lessons, but the look of the coding interface stays the same. This consistent design allows progression and development in programming skills.

Being an online service, another advantage that I particularly like is the fact that it works across multiple devices and does not require any installation to use – this means that children can simply log on at home and continue their learning there. Any programmes which they design can also be added to an online gallery which makes sharing completed apps a very straightforward process – their work does not just stay stuck on their computer. Instead I link to it from the school website so that it can be shared with and used by a large audience.

In future months I plan to introduce the software to every class. Our pupils are essentially learning to converse within a very child-friendly programming environment in Java Script and will progress on to become independent creators of apps. In my opinion, it is a brilliant service to subscribe to and one that I would really recommend to other primary schools to help them teach computer programming. I give them 10 out of 10. The kids love using the software. They particularly enjoy the last five minutes of my lessons when they show each other their work and play on their apps.

Simon Haughton is ICT manager at Parkfield Primary School.


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