Get with the programme

Mark Ward tells us how one academy is helping others to succeed

St John Fisher Catholic Voluntary Academy, located in Dewsbury, is a secondary school dedicated to students of all abilities and talents, which became part of The Blessed Peter Snow Academy Trust in October 2014. Since then the school has been leading the way with the new computing curriculum, not only training its own staff, but also those from its feeder schools and others within the academy trust.

Mark Ward, head of ICT, discusses how the school has been helping both students and teachers from the academy trust to get to grips with coding.

It’s an exciting time for ICT. The addition of programming to the national curriculum has transformed the way we think about and interact with computers in the classroom. As a former programmer myself, this has allowed me to get back to my roots and teach what I really love doing. However, for many pupils and teachers, this is an entirely new experience.

The challenges

We currently have 32 year 11 students taking computing as an optional subject; three groups in year 10, and two in year nine, predominantly working with Python and VISUAL BASIC. This has not been an easy transition, as many children are struggling with the concepts of coding and not all of them have an easy grasp of computational thinking.

Another problem of course, is that many ICT teachers have not been trained in programming, and therefore have little confidence in delivering lessons. For this reason, I have been using my own experience to help train the non-specialist staff in our academy trust, all of whom have been very eager and ready to learn. We also provide training and support to seven primary feeder schools, to help them cultivate the enthusiasm which has driven the computing curriculum.

The main challenge we faced was dealing with the problem of abstraction. Pupils and teachers alike have found it difficult to work solely on-screen with coding languages, so we needed to find a way of bringing the code to life and help everyone to understand the real-life applications of programming.

Bringing coding to life

One of our favourite pieces of equipment for teaching computing is the FUZE; an all-in-one unit that features several coding languages, which we’ve been trialling with our teachers and lower school students. It’s really simple to use, and the programmable robot arm has helped to connect the coding language to its practical purpose, leading to revelations of, “Ah, when I type this, that actually happens”. We’re hoping to get more of our pupils working with the electronics components in the near future. Our teachers have really enjoyed using the FUZE too, as you can easily and immediately see the results of changes in the coding. FUZE BASIC, the specialist language for the system is not too dissimilar to BASIC, which is the language I learned to code with, so I can support the real-world applications through stories of my own work and experience.

We have also been running a year nine computing club in which pupils are using equipment such as screens, buttons and sensors from Microsoft.Net Gadgeteer to build and program their own devices, including a diary for teachers, detailing where they needed to be throughout the day.

Keep it real

Making programming as real as possible is the key to getting your students involved. By showing how codes connect to their purpose in one language, you will be able to develop their computational thinking and teach them how to apply these principles in all programming languages. Above all, perseverance is vital. Adjusting to curriculum changes will be difficult at first, but once your teachers and students are on board and learning together, you’ll be on to a winner!

The computing revolution began here in the UK, and by bringing programming into schools, we can take control of our technology and become world leaders again.

Mark Ward is head of ICT at St John Fisher.