Cross-curricular computing with Scratch Maths

Earlier this week I was privileged to take part in a joint twitter chat, with #caschat and #mathscpdchat joining forces. As a dedicated computing teacher it’s sometimes easy to forget how much the subject overlaps into other subjects, and chats like this are a great way to help you re-connect to other curriculum areas.

I was particularly pleased to be introduced to the Scratch Maths project. This is a research led project which develops Computing and Maths skills through Scratch. There are so many reasons why this is a good idea – it’s a great way of encouraging class based teachers to embrace computing by placing it in well planned and resourced units which also covers broad sections of the maths curriculum, or alternatively you could use computing sessions to re-enforce maths learning. Either way, what’s not to like?

If they are able to prove a link between this project and higher attainment in Maths, this could be the start of something special, not only in Maths, but in Computing too.

Cross-curricular computing with Scratch Maths

Digital Citizenship – A Response to The Children’s Commissioner

As a parent and a teacher I welcome the report by Anne Longfield, The Children’s Commissioner, which highlights that children are being left to fend for themselves in a digital world. This is something I have been concerned about for a long time, and in my role as a specialist computing teacher I am fortunate to be in a position where I can teach children about online threats and advise them on how they can help to keep themselves safe.

There is no doubt that children face more risks online than ever before, and that they currently find themselves in the middle of dangerous pincer manoeuvre.

On the one hand, the world is becoming more ‘online’ by the day. Access to phones, tablets, smart TVs, games consoles (the list goes on) means children spend more time online across a wider variety of platforms. They are also accessing online and electronic content at much younger ages than ever before – how often have you seen a toddler in a pushchair being placated by a screen? It’s got to the point now that children are not even aware that they are online, or even what ‘online’ actually means.

On the other hand, children face the pressure of being able to connect with their friends and peers across a hugely blossoming range of social media and gaming platforms. Inevitably, the pace of change and the reluctance for children to share platforms with their parents means that there is a growing disconnect between the services used by adults and children. In the last 5 years there has been a big swing away from Facebook by primary age children. Why? Because it’s what their parents use and they don’t want to be spied on by them.

I have been blogging about the importance of teaching digital literacy for a long time and this issue stretches beyond Internet safety. Digitally literate children will have better career opportunities, will be better problem solvers, more effective communication skills, and perhaps most importantly have a better chance of using technology safely and responsibly. In my view digital literacy should be on a par with Maths and English in the National Curriculum. How many children will pursue careers, which require them to write stories or solve long division problems on paper? Yet core skills such as communicating online, spreadsheets and, of course Internet safety are not given anything like the importance of Maths and English.

In my opinion there are two critical issues, which need to be addressed. Firstly, digital literacy has to be given a higher profile. Contrary to some of the coverage in the media today (including comments by The Children’s Commissioner herself), digital literacy and specifically Internet safety (here’s the KS1 & 2 curricula as an example) is part of the National Curriculum from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 4. However, its profile is not high enough, coverage is not broad enough and scrutiny not rigorous enough. I hope that those commenting that it’s not on the curriculum are using a rather blunt instrument aimed at raising its profile and it’s not a sign of their ignorance or lack of understanding.

The second issue is parenting. From the first moment a child picks up a tablet or a smartphone parents have a responsibility to ensure that they are using it safely and responsibly. Technology should not and cannot be seen as a ‘babysitter’. The view that it’s OK to leave a child unsupervised on any online device for any extended period of time has to be challenged. It’s habit forming and leads to children relying on technology to keep themselves occupied. This is far more dangerous than TV ever has been – whilst a TV can be addictive, traditionally they were not interactive, so the potential for damage was much more limited – very few people will ever be groomed by a non-interactive TV. Parents must also be aware of age appropriate sites and games. I’m staggered by the number of parents who do not hesitate to let their children register on social networking sites when they are far too young – who else do they think will be using them? Would they send their 9-year-old son or daughter out to meet strangers in the street? Would they let their children watch 18 certificate movies at the cinema? Yet online they don’t see the risks.

The solution has to be in education, not just of children but also children. There needs to be a cultural step change – it’s not OK for children to roam unsupervised online and it’s neither is it OK for them to access whatever they like, regardless of their age. There is also a responsibility for service providers to take this issue more seriously – reporting has to be made easier, responses need to be quicker and there has to be a way of stopping children signing up to social media accounts simply by making up a date of birth.

Some of you maybe aware that I am currently conducting some research into the online habits of primary age children. I intend to use the results of this to further the debate into Internet safety and specifically its place in the digital literacy curriculum. If you are a teacher and would like to take part in this survey, please contact me on twitter via @hengehall.

Digital Citizenship – A Response to The Children’s Commissioner

The advent calendar of educational iPad apps day 14 – Bee-bot

This is an old favourite. In my opinion, still the best way of introducing algorithms to KS1. It’s a great app and the physical Bee-bots compliment it very well.

I tend to begin by teaching instructional language in games such as ‘Simon Says’ to EYFS, then moving on to Bee-bots themselves, before consolidating skills on the app. It’s a crucial age for securing the correct terminology and Bee-Bot gives you the opportunity to do that.

Above all, the app is great fun, which is essential for younger children. Once children are comfortable with the interface and have grasped the basic concepts, children will choose to go on the app unprompted and learning to create algorithms in the process.

The advent calendar of educational iPad apps day 14 – Bee-bot

The advent calendar of educational iPad apps day 11 – Sketch Nation Create

At first sight Sketch Nation Create is an app which fits well into the computing curriculum, however, delve a little deeper and there is plenty of scope for cross curricular use.

It’s basically a platform for game development. You begin with a choice of game type with examples such as platform, side scroller and match games available. You then choose your level of expertise, which dictates the number of parameters you have available to modify the game play. Regardless of which you choose, you have the opportunity to develop your own characters and backgrounds, so any game can be easily personalised. This also means that you can easily link it to topics – in maths, why not create a match two game based on Roman Numerals?

Children switch on to it really quickly, they are familiar with the gameplay of most of the game types through games such as flappy bird, candy crush or crossy road so can focus on the gameplay and design element. The option of adding levels means they have to test their games to ensure the level of challenge is appropriate. I have found it very useful for emphasising the importance of testing during development.

One of my favourite features of Sketch Nation is that it is truly cross platform. You can create a game on an iPad and then, if you have an account, save it and access and modify it on any other device which supports the app. Currently that includes Android, IOS and online.

The team at Sketch Nation are very helpful too. They are very responsive on twitter to any development requests, whether they be improvements or bug fixes.

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The advent calendar of educational iPad apps day 11 – Sketch Nation Create

Scratch for the reluctant computing teacher

Before my I specialised in computing I was a year 4 teacher for 3 years, initially as an NQT. The 2014 computing curriculum emerged towards the end of my final year teaching year 4, shortly before I was to specialise. I don’t mind admitting that, at the time words like algorithm, debug and computational thinking intimidated me, a technology enthusiast. I imagine therefore, that to a huge number of teachers with interests and specialisms in other areas, these terms must have filled them with dread, and probably still do. I am also fully aware of the timetable pressures and how difficult it can be to fit in non-core subjects, when teachers’ accountability is based almost solely on progress in English and Maths. I lost count of the times something ‘more important’ cropped up than art, RE or MFL (other non-core subjects are available).

Since 2014 I have been lucky enough to teach computing as a dedicated subject. Consequently I have had the freedom and time to develop my own version of the curriculum and experiment with many of the great tools available to support the teaching and learning of computing. I have a passion for computing, and I like taking risks when teaching it. Sometimes these come off with great results, at other times it’s a case of moving on and reflecting on how it could be better next time.

Having learnt from these experiences, I would like to pass on some guidance for non-specialist teachers to help break down the barriers to accessing the computing curriculum, and in particular Scratch, with which you can deliver huge elements of the KS2 curriculum. The good news is there are loads of resources and there is lots of help out there.

Here are a few easy ways for you to get started…

1. Demystify the language
These are all the terms you need to get started:
algorithm = instructions for a computer
debugging = finding and fixing errors
computational thinking = problem solving

2. Try Scratch for yourself
Go to the first tutorial and follow the instructions. In a few minutes you will have coded your first Scratch project, and probably outlined a plan for your first lesson. This will teach you movement, repeats and sounds. if you’re still unsure, have a go at the iPad app aimed at KS1 children as a gateway to Scratch – Scratch Jr.

3. Use resources freely available to help with  planning
Have a look at Phil Bagge’s resources on code-it.co.uk They are all fully planned and resourced and very easy to follow. For beginners, the smoking car project is a good place to start. There are also great resources on Simon Haughton’s website, Twinkl and many more.

4. Start with an unplugged activity
A great place to start is Phil Bagge’s sandwich bot lesson (there won’t be many primary computing teachers who have not taught this lesson)… It introduces lots of the core concepts of coding and is a good way to familiarise children with the vocabulary they will need.

5. Remix it!
If your nervous about starting a project from scratch(!) then take something someone else has done and adapt it. You could deliberately break it, and challenge children to fix it. Virtually no knowledge of Scratch or programming is required.

6. Use digital leaders to help you
There will always be children who are one step ahead of you. This is an opportunity, not a threat. If you haven’t got any, google the term and see what you’re missing.

7. Embrace failure
You will get more wrong than you do right, but in coding more than any other area, every failure is a learning point. This is a great attitude and message to pass on to children.

8. Look for cross-curricular opportunities
Use two characters in Scratch to code a conversation between historical figures, create a quiz to fit in with your topic at the time or plan a game to help learn times tables. There are lots of easy way to fit computing into a busy timetable.

9. Evidence is easier than you think
It’s easy to evidence Scratch lessons. With a teacher account you can save all class work in one place and access it from one link. You can take quick photos or videos of screens, or use print screen. If you have a blog you can easily link to or embed projects.

10. Relate programming to the wider curriculum
This is easier than you think. The principal behind any programming or coding is a cycle of plan, code, test, improve. Does that sound familiar? You can easily relate this to the process of drafting in writing or problem solving in maths.

Scratch for the reluctant computing teacher

Beyond Bee-bot in KS1

Whenever I introduce a new tool in computing lessons I look for two key features:

1. Does it compliment learning which has already taken place?

2. Is it accessible to be used beyond the four walls of the school?

Having used Bee-bot extensively with years one and two for the last couple of years, I’ve been looking for something to develop programming skills further before moving on to the less structured environment of Scratch Jr. I have in the past gone straight from one to the other, however, with Bee-bot (whether it’s on the app or a physical Bee-bot) you don’t actually get to see the complete algorithm, unless it’s recorded whilst it’s being inputted.

Therefore, I was looking for a tool which you can use to program movement to a specific goal and see the complete algorithm at the end of it. In KS2 I’ve used the brilliant Lightbot from code.org, but this is a little advanced for most of KS1.

The best solution I’ve found so far is A.L.E.X. It’s a robot based game, which seems to appeal to both boys and girls, with some great graphics and nice sound effects. The concept is very similar to Bee-bot, but with a couple of key differences. Firstly, instructions have to be input in one go, rather than one step at a time and secondly the algorithm is displayed in it’s complete form. This means there is a greater reliance on problem solving skills and you can’t use a trial and error approach.

I am also considering using it in years three and four. In addition to completing the levels in the game, there is also an option to design your own levels. This could work well as a paired activity where each child designs a level and challenges their partner to try it out.

Does it compliment learning which has already taken place? Definitely, in that it helps re-enforce what an algorithm is and encourages children to develop their computational thinking. Is it accessible? Again, a big yes – there is a free version with 25 levels on both the App Store and Google Play (an Android version is very important – the cost barrier of iPads means the vast majority of tablets in most children’s homes are Android based) and there is a paid version with additional features available for only £0.79 on both platforms. As a bonus, the free version is ad free.

 

Beyond Bee-bot in KS1

Game development with Sketch Nation Create

As a computing teacher I am spoilt for choice when it comes to KS2 coding and programming resources. I have previously blogged about some of the most effective tools and I firmly believe that it is essential to utilise a variety of platforms to keep children interested and deepen their logic and reasoning skills.

For this half term, I have been asking children in year 5 and 6 what they would like to achieve in computing, and one of the most frequent responses was that they would like to create their own app. With this in mind I did a little research on a well known search engine and found Sketch Nation Create. This is a free app, available for a variety of platforms which enables you to design and create your own game based on a number of preset templates. These templates mirror the format of some of the most widely known games such as Candy Crush, Subway Surfers, Sonic, Flappy Bird etc…

The beauty of Sketch Nation Create is its accessibility. Children can see examples of the different formats of games, and using the simple mode can create their own version in a matter of minutes. This makes it accessible for learners of all attainment and means you can focus the learning on refining the process of development. As you become more confident you can progress to the Advanced or Expert modes to introduce more complexity. Apps can be easily saved either locally or online and shared with other users.

As with all tools it’s not a catch-all solution, however its a great way of demonstrating the processes app developers go through and it delivers results quickly which gives learners a real sense of achievement. There are also some good cross-curricular opportunities, it would be easy to tie in app development into other topic areas.

 

Game development with Sketch Nation Create