Our story: embedding digital technologies and computational thinking in a primary school

Image: Keith Heneghan / Phocus

At the heart of the teaching and learning process is a magical dialogue between teacher and student. It manifests itself in the glinting eyes of comprehension and creativity. This article outlines the steps we have taken to create a vision for teaching using digital technologies, and how we “assist discovery” by developing computational thinking.

Creating our vision

As one of the schools piloting the online SELFIE tool, we were able to gather and collate the views of school leaders, teachers and students and, based on this feedback, we received a report on our school‘s strengths and weaknesses as regards digital education.

In the all-important professional dialogue after the analysis of the report, we realised that as a staff we kept asking, “What did the pupils think?” This reflection concentrated our minds on the use of technology in learning, rather than on purchasing and infrastructural decisions. Instead of waiting for external support, we decided to adopt a coaching/mentoring approach to support one another. Can every school do this?

Developing computational thinking

The JRC report Developing Computational Thinking in Compulsory Education has been of great assistance as we embed computational thinking into our curriculum. After all, the foundations for Computer Science are not confined to coding, but are best defined in the realm of computational thinking (CT), as a “problem-solving methodology”.

Some people think that the drive to include coding in schools is fuelled by a need to create a generation of programmers, but in fact, we are equipping pupils to be problem-solvers, experimenters, testers, collaborators, creators. We develop core computational thinking skills, such as abstraction, algorithmic thinking and pattern recognition.

Abstraction

“The skill in abstraction is in choosing the right detail to hide so that the problem becomes easier, without losing anything that is important” (Csizmadia et al., 2015).

This hand-drawn map of a student’s home village is a good representation even if distances and sizes are not to scale (the student is learning what details to hide). Image: Seán Gallagher

In Ireland, schools are fortunate to have access to quality Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) maps online, allowing us to “assist discovery”. Introducing the online maps too early may mean that the students do not develop their abstraction skills.

Algorithmic thinking

“Algorithmic thinking is a way of getting to a solution through a clear definition of the steps” (Csizmadia et al., 2015).

We introduced the use of simple robots called Beebots this year, so younger pupils could program a well-defined series of steps with instant feedback. The “Eureka” moment for one pupil was evident when she exclaimed that she needed to look at the problem “through the eyes of the Beebot”. One of the most fulfilling aspects of teaching is to witness this “assisted discovery”.

Image: Keith Heneghan / Phocus

Pattern recognition

“Asking questions such as ‘Is this similar to a problem I’ve already solved?’ and ‘How is it different?’ are important here … Algorithms that solve some specific problems can be adapted to solve a whole class of similar problems” (Csizmadia et al., 2015).

A challenge to draw regular polygons can lead to pattern recognition. In order to draw a square on the playground surface, one might use the algorithm:

  1. Draw one side of the square
  2. What angle do we need to turn before we draw the next side?
  3. Draw the next side, etc.

Transferring the problem to Scratch, the possible algorithms and patterns emerge.

For design-type challenges, we have found that assisting pupils in discovering the properties of shapes on paper is a prerequisite before they code them.

Image: Seán Gallagher

Managing “assisted discovery”

Often the hardest thing about project-based learning is classroom management and workflow. Our most successful practice in this regard is to have children work in groups of three in collaborative group tasks - supplier, builder, engineer. Each child is “in character” for five minutes and must then change (everyone wants to be the builder).

Image: Seán Gallagher

We are developing a clear spiral progression through all classes. Beebots and Lego creator kits are used in Junior classes; more complex projects for senior classes use Lego Wedo 2.0 kits (programmed by laptop/tablet through a Bluetooth connection), as well as other technologies, tools and applications.

Image: Keith Heneghan / Phocus

Conclusion

We want all our students to be able to reap the benefits of the digital world. Instead of seeing computers as the conduit through which information can be “consumed”, we would rather they use technology to be creators of new knowledge. Teachers must be apprised of the latest methodologies, and policy frameworks must run in tandem with classroom-based support – not only through external services, but also coaching/mentoring in schools. At no point can we ignore the student voice; to quote Mark Van Dorne, “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”


Seán Gallagher is Principal of Attymass National School, Ballina, Ireland. In 2012-2017 he was seconded as Deputy Director of the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) in Ireland, supporting schools in integrating digital technologies into teaching, learning and assessment. He has contributed to the work of the Joint Research Centre on several projects, and was the national coordinator in Ireland for the SELFIE pilot. Twitter: @seanictmayo