Computer Science: GOTO Start?

Moving beyond survival mode in computer science

During the initial stages of teacher development most teachers will go through a survival stage, concerned with a “what I do” mindset in their planning. Katz describes this as the self stage of development, which progresses to consolidation—characterised by an awareness of their own limitations. During this stage teachers are able to correct learner mistakes because they have learned the correct answer. The final stage is maturity. This is where the teacher is “comfortable in their own skin as a professional”, they have developed a broad skill set and are capable of using a variety of appropriate pedagogical approaches to suit the learning required. They are aware that simply correcting mistakes is not the end game but what is more important is to understand learners’ learning and thinking, especially relating to difficult to grasp topics and concepts in their subject. The important difference is that in this stage the teacher begins to understand learner misconceptions at root source and can begin to plan to address them in learning situations. Clearly this has more lasting impact on learning than simply correcting a wrong answer.

In 2012, the introduction of Computer Science and the disapplication of ICT in the National Curriculum meant that even experienced teachers found themselves at the self stage, back in survival mode. Very few had any actual experience of teaching Computer Science, hardly any could remember the last time it was taught (during the mid-1980s) and there was a significant lack of Computer Science subject knowledge among the teachers of ICT. While some moved swiftly to maturity (and there are some pockets of excellent practice across the country), others haven’t moved as far and are at a renewal stage, aware of limitations of both subject knowledge and pedagogy. However, there remains a significant number struggling to survive at the self stage.

So how can we use research to support teachers’ development from self to maturity? The first task is to find relevant research that relates to classroom experience and focusses on raising learner outcomes. In order to win hearts and minds you need to develop compelling arguments and dialogue, something which resonates with teachers and something they will engage with.

The following areas might be productive to start with:

  • Why schools need to teach Computer Science – directed at SLTs;
  • Teachers’ subject knowledge – linking to pedagogical knowledge;
  • Effective strategies to teach programming;
  • Constructivism with unplugged activities, ensuring there is a link to theory;
  • Effective strategies to teach computational thinking and make it relevant;
  • Encouraging girls (going beyond make it pink).

However, the pedagogic support that teachers feel they need might be different from what they actually need, for example; “I need to be a better programmer in python” (task based, self stage) or “how do I facilitate effective learning in my classroom?” (process based- maturity stage). This is a balance between a quick fix superficial learning and a long-term developmental solution.

Research needs to be evidence based and to demonstrate positive effects on learners’ outcomes, but it also needs to win hearts and minds too. The work of John Kotter on system change suggests that what is most important is compelling arguments, stories and case studies, with evidenced-based pedagogy that affects student outcomes.

The search for compelling arguments asks what has the greatest impact on learner outcomes, and most teachers are now familiar with the Sutton Trust’s conclusions:

Pedagogic content knowledge. The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach and identify students’ common misconceptions. When teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level, it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.
Knowing what analogies, demonstrations or examples and the most suitable way to organise teaching sequences are fundamental to this. Teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, and be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods in order to address these misconceptions.

Quality of instruction. Effective use of questioning and use of formative assessment including specific practices such as:

  • scaffolding – progressively introducing new learning;
  • giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely;
  • reviewing previous learning;
  • providing model responses for students.

Classroom management. Good classroom management maximises effective lesson time. This relates not only to behaviour management but resources and space as well. Does good learning look the same in a computer laboratory compared with a traditional classroom?
Teacher beliefs. This has an effect on learning and is dependent on the outcomes of several questions. What is learning? What are we aiming to achieve in his lesson and how does it take place? How can I facilitate this?

However, best practice lists can simply confirm what teachers already thought they knew. If the list is long enough, most teachers will be able to identify something they think they are already doing. It is important to challenge complacency: by stopping doing things that are ineffective or inefficient, we can spend more time focusing on things that will make a greater difference. The Sutton Trust suggest the following are areas which add least to leaner outcomes and whose use is not supported by research evidence: using praise lavishly; allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves; grouping learners by ability; encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas; addressing issues of confidence and low aspirations before teaching content; presenting information to learners in a preferred learning style; ensuring learners are always active, rather than listening passively.

It is clear from research that the search for causal links between different teacher behaviours and beliefs and improved attainment is still in its infancy. What is needed is an approach that is evidence based, and not simply grounded in “this is what we have always done” or in one individual’s or group’s view of great teaching.
We need to develop a profession with research, evidence and professional learning at its core, with a focus on improving learning outcomes for pupils.

To achieve this, a good starting point might be the development of a professional dialogue and a pedagogic lexicon specific to Computer Science teaching that has progress of learning at its core. Allied to this would be the development of accredited continuing professional learning opportunities delivered through face-to-face events, local Hubs, communities and Master Teachers who know specific local issues. These need to focus on pedagogy as well as knowledge acquisition, highlighting best practice, and may include online and face to face courses with accreditation and formal outcomes such as BSC Certificate in Computer Science teaching, or a formal report with a reflection on teaching strategies towards Masters’ level credits.

Finally, discussing a self-reflection model of teacher development based on Katz’s self – consolidation – maturity model might provide a simple framework for individual teacher self-reflection, to focus their own personalised continuing professional learning.

David Chaplain

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