I had the privilege of delivering a lunchtime workshop on digital parenting to the University of Southampton Parent and Carer Network today. We had some excellent questions and good discussions about how to navigate our young digital natives on a safe and healthy path through the online world.
I’ll be delivering more of these sessions soon, keep up to date on Twitter: @PhilWickins
(Link to download plans, guides and resources are at the end of the article)
We have all seen the adverts on TV demonstrating that children know how to use digital devices (TV remotes!) with more confidence than adults do. We (sometimes incorrectly) apply the term ‘tech savvy’ to this new generation of digital natives, whilst we, the digital immigrants struggle to catch up and keep up with this rapidly changing world.  However, as I’m sure you’ve all witnessed the child who begins swiping on a non-touchscreen, our assumptions can be drastically wrong and lead to us letting children down in their education.
The computing curriculum 2014 brought in many changes to the way we teach ‘all things tech’ in schools. Prior to that, in my experience, the ‘ICT’ lesson consisted in opportunities for cross curricular use of computers for word processing, analysing and presenting data with spreadsheets, researching on the internet and possibly some design. Even this I can see was extremely limited based on what should have been happening, but even now there seems to be either too much focus on coding, or the computing suite/laptops are used for typing up literacy stories, or using maths/ reading software (Sumdog, Times Table Rockstars, BugClub etc).
We need to ensure that our children have a well-rounded and balanced experience so that as they progress through the Key Stages, they are competent at not only solving problems through programming and logical analysis, but they can type, operate a mouse, trackpad or touchscreen properly and can select and use any appropriate software for a given task.
These are the parts from the Computing part of the Primary National Curriculum that I feel draw attention to digital literacy in IT:
Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.
Extract from ‘Purpose of Study’ for computing – UK National Curriculum 2013
Pupils are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology.
Extract from ‘Aims’ for computing – UK National Curriculum 2013
Pupils can select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information.
Extract from ‘Subject Content’ for KS2 computing – UK National Curriculum 2013
General skills that many of us take for granted often get missed or are not embedded thoroughly; such as using a keyboard and mouse/ trackpad, logging into a desktop/laptop, opening and saving documents etc. Then there are the finer, more detailed skills; cut and paste, move, resize, format, insert, edit etc. Finally, there are the more advanced skills such as using hyperlinks, keyboard shortcuts, transparency, layers, grouping etc.
Therefore we are in need of fun and engaging projects that are relevant and ideally cross curricular, to use as a platform for teaching these specific digital literacy skills, that teachers will feel confident to deliver as a legitimate part of the computing curriculum.
So, how do we re-capture the excitement of teaching IT? How do we develop pupil’s digital literacy without them even knowing it, because they are so engaged with a project? My suggestion is to create a project that:
lasts around half a term,
includes a planning (algorithm) stage,
is themed but allows children a large element of freedom,
where the outcome is an impressive finished product (rather than just practising skills on generic activities that provide no sense of ownership)
Gives you the platform and opportunities to teach explicit IT and digital literacy skills
I have developed ‘Adventure Quests’ as a way of immersing the children in a topic/ literacy (as in English literacy) themed project that can be tailored to suit any writing ability, from KS2 to KS3, whilst providing opportunities to develop the general and finer digital literacy skills.
Simply put, Adventure Quests are interactive, non-linear stories, which are implemented as PowerPoint presentations.
To help organise the lesson plan, I have used the idea of levels of abstraction which has been suggested in research as a good way to think about the development of programs. I am treating these levels as the stages that the lesson plan will go through to help pupils develop their Adventure Quest.
These stages are;
Defining the task,
Developing the design (including the algorithms),
Building the solution (PowerPoint presentation),
Debugging and using the solution (PowerPoint presentation).
In designing the Quest, the pupils decide what choices the main character will have to make. Each of these choices is a rule and the order of these rules will control the progression of next pages in the PowerPoint presentation. This set of rules is the algorithm design for the Quest.
To help learners develop the flow of rules (their algorithm), flowcharts will be used to pictorially show the order of choices to be made. PowerPoint page numbers will be added to the flowchart to help pupils manage the process of building their solution. The flowchart can then be used when they are debugging.
(Link to download plans, guides and resources are at the end of the article)
Interactive Adventure Quests Software: MS Powerpoint
Subjects covered: Computing and English Literacy
Time frame: Around 6-8 lessons
Themes: Digital literacy, Information and Communication Technology, reading, planning, editing, writing for a purpose, writing for specific audience, relating to similar texts. This project can fit to any topic or subject, to link in with any curriculum area. This could even become an assessment tool in the form of a quiz that pupils create for each other, or simply as a fictional interactive story.
Guidance: Take this at your own pace, at the speed of the children. The design stage, where you develop the rules (algorithms) for the quest ) is essential. Make sure all children carefully and thoroughly complete this stage. Give them lots of support and check and mark each algorithm as you go along. Don’t move onto the computer to build the PowerPoint until you are sure the rules (algorithms) for the Quest all fit together.
4 stages of the project
Defining the task:
To create an interactive narrative in the form of a quest, aimed at a specific audience, where the reader takes on a role of a character in the narrative and faces choices that determine each stage and the ending. The project must make sense and be eye catching (pictures and layout), as well as adhere to the literacy standards for that year group.
Developing the design (including the algorithms):
Pupils can use any format to create their design. I would suggest A3 paper in portrait orientation. Most pupils should be able to begin from a blank sheet and begin drawing the flowchart boxes themselves, after the teacher input.
I have created an example design which is pre-populated (see below, with an example PowerPoint to match).
I also use an unpopulated version as a writing frame to scaffold learning. Children can add as many choice levels as they wish, however to make the narrative interesting, I’d recommend at least 3 choice levels before the narrative concludes (either positively or negatively). Children can also use the same choice multiple times, for example two or three choices in the narrative may have the same conclusions, so only one outcome is required (as seen in choice 4 & 13 on the example plan). Pupils who finish early can begin drawing characters, settings and enemies around their plan.
Building the PowerPoint (Implementing the design) :
Once their interactive stories are underway, this then gives the teacher the opportunity to cut away groups to teach specific skills. This particular project provides great opportunities to teach the following digital literacy and IT skills:
Opening and saving projects in specific folder locations,
adding and editing text, and text boxes, (including font, style and size)
adding and changing format of shapes,
inserting and editing hyperlinks,
changing background and themes,
safely searching for images online,
inserting, resizing, rotating and layering images,
working with transitions and animations
You could also use this project to teach the following computing skills:
Planning using an algorithm
Testing and de-bugging
I recommend getting the pupils to create a slide for each box on their designs, and create shapes for each of the button choices. Keep on checking their English throughout the project, as their story must makes sense and be grammatically correct. Try and get them to put as much detail in for the reader, as this will improve the whole experience.
Tip: Each slide has a title text box in PowerPoint. Whatever is typed in there, shows up as the slide title in the slide menu, which will be used later on. So it is very important that the children use the choice from the previous slide as the title of the slide the choice connects to. E.g. If one of the choices is “go to the forest”, the next slide that this choice goes to, must have the title “go to the forest”.
PowerPoint Mode: This must be set up (In slideshow set up) as ‘Browsed at a Kiosk’ mode. This disables the ability to scan or click through the slideshow in sequential order (which is useless for an interactive story). Once this mode is activated, there will be no way for the user to switch slides at all, unless using hyperlinks.
Hyperlinks (as demonstrated in the video below): This is how the reader will navigate and make choices within the story. On each slide, pupils should have created at least 2 choices, by adding text to a shape (or text box, but coloured so that it looks like a button). By right clicking on the shape (not the text inside it) a hyperlink can be added. When ‘a place in this document’ is selected, a menu of slides will appear. Note; this is why it is essential for the titles to be matched to the choice button, as now you can select exactly which slide this hyperlink will point to. Note: hyperlinks won’t work until the slideshow is being presented/ is running.
For pupils that finish early, they could really go to town on the aesthetics of their Adventure Quest; inserting images, slide transitions, even sounds!
Throughout this whole level of abstraction, it is essential that pupils have their designs with them at all times. This will enable them to remember their story, tick off slides they have already completed (as it doesn’t matter if they appear in order within PowerPoint), make improvements or changes, and overcome any complications of slides linking to other slides. It is basically a road map to help them navigate through their coding.
Debugging and running the PowerPoint
This is the opportunity to test out the story; Do the hyperlinks work? Have any been forgotten? Do the hyperlinks point to the correct pages? Children may realise quickly that when they reach the end of the story (either the character is successful or most of the time, rather gruesomely unsuccessful!), there needs to be a ‘home’ hyperlink for users to try again, maybe using different choices next time in order to win the challenge!
Again, as they test this out, they need to have their designs next to them. Can they improve their story? Are there any parts that don’t make sense? Has their friend tested it out and evaluated it for them?
I have run this project successfully from Year 3 up to Year 9, it can be as simple or as complex as you like. It is also a good one to show off at parent’s evenings and drop ins!
Let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear how your pupils developed there IT skills and digital literacy, as well as your thoughts on the levels of abstraction and design process.
The next step for higher ability pupils, or indeed the equivalent of this for KS3, would be to head over to Twinery and use code to create non-linear stories, but this time with the ability to store variables and apply selection (conditions). This means the player/ reader could enter names, select fears or weapons etc, or pick up keys/ artefacts that allow access to areas that would otherwise be off limits (e.g. if you have the silver key, then you can unlock this door, else you’ll have to go a different route).
 See, for example, Prensky, M (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9,5: 1-5. Critiques of the idea of the ‘digital native’ include: Facer, K, Furlong, J, Furlong, R and Sutherland, R (2003), Screenplay: Children and computing in the home. London: Routledge. Buckingham, D and Willett, R (eds) (2006). Digital Generations: Children, young people and new media. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. Vaidhyanathan, S (2008). Generational myth: Not all young people are tech-savvy. Chronicle of Higher Education, 55,413. Jenkins, H, et al. Conf
 Levels of abstraction have been associated with teaching algorithm development for some time in Universities such as Perrenet, J. et al. 2005. Exploring students’ understanding of the concept of algorithm: levels of abstraction. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin. 37, 3, 64–68. DOI:10.1145/1067445.1067467. This has been extended to secondary age learners, for example the work by Armoni, M. 2013. On Teaching Abstraction in CS to Novices. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching. 32, 3, 265–284.Statter, D. and Armoni, M. 2016. Teaching Abstract Thinking in Introduction to Computer Science for 7th Graders. Proceedings of the 11th Workshop in Primary and Secondary Computing Education (2016), 80–83. DOI:10.1145/2978249.2978261. More recently levels of abstraction has been extended to look generally at all aspects of program development (not just algorithms) Waite, J. et al. 2018. Abstraction in action: K-5 teachers’ uses of levels of abstraction, particularly the design level, in teaching programming. International Journal Of Computer Science Education In Schools. DOI:10.21585/ijcses.v2i1.23. Waite, J. et al, 2019 Design Toolkit for Primary Programming Activities (in publication)
5 steps to getting the best out of physical computingin primary school
I’ve seen a lot of requests for help recently when it comes to teaching physical computing in KS2 using crumble and other micro controllers, so I thought I’d share my experiences on what works and how I’ve managed to get some fantastic projects from my year 5 and 6’s.
First off, it is mandatory that we teach physical systems within computing, or at least simulate them:-
Pupils should be taught to:
design, write and debug programs that accomplish specific goals, including controlling or simulating physical systems; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts
UK National Curriculum – Computing in Key Stage 2 – 2013
I’ve not seen too many examples of software that directly simulates physical systems; although there are some out there such as Flowol – software that allows direct mapping of algorithms as code to control and animate a simluation or ‘mimic’.
However, nothing can compare to pupils actually connecting power and control to physical components and seeing the movement, light or sensory interaction with the physical world. The learning and engagement is far superior, just as it would be if pupils were learning how to cartwheel rather than just looking at videos of someone doing one on a screen.
I highly recommend, if you are teaching or leading year 5 or 6, that your school purchase some kind of physical computing systems. These range from well known brand names like Lego Wedo and Lego Mindstorms, to the highly popular BBC Micro:bit and more independent, yet incredibly versatile controllers such as Redfern’s Crumble.
I do not have any affiliation with, nor do I receive any commission from any of these products and to date, my only real teaching experience is with Crumbles because that is simply what my schools invested in. However, I will attempt to give you an approach to physical computing which should encompass all different types of systems.
Step 1 – Know your kit
By knowing your kit, I don’t mean you need to be an expert in physical computing, coding, wiring etc. More that you’ve had a go yourself and can put together a working system. For me, it was the wiring that I had to get my head round. On a Crumble for example, the four connections at the bottom of the controller board are specifically for motors and there for also deliver power. The top two on the left receive the power and on the right deliver the power, so you can daisy chain components together, and the ABCD connections deliver the control (on, off, colour, inputs, outputs etc).
So have a play, make a working circuit (like the one in the video above), find out what the misconceptions are, think about making a wiring diagram (like the examples below) so you can help pupils as they use the kits for the first time.
Obviously these diagrams will change depending on which components you have and which ones you are teaching about in each particular session. You could get the children to create their own wiring diagrams after a guided session, where you are teaching about the flow of electricity, positive & negative and control.
Notice in the above diagrams I’ve used black wires for negative, red for positive and green/ yellow for control. It obviously doesn’t matter physically which colour wire you use for any connection, but I find it’s good practice (if you have enough of each colour!) to use this colour arrangement, as it is easier to ‘de-bug’ any issues and also prepare them for industry, where colour is extremely important!
Step 2 – Step in! (But one step at a time…)
As I said before, don’t wait until you think you’re an expert; just get started! Take it slow and give the children one component at a time. Pause regularly for discussion on how and why each component needs power AND control, what the difference is, and look at the sections of code needed each time.
This is how I set my classroom and initial lessons up:
Either with one laptop between two, or in the ICT suite, working in pairs.
Each pair has a crumble kit (I use plastic food containers from the pound shop, they seem to fit everything in!), with all components in it.
Introduce the crumble controller (white circuit board), how it plugs into the computer via USB, and get children to load up the crumble software. If controller is connected and working, it will say so in the software.
Power: find battery pack, I always get children to fit batteries themselves to practise getting them the right way round. Wire up the battery to the controller, showing them the only places where the battery should be connected (top left) using red and black wires, ensuring negative goes to negative and positive to positive. Discuss the importance of this, could do this in connection with electricity unit in science. Show them there is an on switch on battery and that the light turns red when there is a short circuit.
Pick a component (I always start with Sparkles) and ask children to study it closely, looking for signs and symbols. Maybe make them guess what it is before you reveal it’s an LED.
Identify positive and negative symbols on sparkle and on controller, wire them up using black and red wires.
Then discuss control; now that the LED is powered, how do we send signals to it? Discuss using a different colour wire, and that port D is always for controlling sparkles.
Once wired up, use the crumble software to activate the sparkle (note: the first sparkle in the chain is always numbered 0, the second is 1 etc)
Get children to loop either a flashing or colour changing LED. Once the loop is running, ask them to disconnect the USB cable from the computer. The sparkle continues to change, because the program has been loaded and stored in the controller.
Repeat this process for all the different types of components you have (servos, motors, switches, sensors etc). When running 40 min lessons, I found I could teach one, maybe 2 components per lesson, making sure everything is discussed and reasoned, and at the end of each session everything is packed away properly.
I got the children to save their code, so they can refer to it later when building their project. You can print screenshots out for them if they have computing folders/ books, as shown below.
NOTE: When coding servos, they will not move unless there is a ‘wait’ block after the movement, pausing for enough time for the servo to perform that movement.
Step 3 – Design!
Now that the children have had experience in wiring and coding all of the crumble components, it’s time to get creative. This is where my philosophy might differ from other schools of thought…
I am an advocate of freedom in art, rather than a craft set by the teacher. If the whole class is making a similar project, prescribed and limited by the teacher’s subject knowledge or confidence, then I think the children miss out on possibly their only opportunity to really explore physical computing in primary school. Unless you have enough kits or time to run physical computing in other year groups, then you can’t afford to get them all making something mediocre. In your average 3 form entry school, with one class set of crumbles, I would allocate the kits to each class for a whole term, and go all out!
Therefore, I would open the brief right up and ask the children; ‘now that you’ve seen what the crumbles can do, what can you build?’ Allow plenty of time for discussion and ideas before committing to a design. I have used large A3 sheets of paper for children to freehand designs on and also 3D CAD software such as Sketchup (see screenshots below).
Most of the time I’d offer a choice of how children wanted to complete their designs, however it is essential that they do complete a design, for the following reasons:
It keeps them accountable; obviously they can alter their plans if they’ve designed something too hard to build, or realise they need to change the position of something, but ultimately they have a clear end goal and you can see if they are putting in enough effort to complete it.
They can refer back to it, scaffolding their own learning rather than them trying to wing it or argue with their partner about how it is to be done.
I’ve found that spending time on the design stage really helps to engage girls. They want their designs to look good and therefore are invested in the project from the beginning.
They can mark on their plans which elements they are confident with, and which areas you may need to spend some more time teaching on.
It can generate a resource list that you can ask them to collect and bring to school (if you don’t have a fully stocked DT cupboard!).
Step 4 – Can we build it? Yes we can!
I would recommend they wire up their circuit and test it first, making sure it works and does what they want it to. That way, they can build around the circuit, making sure that it’s not a case of squashing in the components, controller and power pack in after the model is finished (which, trust me, doesn’t work!).
Think of ways you can scaffold the learning in some areas, while challenging them in others. I usually give them the wiring diagram that we all created together in the exploring lessons, and make sure they have access to their coding screenshots. Then they can really focus on the building and assembling of their creations.
Step 5 – Celebrate and Evaluate
These magnificent autonomous creations are usually some of the best things pupils have ever created (at least from the point of view of adults!). Parents, SLT and teachers will marvel at the culmination of wiring, coding and building all done by children to produce these moving interactive robots. They are a must for parent’s evening showpieces, blog posts and all other manner of school promotional tools; all because our generation can’t quite believe that children have this kind of access and this kind of capacity for highly customisable programmable robotics.
Not only can the children evaluate as they would at the end of a normal DT project, but save the designs and models for next year’s cohort; to inspire and motivate. Most of all, share your amazing creations with other teachers; show them that it’s not that hard to teach and that every child deserves a chance to explore their innovative and inventive self!
I’d love to hear from you if you found this post helpful, especially if you have any physical computing creations you’d like to share or show off! I’ll leave you with some of my pupils’ creations…