Mac Bowley: What are the most challenging parts of being a computing lead at a primary school and how do you manage them?
Sway Grantham: Being a primary teacher who only teaches one subject has lots of challenges, but I think there are two big ones. Firstly, equipment. Computing is a very equipment-heavy subject, which means a lot of organising to make sure everything is put away correctly, charged, and working. There’s a chance that you’d feel obliged to do all of this in your own time, but there simply just isn’t the time. And the children need to understand the importance of getting out and putting away equipment correctly, so this is something I always factor in to my planning. I often have photos of how the equipment should look in the box so that the children know there should be five red crocodile clips, for example, and to check on their tables if they’re misplaced!
Secondly, establishing solid and meaningful relationships is really difficult with such a small amount of contact time with each class. To manage this, I make sure I have regular conversations with children about anything that’s not related to computing. They see me talking to their teachers, which means they recognise we’re all working together as a team. I also run lots of clubs so that children can see me in a different environment.
What are your ‘must have’ teaching tools for computing?
SG: In all honesty, I think it’s a real danger to have ‘must have’ tools. While equipment is nice, you can do so much without even turning on a computer. Equipment doesn’t define learning, the teacher does.
What is your favourite activity to use in the classroom? Why is it your favourite?
SG: I really love anything creative. For example, in one of my recent lessons, my students used Sonic Pi to create a piece of music as a soundtrack for a section of a book. It was amazing how the children were able to communicate emotion and tone appropriately, while demonstrating their computing ability!
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice to yourself on your first day as a computing teacher, what would it be?
SG: To make mistakes and learn from them. Computing in primary schools is such a new thing, there’s so little research into how to do it effectively, so how likely is it you’re going to rock up and do it amazingly from the off? Pretty slim. An iterative attitude is what you need, with a willingness to review lessons and topics, and suggest changes for the next time you teach them. Each year it will get a little better.
What is the best part of your job?
SG: The freedom to create, explore, and make the curriculum what I want it to be. The lack of formal assessment in Computing at primary level in the UK means we can truly explore its breadth, rather than focusing on specific end targets. I can work to what the children enjoy and like, and we can learn together.
Teacher top tips
Technology regularly doesn’t work, no matter who you are or how much you like it, so always have a reserve idea in mind. I find discussion questions such as ‘All computers need electricity – true or false?’ work well for when systems are slow.
Make use of the children: they’re often far more enthusiastic to be helpful, set things up, and do monotonous tasks than you are! Digital Leaders can charge, organise, and prepare equipment for your lessons - one less thing for you to do!
Don’t worry about the time things take. Often we get really worked up that by the time the computers are turned on, Year 1 have had their input, navigated to where they need to go, etc. and there’s only 20 minutes left. In the long run, it’s far better to spend the lesson time learning to get things out/put them away; they will get quicker and your quality of work/life balance will thank you!
A typical day for Sway
08:00 - Visit class teachers to gather information for my classes today
08:30 - Fix any technology problems in our classrooms - we have no IT department here
09:00 - Teach first lesson to Year 5 (ages 9 and 10)
I lead the pupils in how to set up the kit - it’s an important skill
When any technological issues are dealt with, I bring the class back together and begin explaining the tasks for the lesson
At the end of the lesson, pupils leave the kit out ready for the next lesson
10:00 - Teach second lesson to the other Year 5 class
I might tweak this lesson, depending on how it went with the first class
At the end of the lesson, I lead this group in how to pack away the kit
I’ll label broken kit, ready for repair
11:00 - Morning break
I’ll spend the morning break managing behaviour, reporting back to class teachers, and prepping for next lesson
11:15 - Teach Year 3 class (ages 7 and 8)
When I turn on laptops, they’ve started an update, which I hope will be finished by the time we’ve done the input and starter discussions and activities
I use materials from the earlier lesson to extend more advanced students
I’ll lead the group to pack away. If we’re using equipment with lots of parts, provide photos of what should be put where, and how many of everything there should be; e.g. three red crocodile clips
12:15 - Lunchtime
I’ll use this time to feedback to class teachers I couldn’t find at break time about the morning
Children pop up to see if they can do some extra computing at lunchtime, or if there any jobs that I might need help with
My school’s Digital Leaders get out any equipment I might need for the younger children in the afternoon. They’ll check apps are installed, get laptops laid out in classrooms, etc.
I’ll prepare for the afternoon ahead and eat!
13:00 - Teach Year 1 lesson (ages 5 and 6)
With the younger year groups, it’s even more important to break down tasks: I’ll guide them on how to get set up at the start of the lesson (turning on computer, opening a browser, and navigating to a website, for example). This all happens before they listen about the task so they don’t have to remember as much at once
14:00 - Teach second Year 1 lesson
15:20 - Run computing club
The children get out own equipment and help each other set up - this is an extra-curricular opportunity and I use it to make the children more independent (and I’m getting tired after a long day!)
16:45 - End of day sorting
Check what equipment needs to be charged/found for morning
I’ll plan what I need to do this evening; e.g. creating accounts on a website, changing the batteries in Pro-Bots
18:00 - Home jobs
Once home, I’ll review work from the day and annotate plans accordingly
Highlight children who might need feedback/support
Do things on the ‘to do’ list for the evening in preparation for tomorrow!
Mac (@Mac_Bowley) loves digital making, video games, audiobooks, and baked goods. He’s a Learning Manager at Raspberry Pi and is passionate about Computer Science education. He has taught in a range of different environments, from summer camps to GCSE classes.
Sway (@SwayGrantham) is a Senior Learning Manager at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, where she leads a team developing computing resources for primary teachers. She is an RPi Certified Educator and a Specialist Leader in Education.