Separating the learning from the application

By Josh Crossman. Posted

It’s important to lead teaching with concepts and skills rather than with the specifics of a particular tool

Originally published in Hello World: The Big Book of Computing Content, Oct 2022. All information true at the time of original publishing.

Computing is a broad discipline, rich in concepts and skills, which can be taught through many different technologies and software applications. As we have developed units of work for the Teach Computing Curriculum (TCC) (, we have reflected on how best to support learners in developing lifelong understanding and skills. An important aspect of this is separating the learning from the applications used to teach it (such as software packages and programs) and instead, leading with concepts.

This principle is of particular relevance in the ‘Creating media’ strand of the TCC, where learners select and create a range of media including text, images, sounds, and video. It is imperative that learners can use their knowledge and understanding more widely, rather than getting lost in the nuance of particular applications.

Scaffolding conceptual understanding

Leading with concepts is, of course, a consideration to make more broadly when teaching. In literacy classes, for example, learners might write a diary entry, using either pencil and paper or a word processor. The learner may be proficient at using either medium, but that doesn’t mean they can write a good-quality diary entry! They have to learn how to structure it, as well as the importance of writing in the first person and the use of appropriate vocabulary.

Similarly, when teaching computing, you generally need a tool or software application to bring concepts to life. Which software application you choose will depend on a number of factors, such as accessibility for learners; the time it takes to understand how to use it; and whether it is a free or a paid-for product. The key thing to recognise is that the application should be used to scaffold conceptual understanding, rather than being an integral part of the learning.


By following a more application-agnostic approach to teaching computing, we can achieve several benefits:

Transferable knowledge

With such a range of digital applications available, it is important that learners develop knowledge that can be easily transferred. If educators lead with concepts rather than tools, learners will be able to reapply their knowledge to other applications and technologies in their lives. A simple example is understanding the copy and paste function. It is a key concept that, once understood, can be applied to most other applications and programs.

Learner independence

As learners become familiar with how to accomplish certain tasks, they become more independent. This enables them to traverse different applications more easily as they progress. When learners need to create more complex media, for example, they will need to use an application with more complex features. In the TCC, this involves learners progressing from basic vector drawing applications, such as Google Drawings in Year 5 (aged 9–10) to more complex applications such as Inkscape in Year 8 (aged 12–13). With an understanding of key concepts and skills, learners can apply this knowledge with less support, allowing educators to focus on embedding new concepts and understanding instead.

Software variations

Throughout the TCC ‘Creating media’ units, we have chosen software applications that are free, accessible, and learner-friendly. However, the majority of these applications are web-based, so require the internet. Whether a school has a strong enough internet connection will be a factor in deciding whether that application is suitable, or whether a locally downloaded application would be more beneficial. This is a very specific use case, but developing units of work that aren’t focused on the specifics of a tool makes it much easier to transfer lessons to other applications if necessary.

Teacher questioning

The questions we ask as educators are arguably one of the most important aspects of teaching and learning. When teaching learners processes to achieve something within a piece of software, such as how to draw a line, the only understanding you can ask of those learners is to repeat the process back to you. This is low-level understanding, relying solely on their memory. If, instead, you teach them to recognise the familiar line icon, make connections with how they apply other tools such as the shape tool, and encourage learners to consider prior knowledge, your questions can be deeper, such as: “How can I create a line to add to my drawing?” and “How did you know to choose this specific tool?”

The benefits of this approach are numerous, but it can be daunting for a teacher initially. If learners are used to being told every icon to click, you may have to transition to a more open approach by using games, such as making learners detectives who have to search for clues as to what different icons can do. The effort will be worth it, though — I promise!


Changing how you approach teaching and learning when making use of software can also have an impact on assessment. There are new questions to consider, such as: How much should we assess a learner’s ability to use the specific functions of a tool? What if they achieved the correct end goal, but in a convoluted way? Having a clear focus on the conceptual understanding rather than the process of using a tool or application allows greater clarity when assessing learning.

Throughout the ‘Creating media’ strand of the TCC, we use rubrics as possible summative assessment tools for educators to use. We have tried to ensure these rubrics are always focused on the concepts and skills introduced in the learning, rather than on the nuances of an application. In the Year 5 vector-drawing unit (, for example, learners are assessed on whether they can move objects to different layers in the drawing in a suitable way that fulfils the required task. To achieve this, learners will first need a conceptual understanding of what layering is in vector-drawing software; they will then need to identify the process for ordering objects in the layers; and they will finally need to choose a suitable scenario in which they could make use of their layering knowledge. It will be evident from the learner’s final product where they have used this skill and whether they have understood the concept, enabling a more focused assessment of their holistic understanding.

As with any subject, we want to maximise learning time and ensure learners can apply concepts and skills to other areas of their learning. Removing the specifics of the software application allows us to do this, and ensures the teaching and learning experience is driven by the learner’s needs and not by the application used.


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