Educating educators

By Daniel Hickmott & Sujatha Gunja. Posted

© iStock.com/Andrew_Rybalko and Craig Carroll, Grok Academy

Sujatha Gunja and Daniel Hickmott share tips for teaching computing by drawing on their collective teaching and research experience in schools and tertiary education

Every Australian child between the ages of 5 and 14 must learn computing through the Australian Digital Technologies curriculum. We have supported Australian teachers with learning the content, pedagogy, and technical knowledge of the Digital Technologies curriculum since it was first endorsed in 2015, in a variety of contexts. These contexts have included professional learning programmes, tertiary education, outreach programmes, and research. Most recently, we have taught in units in the Master of Education (Digital Technologies), or the MEd as we call it for short, at the University of Sydney, Australia. In the MEd we have taught educators with a variety of computing experience, including computing professionals who have recently started teaching, and teachers with decades of teaching experience who have never taught computing before.

Our tips for teachers

Teaching computing can feel intimidating, particularly when you are new to teaching in this area. In this article, we have identified six tips for teachers with any level of computing experience, drawing on research and reflecting on our experiences of educating educators.

1. Acknowledge the expert blind spot

Computer science has many abstract concepts and technical skills that students need to navigate. As educators get more familiar with a subject discipline, they may not be able to see the learning with novice eyes, and may not recognise the difficulties involved in learning. This phenomenon, termed the “expert blind spot” (Guzdial, 2015), can make it difficult for teachers to spot their students’ misunderstanding of important concepts. 

Learning programming can be challenging for many students, and encountering misconceptions is an important part of their learning journey. Knowing what these misconceptions are and how to identify when students hold them is important. Developing pedagogical content knowledge expertise in the discipline will help teachers spot misconceptions in their students’ learning.

2. Differentiate lessons for your learners and use peer instruction 

We have observed that students and teachers often have a wide variety of experience and interest in computing, particularly when it comes to programming. We recommend providing a variety of activities that are targeted towards different levels of computing experience and include some opportunity for self-directed learning. For example, in our teaching we pair students with similar levels of confidence and give them a range of activities, including Parson’s Problems and code-reading exercises, that they can choose to complete.

We also recommend encouraging peer instruction by using strategies such as pair programming, particularly with larger classes where time to support students individually is limited. We suggest including students’ participation in discussions in their assessment. We did this in the MEd and have found our students to be very engaged in discussions, even finding that they would often answer their peers’ questions without any intervention from us — perhaps because the discussion was part of the assessment.

3. Focus on a small number of key concepts in each lesson 

The subject of computing encompasses a variety of concepts. In Australia, the Digital Technologies curriculum is underpinned by ten key concepts. It may be tempting to address several concepts in lessons to achieve a wider coverage of the curriculum, but this can lead to overloading students and to lessons lacking a clear focus.

We recommend focusing on two to three key concepts in lessons and assessments and showing students the relationship between them. For example, some of our assessments in the MEd units involve our students designing resources and units of work with a focus on just a small number of concepts. This approach allows teachers to align their teaching more directly with curriculum outcomes, and allows students to explore the concepts and the relationships between them more deeply.

4. Seek out education research 

We recommend seeking out computing education research (and education research more generally) as more becomes available with the growth of the subject, to find out what innovations and teaching strategies have been tested in research and which can be adopted for use in your own teaching. 

Our MEd students have compared and discussed a variety of research, which has helped them learn what is happening in the teaching of computing outside of their context. There are sites, such as the International Journal of Computer Science Education in Schools and CSEdResearch.org, that publish and summarise research in publicly accessible formats. Organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK and Evidence for Learning in Australia, publish summaries of research evidence and guidance for interpreting research.

5. Do the assignments, assessments, and projects yourself 

When designing tasks or assignments for students, it’s important for teachers to take the time to do the task themselves. This enables a teacher to experience the task from a different perspective and gauge whether the task and instructions have been pitched appropriately. 

This process will assist with finding issues — for example, assumptions about skills that may not have been taught explicitly, or an expectation of complexity that is not aligned with the time provided to do the task. Our MEd students design computing assignments and create sample solutions aligned to different levels of student achievement, which enables them to assess and evaluate how they have aligned curriculum, task, and assessment objectives. This process, while time-consuming, can give teachers valuable insights that can be used to improve the task for their students.

6. Know and plan for threshold concepts 

Threshold concepts are the concepts in a discipline that present new and transformed ways of understanding, without which the learner cannot progress to a deeper level of knowledge (Meyer and Land, 2003). Threshold concepts are essential to mastering a discipline and provide a significant challenge for learners. 

There is ongoing research to identify threshold concepts in computing, particularly in school-based contexts. What we know is that variables, abstraction, functions, and object-oriented design are among the important threshold concepts that are difficult to learn and can also be difficult to teach. Each of these complex ideas transforms the way in which a student understands programming and computing more broadly, and once learnt, cannot be unlearnt. The identification of threshold concepts has significant implications for how teachers design learning opportunities and learning materials for their students. We recommend keeping up to date with computing education research, as outlined in tip four, to help you identify these threshold concepts.

Final thoughts

Computing education is an exciting area that poses both challenges and opportunities for teachers. We hope the tips provided enable you to seek out the research literature and professional development opportunities that you need to enrich your teaching practice. 

References

  • Guzdial, M., (2015). Learner-Centered Design of Computing Education: Research on Computing for Everyone. Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics, 8(6), 1-165.

  • Meyer, J.H.F., and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving Student Learning — Ten Years On. Oxford, OCSLD.


Authors

Daniel Hickmott

Daniel Hickmott is an associate lecturer at the University of Sydney. He completed his PhD at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His study investigated the impact of teacher professional learning programmes in computing and how primary school teachers integrate computing across different subjects.

Sujatha Gunja

Sujatha Gunja is a lecturer at the University of Sydney. A secondary teacher and ex-software developer, she has taught computing to students from kindergarten to 12th grade. She has run professional learning in computing for teachers across Australia and developed learning resources in use by thousands of students.


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