Agile computing lessons

By Matthew Wimpenny-Smith. Posted

Figure 1 The STEM Project Process model

Originally published in Hello World Issue 18: Cybersecurity, March 2022. All information true at the time of original publishing.

Matthew Wimpenny-Smith outlines how he trialled an agile methodology approach in his upper-primary computing lessons

As computing has become more established in curricula globally, so too has the amount of pedagogical research about the best ways to teach it.

In my own teaching, I have been developing my practice around these researched approaches, including Predict–Run–Investigate–Modify–Make (PRIMM), Use–Modify–Create, code comprehension, and paired programming. I recently read a book, Invent to Learn, which talks about applying project management models such as the waterfall model and agile methodology in the classroom. I had studied these methodologies during my degree, so this really piqued my interest in trying these real-world design models in my computing lessons for non-programming projects.

Around the same time as reading this book, my school started going through the process of redeveloping our curriculum for upper primary. I saw this redevelopment as a great opportunity to try my ideas of using a design cycle in my computing lessons, and I shared this with the wider STEM team at my school. The new curriculum is structured around termly themes (Literature and the Arts, Global World, and STEM), with a termly key question linked to the theme.

Developing a model

The autumn term was the STEM term for Year 6 (students aged 10–11), and the overarching question was, “Can we make it better?” (In this case, “it” referred to innovation and the engineering process.) With this question in mind, the STEM team decided to focus on an adapted agile methodology, which we called the STEM Project Process. Agile methodology has its roots in project management and is an iterative approach to software development projects. In short, this means a project is broken down into small increments, and after each of these small stages, the project or product being developed is reviewed and adapted based on feedback. We chose to use this methodology because it’s swift, versatile, easy to understand, breaks projects down into manageable stages, and is an authentic model used in the real world. It also aligns nicely with the learning habits we are fostering through our new curriculum, including collaboration, imagination, and reflection.

Figure 1 (see image above) was the model we came up with, along with a list of questions to go with each stage of the cycle (see Figure 2). Our model has five stages: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve. Each stage of this cyclical model helps learners to have a structured and scaffolded approach to their learning, which in turn reduces cognitive load and focuses them on what is doable.

Figure 2: Questions for each stage of the STEM Project Process cycle

Applying the model to computing

I had planned for the first unit of my Year 6’s academic year to be based on the Teach Computing Curriculum (TCC) ‘3D Modelling’ unit, in which learners develop their knowledge and understanding of using a computer to produce 3D models. At the start of the unit, I gave lessons to introduce and develop learners’ skills using SketchUp, so that they would be ready for the Create stage of our STEM Project Process cycle.

After a few lessons of this, I introduced pupils to the model. I explained that each stage would help them to develop an understanding of the process of planning and designing our 3D models. I gave them some context about how real-life architects, engineers, computer programmers, and scientists use models like this to produce projects. I also explained that the accompanying questions in Figure 2 would be used like a checklist to guide their thinking around each stage, much like a story plan in English. It’s important that learners understand that the process is as important as the finished project, and they shouldn’t just dive straight into the Create stage.

I created slides for learners to refer to once they embarked on their projects, which included the cycle, the questions, and suggested strategies for each stage. For example, on the Imagine slide, I gave them examples of ‘what a good one looks like’, and then asked them to develop their own imaginative ideas and add these to the slide. For the Plan stage, I adapted the design booklet from the original TCC unit of work and I asked learners to create a sketch of their design, including details of its features and the steps they would need to complete to create a finished model. To link all the activities back to the model, I used coloured arrows and symbols to indicate which stage each lesson’s tasks corresponded to.

A pupil’s design booklet

Review of the model

At the end of the unit of work, I conducted a survey to gather the children’s thoughts on the use of the cycle and what impact they believed it had had on their learning. I asked if they thought that using the cycle had improved their skills and knowledge and their final 3D model designs. Of the 40 children, 74 percent said that using the cycle had had a positive effect on their final designs and helped them to plan, stay on track, know what to do next, and know how to improve. Some positive comments were, “Now I have the steps to do, which helps me without just skipping and it’s easier and I understand better,” and, “This helped me because it helped me to know where to start and what to do next. It helped to make everting [sic] organized.” What’s more, 69 percent of pupils said that we should use the cycle more often.

This STEM Project Process cycle has clearly had a positive impact on the outcomes of learning. I feel that it has helped to develop the learners’ understanding of the process of innovation, and I have decided that it’s something that I am going to continue to develop with my learners. It really helps them to spend time going through this process to develop better skills, knowledge, and outcomes.


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