One of the really interesting parts of our work here at London CLC is hosting visits from teachers and policymakers from other parts of the world. It is always fascinating to share experiences, hear from them what our system looks like from the outside, and discover how other countries approach things differently. There’s usually a peak in visits around this time of year as teachers like to combine their visit with a trip to the BETT edtech show, which took place earlier this month.
The international teachers get a good insight into our work and the English educational system. They visit the London CLC office and a local primary school, where they see a class in action and have time to ask questions and discuss the British approach to teaching computing and computational thinking.
This year we had the additional pleasure of our Erasmus project partners visiting around the same time. You can read more about this international programme in our previous blog post, Learning from European educators in our Erasmus KA2 project, but, briefly, Co-think is an Erasmus + KA2 project exploring inclusive practices in teaching computational thinking to primary school children. As part of the project Danish, Swedish, Finnish, British and Dutch children will take part in simultaneous learnathons and their teachers will have the opportunity to share practice and co-deliver computer science lessons across the five countries.
Tinkering v copycode
With the help of Computing at School’s Jane Waite, a London university researcher looking into how programming is taught to primary aged pupils in England, we discussed differences in the level of scaffolding that the various teaching systems offer to children. The least creative way to learn is by rote, through copy code. There’s no design and no debugging training and it often leaves holes in children’s understanding, despite allowing them to produce seemingly impressive results. At the other end of the scale, there’s tinkering – letting children play with the code freely. The downside? The risk of ineffective learning and developing bad programming habits. Most teachers and education systems mix up these approaches without being aware of them, although copy coding is common in many commercial resources.
England is unusual in that, for the last three years, it has had a computing curriculum including a separate computer science element. Other countries take a more cross-curricular approach. As a result, we’re a step ahead with learning about the pedagogy of how children learn to program. At London CLC we’re able to lead on teaching and learning in this area as we’ve been developing our experience by working with the UCL Knowledge Lab on ScratchMaths, which creates a real structure around teaching programming and improving maths. It has shown the benefits of guided exploration, of offering parameters but not providing everything, and of building up the conventions of good practice in programming strongly right from the start, from naming scripts to using precise language.
But, back to our visitors – what did they think of their visit to Hitherfield Primary School?
Display not textbooks
All the teachers remarked on use of the physical environment in English classrooms, particularly displaying pupils’ work on the walls. The use of displays to show work and prompt children’s thinking is not something they are used to in their own countries where textbooks are used much more heavily (which is frowned upon in the English system).
Early literacy…but long-term impact?
The teachers were particularly struck by the quality of writing of very young children aged five and six and the children’s ability to express meaning in writing. They felt that the writing ability was much higher than in their countries at this age. However, they did question whether that gain would still be there at a later age and they suggested that they thought the quality of writing of older children, aged nine and 10, was actually the same. This puts into question the benefits of the focus on such early literacy skills in England.
Numerate, focused and chatty
The teachers were also impressed by the level of maths ability of young children, their ability to stay focused and topic with their conversations and just how articulate they were.
As we have got very used to hearing, the teachers were alarmed at the teacher workload and pupil testing regime in English schools, and how much testing we do so young. The Finns, for example, do not do national testing until 16. They also spend many more years training teachers, putting time and mentorship into treating it as a Masters profession. Unsurprisingly, they do not suffer the same retention problems as the English system.
Finally, how could we resist noting that a Danish teacher commented that the atmosphere in the school was warm, homely and cosy – hygge!