Computing is maths

I could say: maths is no longer completely maths.

If you compare the statements in the Maths National curriculum (2014) with the questions in the 2016 sample questions (which is when the first children will be assessed on the 204 National Curriculum you find a curious thing: if you only taught children how to do the things in the National Curriculum, they would do badly on the final test.

For example in the old National Curriculum, children were expected to be taught to make decisions about which operations and problem-solving strategies to use. A comparable statement in the new curriculum is that children should be taught to solve problems, including missing number problems, involving multiplication and division, including positive integer scaling problems and correspondence problems in which n objects are connected to m objects. There is currently no statutory guidance in maths for how problem solving should be taught, only that problems should be solved.

But don’t worry, because computing is maths. In fact in the statutory computing curriculum there are statements that describe how to teach problem solving. For example:

  • solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts
  • use logical reasoning to explain how some simple algorithms work and to detect and correct errors in algorithms and programs.

In those statements for computing there are clear expectations for how problems can be solved, and I think they apply to maths problems as much as any other subject.

Let’s be clear here. I’m not trying to argue which is the better curriculum; what I am trying to argue is that you can no longer see your children make progress in maths by only teaching maths. You have to teach computing too. Computing is maths.

At the end of the last academic year, like most primary maths subjects leaders I did a maths SATs analysis. What I found was that if our children had solved problems as well as they answered questions about number and calculation, then our school would have been well above average, with the majority of our pupils getting level 5s. As it was, the vast majority of the children scored well into a level 4, but I was left wondering, what if we had taught problem solving just that little bit better…

What the analysis of maths SATs 2014 showed me
What the analysis of maths SATs 2014 showed me

And now the text of the maths national curriculum is even less focused on problem solving and more on arithmetic competence. Yet the tests in 2016 will be unforgiving to those children who have only learned to crunch numbers.

That is why believe me when I say maths is computing and teach computing with all your heart.

We should proud of our computing curriculum in England. Inspired by the Next Gen report by Ian Livingstone and Andy Howe back in 2011, the computing curriculum could become the envy of the world. If only 5% more of our students become competent at computing, imagine the world powerhouse it would make us. Ian Livingstone describes the ideal ‘A’ level combination for a student going into hi-tech industries as maths, physics and art. Computing is not only produced by both the sciences and the arts but it supports learning in the sciences and the arts.

And that is why, when Melissa shone at the computing workshop with Miles Berry at Microsoft headquarters back in January (as I posted last time), I was delighted. It was not just because of the great confidence she had gained, nor the insight into being able to write a ‘repetition’ in code.

It was not just the big tick in the box marked ‘self esteem’.

It was because by doing good computing she had also done good maths. She had solved a problem that I knew would stand her in good stead in the next few months and beyond. As a remedial teacher it was a win for me, because when Melissa gets better at computing, she also gets better at maths.

Because computing is maths.

 

Why Computing?

As I continue to write about the journey of the Mathemateers in their maths learning, I’m going to divert for a post or two into the thorny subject of Computing – a new subject on the National Curriculum. I’m about to argue that computing is just the thing that schools like mine need to raise standards in maths.

As you’ll remember from her pen portrait, Melissa had very low ability in maths a couple of years ago and has made considerable progress to get to where she is, needing only a small boost now to get to national average. Imagine my delight then, when at Microsoft on 7th January for the Quickstart Computing Workshop with Miles Berry, Melissa stood up to explain to the whole room how she had used the ‘For’ function to reduce the lines of code her turtle needed to draw a square from 7 lines of code to 2 lines.

My delight was twofold:

  • Melissa has very low confidence – part of her problem in maths as an inability to try new things out because she doesn’t want to get things wrong.
  • Melissa isn’t very good at maths – using a ‘for’ function shows a level of logic I didn’t know she had.

The challenge went like this:

  1. Miles Berry asked the children to define a square.
  2. The children struggled to define a square. Apparently this knowledge has been removed from the national consciousness sometime in the last few years.
  3. Mile Berry showed the children how to make the turtle draw a line and turn using Microsoft’s online programming teaching tool: Touch Develop.
  4. The children used Miles Berry’s start to program the turtle to draw a square. Most of the code looked like this:
    Code for how to draw a square on TouchDevelop
    Code for how to draw a square on TouchDevelop

     

  5. At this point the children near me started noticing that the code repeated itself rather a lot. I wondered out loud whether there was a of making the code repeat and eyed the screen meaningfully.
  6. Melissa immediately started looking beyond the ‘right turn’ and the ‘forward’ button and noticed that there was another button called ‘For’ with the words ‘repeat code’ under it.
  7. She started dragging clicking and dragging things around and soon came up with this:
    Better code for drawing a square.
    Better code for drawing a square.

    We were all delighted and Miles got Melissa up the front to explain what she had done. Since then she has become a bit of a celebrity back in year 6 – her class teacher has been pleased to get her to do the same demonstration to the rest of the class when he introduced Touch Develop. Then Melissa had to go to Year 5 where she again demonstrated her computing prowess.

So. Here I have Melissa, self esteem going through the roof and she has associated this computing success with maths. Over the last couple of weeks, she has solved problem after problem, met target after target – she is truly flying. Maths is going great because of a positive experience in a computing workshop in London.

So what’s the lesson here – give children a chance to shine and they will?

No, there’s more than that. Computing is maths. And I’ll explain that statement in my next post.

 

Computing isn’t just Computing

I know many of you will have got this sorted in your schools already, but for me, in my school, we’ve taken some time to get our heads around the Computing National Curriculum. Part of the reason for this is that English and maths are our top priority – everything else comes second to those two subjects. Children in my school enter the school way below national average and we have our work cut out accelerating progress so that they leave school with the correct standards for English and maths.

But excuses aside, despite being ‘the Computing Co-ordinator’, I am not a natural computer scientist. Yes, I have taught children how to make patterns using logo. Yes we children program roamers in my school. But aside from that, my expertise, and therefore the expertise of the children and teachers in my school is around digital literacy and creating content using different media and technology.

So I was delighted, when I acquired the ‘Switched on Computing‘ scheme (by Rising Stars, written by primary education technology legend and broccoli fanatic, Miles Berry) to see that they have allocated the statements in the 2014 Computing Curriculum into 3 broad sections: Computer Science, Information Technology and Digital Literacy. It meant my school was already quite good at two of the sections – we just had to learn how to do the first.

For me, one way I like to learn things is through re-categorising them. So I took the stuff I knew about and tried to match it up. I know there are lots of great bits of planning out there done by assorted Computing Subject Leaders across the country, with possibly the best being the Google Site produced by the 30 computing experts who first advised the UK government on what should be in the curriculum. However, I found myself going to three main sources:

  1. The Rising Stars ‘Switched on Computing’ scheme of work. This provides six topics per year with suggestions on how to teach them. In Year 6 it becomes quite complex, with a large degree of prior knowledge expected and the implication being that it will become increasingly cross-curricular to find time within the normal school day.
  2. The Computing at School website, which is constantly being updated with handy courses and advice, but also has some simple expectation statements that can be used to define what children should know by the end of each key stage.
  3. Phil Bagge’s website. If you haven’t seen his Jam Sandwich Robot lesson, you really should, especially as it inspired me to make my own version.

I then re-categorised them as follows to make a kind of curriculum planning tool. Paganel Computing Planning (click the link to see the PDF – or you go straight to the Google Drive folder and download it as a docx).

I think it was important to do this, because I have to be realistic about where the children are at – I can’t impose the Switched on Computing lessons immediately on Year 6 as they require a considerable amount of prior knowledge. But if we have those to aim for, with a document that helps teachers identify the prior knowledge required, it should help us get our children to a good standard as soon as we can. After that, what I am excited about is using computing to make our maths standards go through the roof, which is something Conrad Wolfram talks about here.