Making computing accessible for all (5/6): Curious computing lessons

Making computing accessible for all (5/6): Curious computing lessons

This post is the fifth of six in a series with ideas and resources on how to make computing lessons engaging and demanding for as many students as possible. Click here for the original post.

Curious computing
Ideas and resources for curious computing lessons

I’ve sat through some programming lessons as part of my degree which were probably some of the dullest hours of my life. There was a well-informed, well-meaning lecturer and the  subject content was interesting, but listening to someone else explain coding concepts without any opportunity to try things out was just painful. It’s also tempting as a teacher to guide our students towards avoiding common mistakes. However well-intentioned this may be, it’s not nearly as memorable or useful as allowing students to make the mistakes then discussing together why problems arose and exploring different ways of avoiding them.

Curious students enjoy learning because they take ownership of their discoveries. Students who are encouraged and equipped to follow their curiosity are more independent and resilient: far less dependent on the teacher – which has significant benefits in the long term (and for summative assessment!). Learners encouraged to be curious during a lesson are much more likely to follow their curiosity outside of a lesson to read around the subject and develop a wider and deeper interest and understanding.

There’s a danger though. If every new skill is ‘discovered’ by students, they can feel abandoned and unchallenged. You need a certain level of confidence – if not a starting point of core knowledge – to be able to follow your curiosity to discover new skills or solve a problem for yourself. The students who either lack the initiative, desire or confidence to explore or research for themselves are the ones who have the most to gain from a ‘curious’ lesson activity but they’re also the ones who will need the most support to engage with it.


  • Combine ‘curious’ research with incentives to help and support others. Avoid always pairing up a student who’s able to discover for themselves with someone who always needs support 1:1 because this can actually feed the dependency and ultimately frustrate or hinder both students. Instead, split the class into teams and create an incentive for the whole class to demonstrate a new skill. Allow them to help each other but don’t allow them to do someone else’s work for them.

e.g. “The first whole team who can show me a web page that includes a paragraph tag, a heading 1 tag and an image will be the first team to leave. Start with the example on the board, search on w3schools and help each other – but remember: you mustn’t touch anyone else’s mouse or keyboard”

  • Equip students who have less independence / initiative by setting regular research challenges at the start of the lesson that involve searching for data online. Start simple with definitions that they can copy / paste, then get them to dig deeper for opinions, analysis, comparisons or ordered data

.e.g. “While I take the register: search for and try out three different ways of drawing a square using python. There’s a merit for the person who can do it using the fewest characters”Encourage “What happens if” activities by planning them into your projects and by praising anyone who asks that sort of question and creating a chance to follow a tangent to explore the answer every now and then.e.g. “Beth’s just asked what happens if we play the sound at 8KHz rather than at 44KHz. Great question! Thumbs up if you think it’ll sound higher, thumbs down if you think it’ll sound lower or thumbs to the side if you think it’ll sound the same. [play sound] What other difference did you notice between the two sounds?

  • Provide step by step instructions or demonstrations to get people started with a project but then create opportunities for open ended challenges where you mention some places to start looking for hints but don’t tell them exactly what to do.

e.g. “Follow these instructions to get your code to play “Happy Birthday” then see if you can write code for a TV theme tune and a song in the charts. You can search on … for song ideas”

Key questions:

How do I react when my students show me something I didn’t know how to do? What opportunities and incentives are there in my lessons for students to share their discoveries?

Example Activity: ASCII text data representation challenge

The above code lets you type in some text. It takes each character that you type in and converts it into binary based on the ASCII value for that character. It then draws the ASCII data as a black and white image. Ask your students to try the program for different messages and discuss what ASCII is. Then, show them the following images and see if they can work out the messages that they contain. Finally, get them to create and share their own messages for others to decode in the class. You could even use it to encode a web address with a hidden message…


Research and further reading

This paper debates the relative differences, advantages, risks and limitations of constructivism and discovery learning models in computer science. It strongly recommends that students with little or no background knowledge in a computing topic need to be explicitly taught key concepts but to create space for students to reflect on, discuss and choose next steps to investigate and accumulate their own knowledge and understanding. There are significant challenges here, particularly when in a programming context, so an effective teacher should model how to investigate and extend understanding by gradually removing the level of scaffolding and support when students are ready to cope with that level of independence.

Ben-Ari, M. (1998). Constructivism in computer science education. Proceedings of the twenty-ninth SIGCSE technical symposium on computer science education. Atlanta, Georgia, United States: ACM
Make computing competitive: What attracts you to computing? 4/6

Make computing competitive: What attracts you to computing? 4/6

This post is the forth of six in a series with ideas and resources on how to make computing lessons engaging and demanding for as many students as possible. Click here for the original post.

Competitive computing
Make computing competitive

Everyone loves to win a prize. Even if the prize is really lame. I love getting cheap and tacky Christmas presents because they’re recycled straight into prizes. The weirder the better. Most of the time though, prizes are unnecessary – students just love the respect and recognition of being appreciated, affirmed for winning – whatever that looks like in practice.

Competitions can be quick or last multiple lessons. You can compete on speed of completion, quality of ideas, depth of understanding, quantity of challenges solved, amount of help offered, level of independence / resilience displayed… pretty much anything can be made competitive.

When someone wins, others inevitably lose out so it’s never a good idea to rely too heavily on competitive projects, but an edge of competition in a lesson can do wonders to boost the pace through a dull or tricky topic.


  • Combine collaborative and competitive activities as a way of getting students to support each other whilst also boosting the pace and enjoyment of a lesson.

e.g. “You’re sat in teams for today’s lesson. There are four ways to win points for your team: 1) Be the first to correctly answer a question. 2) Be the first in the class to complete a challenge I set. 3) Be the first whole team to help each other complete a challenge I set. 4) Be the first whole team to be sat silently with screens off when I ask for your attention.

  • Mix up competitions so that sometimes you reward pace, sometimes quantity, sometimes quality, sometimes independence, sometimes assistance towards others and sometimes depth of understanding.

e.g. “Before we start the new topic today we’re going to see who’s the best at touch-typing in the class. You have 5 minutes enter as many races on as you can. The student with the highest WPM score and the student with the highest accuracy rating will win today’s …”

  • Liven up revision lessons or end of unit tests with interactive quizes. You can also get students to create these quizes for a homework.

e.g. “You have 20 minutes to revise “Binary / Decimal / Hex conversions”. You can use this self test quiz to help. At the end of your 20 minutes we’ll play a Kahoot to choose our binary champion.

Key questions:

What’s motivating my students to work quickly / carefully / creatively? What incentives are there to go beyond the minimum expectations?

Example Activity: Competitive Programming in Scratch

Competitive Programming in Scratch
Competitive Programming in Scratch

Split your class into teams and get them to compete as a team to solve a range of programming challenges. This link outlines how to do this in a way that promotes independence, resilience and collaboration as well as boosting computational thinking skills.


Research and further reading

This paper talks about the dangers of creating an environment which is too competitive in STEM subjects, which can put barriers in the way of some students from learning. Competitive activities shouldn’t only reward those who ‘win’: a good teacher could alternate between rewarding pace, effort, accuracy, attention to detail, creativity and resilience rather than only ever rewarding the highest score.

Despite the dangers of competition mentioned in this paper, other studies (e.g. Porter & Simon, 2013) show competition in classroom activities can be a really healthy way of engaging students and improving outcomes, recruitment and retention.

Tobias, S. They’re not dumb, they’re different: stalking the second tier. Research Corporation, Tucson. 1990
Making computing accessible for all (3/6): collaborative computing lessons

Making computing accessible for all (3/6): collaborative computing lessons

This post is the third of six in a series with ideas and resources on how to make computing lessons engaging and demanding for as many students as possible. Click here for the original post.

Collaborative Computing

Ideas and resources for collaborative computing lessons

Some people love group work, some people loathe it. Collaboration doesn’t have to mean working in pairs or small groups. Any form of guided interaction between students – online / face to face / written / email – comes with its own challenges but also potential to boost learning and understanding.

The collaboration doesn’t have to be between students either: it’s a great way to involve parents, grand-parents, neighbours or foreign exchange students if you choose your opportunities and platforms for collaboration carefully.

Too much collaboration and a lesson can descend into chaos. A short, focused and well managed collaborative activity though can boost the overall learning and progress well beyond the sum of the individual parts.


  • Set a homework for students to explain a concept to a relative or neighbour who’s rubbish with technology.

e.g. “Find someone who’s never written a program before and teach them the difference between a string and an integer data type. Get them to write down an example of each”

  • Try silent group work where all communication takes place via email / forum / shared folder / whatever.

e.g. “I’ve emailed you a list of partner: you’ll be working with someone who sits on the other side of the class to you. There’s an attachment with a presentation that needs completing. You need to contact your partner by email, agree who’s working on each slide, share the research and complete the presentation.”

  • Set up a questions & answers forum / shared document and ask students to nominate the person who has been most helpful on it at the end of a lesson where it’s used.

e.g. “While we create our games, I’m not going to help anyone until I can see that you’ve written your question in the Q&A forum. If three people reply to say they don’t know how to help you then I’ll come and help. Otherwise, it’s up to you to explore, discover and support each other. Remember to share links to useful websites and tutorials you find.”

Key questions:

Who is too dependent on me as their teacher? Who is to proud or afraid to ask anyone for help?

Example activity: Tech recommendation project

What tech would you recommend?
Advise-a-gadget project

Split the class into groups. Each group must research and recommend the most suitable piece of technology (e.g. tablet / phone / laptop / desktop) for

  • A successful businesswomen looking to work on the commute from York to London
  • A teenage gamer wanting to play the latest games with the best possible graphics
  • An elderly relative who’s not used the Internet before but wants to keep in touch with relatives and read / watch the news

The group will have to present their recommendations and answer questions from the rest of the class. Each person in the group must say something and have contributed something to whatever you choose to display on the projector screen during the presentation.


Research and further reading

This paper recommends a “Trio of best practice” for reducing the number of students who drop out from a computing course (at the University of California). Two of their three recommended strategies involve collaboration between students: peer instruction and pair programming.

Leo Porter and Beth Simon. 2013