Why Get Physical?

Could it be that now the initial excitement has worn off, teaching children to code isn’t all that exciting? After all, there’s a limit to the number of variations of the somersaulting cat sprite.

Creating a computer game seems like something that would engage children, but the reality is that once we move beyond a simple ‘pong’ type game, the complexities of the game quickly outstrips our programming ability. We also move into an increasingly abstract world where ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ are virtual.

Given that most year six pupils are not yet fully functioning abstract thinkers I’d suggest that we could do everyone a big favour by providing pupils with concrete opportunities to develop their understanding of computing. What’s that? There’s nothing about physical computing in the Programme of study?

Well, actually there is:

  • design, write and debug programs that accomplish specific goals, including controlling or simulating physical systems; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts
  • use sequence, selection, and repetition in programs; work with variables and various forms of input and output

Of course, you can teach these elements of the PoS by making the cat jump up and down but wouldn’t the learning be all the more powerful (and fun) if pupils were making something real, something physical jump up and down? There’s also the bonus of covering off a part of the Technology PoS.

The PoS for Technology states that pupils should “Apply their understanding of computing to program, monitor and control their products.” You simply can’t do this without creating a program that controls an external device! I’m a big fan of physical computing – of getting pupils to write a program that controls something real and tangible and so I am putting together a collection of ideas, lesson sequences and tutorial to help teachers get to grips with this aspect of the Computing (and Technology) Curriculum.

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