How collaborative learning enhances computing by Beverly Clarke

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There is much in the news about how much employers value soft skills and how, to succeed in the world of business, soft skills are the winners over technical skills. Computing is often seen as a technical subject, but what about fostering soft skills in the computing classroom? Embedded within computer science is the term “computational thinking” – this is about problem-solving and learning by making – and these soft skills, or competencies as they are sometimes called, have a very important role in the classroom.

Why do we want collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning, also known as group work, has links to the workplace and real world. In most instances, there are “problems” to solve and computers are used as tools to solve the problems; the people in the group bring creativity to the project and work together to solve the problem.

As a part of a group, pupils learn a range of competencies, such as:

  • Resilience – being able to overcome any difficulties towards project completion and to “bounce” back when there are problems;
  • Communication – being able to speak clearly and concisely to their group members and to ensure that they convey their thinking clearly to a variety of different people and audiences;
  • Critical observation – being able to use data and to identify potential problems before they occur;
  • Critical reflection – being able to look at their own practice and to identify ways of improving;
  • Leadership – having a vision for a project and conveying that vision accurately to others to “get them on board”;
  • Management – the ability to control the direction of a project and to get the most out of others in the group;
  • Adaptability – this ties in quite nicely with resilience and it is about being able to adjust, to change quickly when unforeseen matters arise, as they will do in any real-world work scenario.

Other soft skills that pupils learn through collaborative learning when working on projects are time management and working to deadlines, debating, conflict resolution, mutual respect of others and tolerance.

Collaborative learning in computing

Unplugged activities are an excellent way of getting pupils to communicate what is happening. For example, a whole-class activity on packet switching will help pupils to appreciate and simulate how packets travel across a network and the different devices that allow this to happen, such as DNS servers and routers.

Incorporating role play, some pupils are DNS servers and others are routers; some will also send the packets out and others will be the destination. Pupils should be encouraged to talk through what is happening and what their role is in the activity – this will encourage communication and observation, such as when a packet doesn’t arrive at its destination what happens to the message or image and what happens when all packets arrive at their destinations?

They should also be encouraged to respect each other if mistakes are made during describing events, and question why events take place in the way that they do and the roles that these devices play in the network.

Theory and practice can also be developed when teaching algorithmic thinking, in simple activities such as instructing a robot or creating a jam sandwich. As a whole-class activity, pupils can be assigned different roles, such as giving instructions, following instructions and learning how to refine those instructions, and observing and giving feedback. These activities all develop soft skills under the guidance of a teacher who will support with questioning techniques.

Another approach is through paired programming. This is where one pupil is the “driver” and writes the code and the other is the “observer” and looks at what code is being typed in and guides the driver. This promotes communication and also allows the teacher to team up pupils with differing abilities, so there is an element of peer learning. Resilience is also cultivated through this method, as when there are errors in code pupils can cooperate and solve the error together.

Role assignment in a project allows for a raft of skills to be strengthened. For example, pupils may be given a brief to create a game for a certain scenario and audience. Some pupils will plan how the game will work, others will code the game, others will design the DVD sleeve – focusing on imagery and wording. Other roles are assigning PEGI ratings, creating marketing material, testing the game and acting upon improvements, seeking feedback from the target audience and ensuring the game is burned on to DVD and made available for sale.

There is excellent scope here for cross-curricular activity – English and MFL for the descriptive writing, maths for measurements of the DVD material, art for designing, computing for creation of the games, business studies for selling the game and much more.

Interacting with the environment

Pupils can also work with equipment such as pi-top – a modular laptop built on the Raspberry-pi that can be used for innovation or to solve challenges. Pi-top can also be used in maker spaces to fire the imagination and creativity of pupils. It allows pupils to see their coding skills come to life through physical computing with add-ons such as a Sense-HAT board, which has an LED matrix, and also with pixel art. The Sense-HAT can be used to collect sensor data on things like temperature, humidity, pressure and much more. These can then be manipulated and displayed visually on the Sense-HAT.

Considerations for collaborative learning in computing

Having looked at the benefits that cooperative learning can bring to pupils, it is worth remembering some of the practicalities that a teacher faces when implementing group activities into the classroom. Some are:

  • Layout of tables and chairs;
  • Numbers of pupils and how they will be arranged;
  • Resources required – physical resources and access to the internet if required;
  • Needs of the pupils – most able, able and those requiring support;
  • Behaviour – how will you manage behaviour and differing personalities, from the most vocal pupil to those that are reserved?;
  • How will knowledge be tested as a result of the activity,?
  • How will collaborative learning be assessed for individual pupils?

Through collaborative learning in computing, a growth mindset will be developed in our pupils, enabling them to function effectively in the current, changing and future world of work.

Beverly Clarke is an author, education consultant, Computing At School (CAS) Master Teacher in the South West of England and CAS Board member