Serif in Education

Communication and foundational thinking in Computing

By the age of 15 months most children will have learnt how to speak their first word, and by the age of 18 months, the chances are they’ll be able to say several words themselves and understand the meaning of hundreds more.   Speaking, language and communication are a crucial part of a child’s development, and they will continue to learn these skills throughout their education and into their adult lives.

By Key Stage 1 English, pupils learn to speak confidently and listen to what others have to say. They begin to read and write independently and with enthusiasm. They use language to explore their own experiences and imaginary worlds.

But with so much emphasis on English (or your native language) spoken around you from such a young age, have any of you wondered why don’t we just use natural languages such as English in computing?

Like Pete Jinks says, on his website looking at computer languages, natural languages (such as English) are ambiguous, fuzzily structured and have large (and changing) vocabularies.

“Computers have no common sense, so computer languages must be very precise – they have relatively few, exactly defined, rules for composition of programs, and strictly controlled vocabularies in which unknown words must be defined before they can be used. It is a major goal of research in Artificial Intelligence to find out how to make computers understand natural languages, and the more we learn, the harder it seems to be!”

What’s more, is that in addition to just using one computer language, we actually use a whole host of them to describe, emphasise or fix problems or solutions.  So no wonder the subject and curriculum of computing can be sometimes daunting to pupils of all ages.

Indeed, as Quintin Cutts, a full Professor in theSchoolofComputing Scienceasks “How can you really understand a subject if you don’t have a language for it, if you can’t talk about it?”

It is easy to assume that language is part of just our infant development but language, vocabulary, and literacy extend throughout school life, and into secondary education.

In fact, it is recognized that as part of the curriculum framework, including in key stages 3 and 4, pupils’ acquisition and command of vocabulary are key to their learning and progress across the whole curriculum. Teachers are advised to develop vocabulary actively, building systematically on pupils’ current knowledge. The curriculum states that “It is particularly important to induct pupils into the language which defines each subject in its own right, such as accurate mathematical and scientific language.”  This would include computing.

The national curriculum for computing (Key Stage 3 and 4) aims to ensure that all pupils:

1)      can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation

2)       can analyse problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems

3)      can evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems

4)      are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology.

Serif aims to provide tools within its Serif Design Suite to not only help introduce pupils at the beginning of their computing journey to computer skills but also help them bridge the communication gap between learning the language of computing and full coding capability, for example.

The Serif Design Suite in particular can help pupils become confident and competent users of technology.  There are “soft” tools within the suite that will gently encourage children to take activities they already enjoy, such as taking photos or making videos, and utilise computer technology to enhance them.  It will also help them to take what they already have enhanced and make it into a completely different medium altogether – for example, the photos can be made into interactive websites.

There are also more technical tools for more advanced students to utilise, meaning whatever computer “language” or level you are at a pupil will be able to get something out of the suite.

There is more to teaching and learning computing than just coding/computer language, but from our experience we have found that most pupils benefit from learning in this way. With this creative (and fun!) approach to learning, most children will subconsciously make the movement from simply having fun to becoming engaged with learning.  This makes the journey to this new computer language much simpler to understand and interact with.

As Cutts points out, “Computers are deterministic machines, at least at the level of an introductory course.  This conflicts with a prevalent view that modern technology is magic, and “beyond my understanding”.  If a machine is deterministic, then it can be understood – and this realisation is a major breakthrough for some students.”