Monday, 6 July 2015

Outdoors and the IT curriculum

Linking outdoor activities to the elements of the new IT curriculum can be a good way of legitimising outdoor learning with stakeholders and is valuable for children in that it provides tangible learning opportunities for what can be fairly abstract concepts to absorb in a classroom.

Some ideas for how aspects of outdoor activities can be linked to key IT curriculum elements. 

Key terms for primary age pupils linked to outdoor activities:

Identify the elements needed to carry out an outdoor activity. Depending on the age group either discuss with the children as a class or set them off on individual or collaborative deconstruction. The steps can be recorded on digital devices or paper or assembled by the teacher on an IWB visible to all. It is not important to get the elements into the correct order at the start. There are many activities that can be used, for example; building and lighting a fire, creating and navigating a trail, designing then creating and photographing a woodland creature, building a den or woodland kitchen.

An algorithm is a logical sequence of instructions. Ask children to arrange the deconstructed elements in sequence to create a plan or ‘recipe’ they can follow. This seems to be a great way of developing systematic thinking and understanding of logic.

First stage debugging - applying logical reasoning to detect errors. 
Ask children to tell each other about their aim and the algorithm they developed to achieve it. Encourage them to explain their reasoning, identify potential problems and suggest solutions.

Second stage debugging - real world testing. 
In the outdoor setting the children test their plans in the real world. Again they should be looking for errors and working out how to improve the plan. Reviewing and improving the original plan during, or closely after, the event is a good way of embedding the learning and making further links such as between a ‘plan for human activity’ and a ‘code for a computer’. 

An example - Building and lighting a fire safely

On separate strips of paper print or write the decomposed components below or start from scratch asking the children to identify the components themselves. Give one to each of 10 children and ask them to line up in the order of the numbers then show their strips to the others.
1 Safety equipment.
2 Locate a safe space.
3 Light the fire.
4 Gather small sticks.
5 Cut logs.
6 Gather larger sticks and logs.
7 gather kindling material.
8 Find something to light the fire with.
9 Find a hatchet, saw or other tools to cut fuel.
10 Build the fire.

The children can be rearranged so the elements are in a logical sequence.

Adding detail.
 By adding instructions to the logical sequence they become a sequencing algorithm.

1 Prepare safety equipment - bandages, antiseptic, fire-blanket and water...
2 Locate a safe space - clear ground, no overhanging branches, sheltered from wind...

First stage debugging.
Debugging the algorithm via thinking or discussion might lead to noticing additional components such as; that material to be burned needs to be dry, an adult should be on stand-by, clothing should not be easily flammable, we need something to cook. Work on creating a complete set of instructions before field testing in the real world. 

Second stage debugging.
Children should take photographs or make drawings of each step, these can then be added to the original instruction text to provide an illustrated version in a PowerPoint record or on a school blog to meet the Information Technology strand of the curriculum. 

 Other computing terms that can be applied are:
 Inputs - the things that go to make the fire.
 Outputs - the heat, light and smoke generated by the fire.
Variables - the kinds of fuel, dry, wet, quantity, wind.
Selection – if dry then it lights easily, if wet then it is difficult to light.
Control - the lighting of the fire and the quenching of the fire. Topping up the fuel, cooking.

To create a detailed program requires a logically structured language that turns the algorithm into a set of instructions that caters for inputs, outputs, variables, selections and control. A flow chart or diagram can work very well with older children to move from algorithm towards a more detailed program. CMapTools is a useful free App that most older primary age children will be able to use.

The tasks below are in a logical order for one person who builds the fire after the components are assembled.

Gather kindling material including paper, leaves, moss etc.
Gather small sticks.
Gather larger sticks and logs.
Find a hatchet, saw or other tools to cut fuel.
Cut logs.
Build the fire.

Further work on the algorithm can focus on the concept that a computer or a group of people can make completion of a task more efficient by working on several tasks at once. For a group approach one person might take the role of building the fire with others tasked with organising tools or bringing back specific kinds of fuel. The algorithm now needs to be annotated with names against tasks to organise the multitasking. The process ‘Build the fire.’ evolves as materials are accumulated. With larger groups other tasks might be identified as being better if organised as a parallel self-contained algorithm. A group could be tasked with safety, another with preparing and cooking food, another with building temporary shelter from sun wind or rain.

When first running through the plan in the outdoors children should be in problem solving or debugging mode and have a means of recording any adaptations.

 A blindfold trail activity.
These are usually designed to work on communications skills and developing trust, for example negotiating a trail blindfolded with helpers acting as guides by using physical or verbal strategies. To link closer with the IT curriculum children could approach the activity in a similar way to the fire one above. Firstly working collaboratively on site devise and lay out a trail using a string or other simple marker so they can see it. From that point they need to develop a sequence of instructions that is the code for the trail.
A trail code might look something like the instructions below:

From the start point:
Forward two steps
45 degree left turn
Forward 3 steps
90 degree right turn
Forward 4 steps
Duck (to avoid branch)
Forward 5 steps…

 It is likely that after a few children have tried out following the sequence they might find that for humans it needs to be adaptable for different step lengths. Putting children in role-play as a robot that is verbally programmed could encourage then to move more mechanically trying to keep their step length consistent. With further debugging they might realise that different sized robots would need different instructions that could allow for such variety. Whether done from a theoretical or practical perspective a simple solution would be to develop several versions of the code to cover a simple range of step sizes. For each individual they could then first measure the step size then identify which of the code strings would work best for that individual. Real world explorations like this provide tangible demonstrations of why coded instructions need to cater for variables in order to be fit for purpose. 

 Learning about computer coding can be perceived as fairly mundane or even pointless for young children, however using real world situations to explore systematic problem solving can help develop perceptions about transferability of skills and the wider value of computational thinking. I hope the above gives you some ideas as to how linking this to the imaginative and creative world of outdoor learning activities can be beneficial to staff and children.

I have blogged elsewhere about a presentation by Dr Bird that shows clear links between stress and non-communicable diseases. Given teaching is a profession known for provoking high levels of stress I think this is a presentation any teacher could benefit from reading. It is not only beneficial for children to spend time outdoors it benefits staff by reducing their own stress levels as well. 

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