Do you need an interactive touch screen? (part 2)


In the previous blog I looked at the reasons why you might need an interactive touch screen. These were about how you are presenting to your teaching group and the kind of teaching actions you want to support. I reached the conclusion that if  you need to present to the entire group then you definitely need a display screen.

But does that display screen need to be interactive? Do you have to be able to manipulate content on the screen or can you just get away with using your computer when showing content to your group? This is an important secondary question, so let’s look at it in a little more detail.

My answer to it is rooted not in technology but in human nature, and in particular the instinctive ways we respond to people around us and what they are doing.  I’ve not been a teacher for many a year, but I have done many many presentations and led hundreds of training sessions so I know a lot about talking to a group of people and the curious dynamics involved in trying to keep their attention and get your message across. One thing I know for sure is that keeping their attention is not easy. People can get distracted if you wander off your message. Even worse, if you say something which is exciting to them they may spontaneously start discussing this with the person next to them, seemingly oblivious to the social expectation that you stay quiet in a ‘one to many’ presentation unless the speaker explicitly asks for your input. So you will lose the group if you are too boring (obviously), but you may equally lose the group if you are too interesting….

Teachers are, in my experience, the absolute all time, undisputed, worst ever for this.  Give a group of teachers just a sniff of a gap in your presentation and they’ll start talking, and then getting them to stop is a Herculean task.

One thing that really helps with sustaiing a groups’ attention is being able to command the room by standing in front of them, using your position in the room and your physical presence as a proxy for your authority.  Put simply  you can command more of the room stood up than sat down. You may hazard a go at sitting on the table if a session is going well, but it is a rare presenter who is confident enough to sit on the normal seats during their presentation, because once that height advantage is lost, the attention of the room is much harder to hold.

Touch screens are a vital tool in the teachers’s armoury as they allow you to manipulate your content and interact with your slide stack or spreadsheet or whatever you are doing whilst stood up. If the screen was a display only device you would have to duck back to where your PC or laptop is, and the minute you go back to that, even if just to type a URL in, you’ve probably lost the room. Your audience may not be deliberately looking for an opportunity to seize the momentum from you,  but something deep and primal in the brain kicks in once the presenter is no longer in the magical zone at the front of the group.

So a touch screen helps you command the attention of the group.  As the group can also see every move you make on the screen, every button you press and so on, there is a sense of it being a shared space and this contributes to the efforts you are making to bring the room along with you through consent, rather than by coercion.

Touch screens are more expensive than displays, but if you are a budget holder ask yourself how much extra you want to spend to help your teachers do their job well.

Work out the additional cost of an interactive screen over a display screen and then divide that by the lifetime of the device. You then have the amount of money you are willing to spend to give teachers’ that help. Or the amount of money you want to save in order to make their already tough jobs tougher still.


(Image: Tarek Ali Taha (Own work)

[CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you need an interactive touch screen? (part 1)

This chap is confident that teaching from the front is a jolly good thing….

I work for a company that manufactures touchscreens. It’s an amazing company and it makes extremely cool technology and I love my job.  It’s a bit of sales, a bit of training, a bit of business development, a bit of technical support and other bits besides.

So why write a blog with a title like this? Because if you ask a school the big existential question: ‘Do you need an interactive touch screen?’ and they say “no”, then that is pretty much the end of the conversation, particularly if they have some good reasons to back this up.  Doesn’t matter how cool your swag is, if a school doesn’t want it, then you’re out of the game.

So why complicate things with this question; surely all schools and all classrooms need interactive touch screens?

The reason for posing the question is twofold.

Firstly quite a few of my formative years were spent doing research into ed-tech and one thing you learn doing research is to question everything. So asking big questions like ‘do you really need an interactive touch screen?’ is a powerful thing to ask in the edtech research space, because it challenges orthodox thinking and forces you to think again about the fundamentals of what ed-tech is meant to achieve. If the answer is ‘we need interactive touch screens because our interactive whiteboards are all old and breaking down’ then more thought is probably needed.

Secondly, on occasions a prospective school or college will ask the question of themselves:  ‘Do we actually need interactive touch screens’.  They do represent a cost, and like any cost it needs justifying. A budget will always outstrip the amount of things it could be spent on, so every purchase is competing with every other, tough decision need to be made.

Answering the question

My instinct when faced with a big question like: ‘Do you need interactive touch screens?’ is to interrogate the teaching strategy of the school or college. What kinds of teaching do you want to see happening? How are teachers to spend the precious time they have with students and which kind of behaviours and practices do you want to promote and which ones do you want to discourage or even proscribe? Once you have an answer for that you can get closer to an honest answer to the question. Now the question of the teachingf strategy is one for Senior Leadership Team (SLT), or at least it should be.  The SLT should work to set the teaching strategy of the school and then put in place the correct support so teaching staff can implement this strategy. An SLT which does not spend a good proportion of its time thinking about teaching and learning and how to improve it, is not doing its job.

Does your teaching strategy include talking to the whole group?

I think it would be very rare for any school or college to have a teaching strategy which did not involve the teacher talking to the whole group, for at least some part of a lesson1.  This is so basic an assertion that I doubt it gets explicitly covered in teaching strategies, it’s simply a given that the teacher will stand at the front and talk to the class as a whole, at the start of the lesson and once again at the end. So once thjis decision has been made you can ask the question: ‘When the teacher is doing that, how do you want to support them?’ Of course, ut is possible to talk to a group without any audio visual aids. a lot of the most popular TED talks happen on a blank stage with nothing but the speaker and a spotlight. But often teachers need something on the screen, it may be they are setting up group work and need the instructions, or are explaining a concept and need the formulae up  there, or teaching a historical idea and have images and illustration which help.

Once you have decided that it is desirable for a teacher to spend at least some of the lesson addressing the entire class it becomes a necessity to have a screen to display a computer image at a size that all of the participants can see.

So we have got some of the way there.You have at least decided that to support your pedagogic strategy you need a display screen.

In the next blog post, we’ll take a look at whether it needs to be interactive or not.


1: It is very easy to imagine a situation where a teacher did not ever address all of the class together. If the classroom is a ‘flipped one’, then the whole class instruction would be created by the teacher and then delivered to the students to access outside of lesson time. So the teacher could make a 10 minute video on the structure of the periodic table, and use a learning environment to deliver this to the students who all watch it individually in their own time.  The classroom time is then devoted to them working through a group or individual activity the teacher sets with the teacher visiting each group or individual and supporting them according to their need. I know of no school where this happens though.


You have learned nothing…..


BETT 2018 is almost upon us, and in the frenzy of activity before the show I got asked to write a couple of hundred words on some key questions for one of the numerous pre-show articless.  One of the questions was very predictable and along the lines of ‘what to look out for at this year’s BETT show’. My first answer was…

Why not visit the show, walk about (in comfortable shoes) and decide for yourself?

…but I had to delete that and write something more more sensible.

The second question was striking:

What has been the biggest lesson schools have learned about technology (in the past 10 years)?

This got me thinking hard, and once again my first answer was honest and also had to be deleted because the answer was:

‘Nothing,           not a bean,           nowt’.

Before you stop reading and label me a cynical nihilist, let me explain why that was my gut reaction to the question.

UK schools have invested a great deal in educational technology in the last 10 years. If I had time I would  see if I could get an estimate of the figure or check if any research had been done, but we all know it’s a big stack of cash. The reason for my answer is because I think many schools still spend money on technology because they think that technology is the answer and it will have a transformative effect on the schoo in and of itself. And when it doesn’t happen they blame the technology and then look for the next ‘new thing’.

The trouble is that it won’t, and technology transforms nothing unless the school works really hard to understand what it wants to achieve and creates an overarching strategy where technology is a part of that strategy.  Now if you are a school leader or from a school which has worked hard to create that strategy and then used your ed-tech spend in order to realise that vision, you will no doubt be annoyed with me now for the unnecessarily combative tone of this post and it’s exaggerated attention seeking title.


But many schools still buy technology without giving enough thought to how they are going to use it, how it will affect the existing pedagogic practices of the school and how they need to control the implementation of the technology to achieve the desired outcome.

If I was in charge of the entire thing (UK education, and the ed tech suppliers and the international market for ed tech which I know is a little unlikely), I would order a BETT sabbatical. For a single year I would cancel the show.  But all of the teachers, school leaders and others would have to use the time they would have spent at the show sitting down and thinking very hard about how they want to transform their school, and then working out what technology (if any) will help that and what would hinder it. For instance if you felt your students were too passive, to reliant on teacher input, then design a strategy to make teaching more challenging with more open ended lessons where students take control. Then go and find hardware and software which could best support that.

Incidentally if this did come to pass, then the first question about ‘what to look out for at this year’s BETT’ would be redundant, because schools would only be looking out for what could help them with their strategy. They wouldn’t care about the latest kit, the coolest new shiny things or the bleeding edge, they’d just find what they needed and ignore the rest.

Looking forward to seeing you all at BETT again this year; let’s learn nothing again 😉


Image Attribution:

tin can telephone nothing by T s Beall and many others is licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Touchscreens for Huddle Rooms

An increasingly common feature of the modern workplace are huddle rooms.  The word sounds awkward, but the concept is useful as it denotes a space where a small group can come together informally to have a meeting; work out ideas, get some stuff done and then return to their desks.

Huddle rooms became necessary as more and more work areas in business were converted to open plan. Open Plan is great for maximising space and also having employees feeling involved in things (as opposed to shut into individual offices like battery hens). But the space in an open plan office is not conducive to a meeting, either you risk interrupting everybody else working, or conduct your business in the hushed tones you have to use when visiting the Sistine Chapel.

Huddle type spaces are even added by innovative architects and designers in areas such as motor way services. The image below shows some ‘sheds’ at the back where you can get some privacy and escape the bustle of the main room.

Gloucester Services

Huddle spaces are informal, and my view is that they should not be bookable like meeting rooms, but used as needed in a more ad hoc basis. This way they encourage spontaneity and your employees to act quickly on ideas and get them progressed.

So what technology do you put in a Huddle Room?

Video conferencing is important along with a display screen, but ideally you need an interactive surface for scribbling and sketching.  And the technology must be really easy to use, people should be able to sit down, do what they need to, save or capture it and move on.  Nobody has time for training on complicated tech, and even if they did, they’d forget it all when they actually wanted to have a meeting, and waste all of their time messing around with the kit rather than working.

The ProLine+ is a great choice of interactive touchscreen for a Huddle Room.  Here are the reasons for this:


1: Prowise Central: the onboard operating system for the screen.  It means the screen can be used without a PC. You get a browser, and a whiteboarding application.  You can save your work to the memory (to return to it later); email it or capture a full resolution copy of it by snapping the QR code with your phone or tablet.

2: Prowise Reflect: Want to get your computer display on the big screen but can’t be faffed with cables? The ProLine+ has Prowise Reflect for wireless sharing of screens, download the app to your device and share it easily with the group.

3: ProWrite Ink:  The ProLine+ touch is powered by Infared (tracking 20 points of touch), but it also has a very slick pen powered by (magic) electro-magnets.  This means you can write on the board just as you do on paper, the harder you press the thicker your line gets, and you can rest your hand on the screen as you write, as the pen cancels out the IR touch. You have to actually do this yourself to experience what a great experience it is.

4:  Full 7 year warranty.  If you do invest in this technology for your Huddle Rooms you will want to get a good return on investment. The ProLine+ is built to last with an industry beating 7 year full warranty. I won’t bore you with the costs and maths, but over the 7 years you could get this solution for around £480 per year.  You won’t be able to put a figure easily on the results of your employees collaborating but my guess is that even with a handful of meetings a month this cost will be coming back to your business ten fold.

5: Flexibility.  Huddle room design is still evolving and local space and the layout of your building will dictate how you set up your spaces. But why commit to fixing the screens on the wall when Prowise have built a custom mobile lift for the ProLine+ ?

This means the screen can be raised and lowered within the meeting, but the screen can also be wheeled to other parts of the room for other purposes. Having a large meeting? Wheel your 3 huddle screens into a single room and you have a huge presentation area.  Outgrow your office and have to move to a totally new one? Take the screens with you with no de/reinstall costs.


If you would like a demonstration of the ProLine+ and how it can help you make a great Huddle room, then get in touch.

Making Sense of Touch Screens

In November I found a new position working at Prowise. Prowise is a manufacturer of interactive touch screens and my job is to help spread the word about just how good Prowise Touch Screens are and the possibilities they create.

When I joined Prowise in many ways I felt like I was coming home; a strange emotion for someone starting at a company but I’d spent so long in the IWB industry that I realised that this is where I do my best work and am happiest. I’d first got up close and personal to an IWB when I won a research contract to evaluate the Whiteboard rollout at St Thomas Aquins School in Edinburgh. A few years later I was tempted into a commercial role and left the hallowed halls of academia.  Joining Prowise and starting at a company that innovates ruthlessly and won’t take second-best in any circumstance is very exhilarating – and just a bit scary.

One of the tasks I set myself over the break, was some in-depth research on the touch screen market, and all the other companies who make touch screens and market them to education.  I’m stupidly nosey which means I love to know what products and services the competition are offering.

This research took quite a chunk of the Christmas break, and I approached it by visiting the websites of all of the main players in the market and really spending time getting to know their solutions and what they thought was good about their kit.  I also spent some time pretending to be a teacher, member of SLT or IT Manager who was trying to make sense of the touch screen market.

  1. Would the websites help me make decision?
  2. Would I be faced with endless technical jargon and other rubbish?
  3. Would I know what to buy and why to buy it?

I knew what I would find before I even started the task; and the results surprised me not one bit.

So here are my conclusions:

1: The market is complicated and opaque.  Making sense of each company’s offering is difficult.  It is easy to get bamboozled by technical jargon, and if that isn’t bad enough, you have to also wade through endless marketing guff distilled into trite phrases such as: ‘breaking down the barriers to communication‘; ‘setting the classroom free‘; ‘touching your better self‘ and so on.  (These are all invented examples of course, but you get the idea!)

2: Most manufacturers have too many product lines which confuses people even more.  Choice is having meaningful decisions to make, rather than being faced with a huge list of “blah, blah blah”.  Often touch screens are divided into ‘corporate’ and ‘education’ models.  Too many times this is the identical touch screen, just bundled with different software. Often you pay more for the corporate model which means you are shelling out hard-earned cash for some second rate software which in other circumstances the manufacturer couldn’t give away for free. I’m no business guru, but my feeling is that post-2008 companies are equally as careful with how they spend their money as schools, so why rip them off? Some manufacturer’s models differ by just a single number e.g. EF-455B and EF455B2 but are quite different (HD versus 4K for instance).

3: Software is a huge problem.  Software is needed to get the most out of any touch screen solution, I knew that even as a young and foolish researcher in a windswept Edinburgh in 2003, but so many manufacturers do not let you trial their software, so you have to wait until you are a customer or get a demo. This is not good; if the software is as good as you think it is, then let people try it out for themselves. If you are going to charge extra for software then this is a perfectly logical business model, but you need to let people browsing your website know this sooner rather than later. They will be putting together a budget for the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for this stuff!!

4:  People will easily get confused about whether the boards come with a mainboard or not. The trend is for manufacturers to add a basic Android computer or similar mini-PC-thingy to a screen so that you can switch it on and get access to features such as whiteboarding or even browsing without the need to connect a PC. Whether the screen had a mainboard or not and what it could do was clear on only a handful of manufacturer’s websites.  This is not a minor thing, being able to use the screen without a PC could be crucial for what you need the screen for.

I ended up with a 35 page document of my findings.  But the 4 points above are a fair distillation of what I found.  Maybe I approached the exercise in too cynical a frame of mind? Perhaps I’m just an old ed-tech lag hankering after days of simplicity which are long gone?

And Prowise? Where does Prowise fit into this….

Let’s look back at the 4 points:

1: Complex and Opaque
Prowise put the most important information on a single web page so you can compare the boards easily.  If you want more technical information to feed your inner geek we can give that to you until your eyes roll back in your head, but when you are looking for the salient points you get them. Simple

2: Complex Product Lines
Prowise have just 2 product lines, EntryLine and Proline+
The product line names explain what the products are. All screens are 4k. EntryLine screen sizes are:  65, 75, 86, Proline+  are: 65 and 75. Simple.

3: Inacccessible software
Prowise boards come with Prowise Presenter software.  This is cloud-based whiteboarding software and we offer a free account to everyone, whether the school has a Prowise Screen or not.  You can click the button at the top right of the site to create your free account. This is full access to all features of Presenter, nothing locked or disabled.  So you can try our software out to see if it works for you on any screen. Simple.

4. Mainboard or not?
Prowise boards (EntryLine and Proline+) come with Prowise Central pre-loaded, this is a mainboard running Android. This means you can start the screen with no PC and get whiteboarding.  Want to save your stuff?  Save it to the mainboard memory or take a snapshot of a QR code with your phone and it transfer there immediately.  Need to check something out online? A browser is included.  Want to change source because you finally decided to plug your laptop in? Just select the source from the OnScreen menu and off you go.  Launch Prowise Central by placing your 5 fingers on the screen. Do what you need to do, then dismiss it. Simple.

It. Is. That. Simple.

If want to see what Prowise can do for your school then we’ll come and do a demo for you.
Just don’t expect us to ‘touch your better self’ 😉




Getting the best out of BETT…

These chumps have got BETT all wrong. Firstly they are not wearing clothes, and secondly they’ve gone on the train, not a in time machine…

Woohoo; BETT 2015 is well underway.  But the question on every teacher’s lips is ‘how do we get the best out of BETT?’

In order to answer that question I interviewed Professor Carry Luban, who is Professor of Futurology at Chorley University. Professor Luban has been going to BETT since its beginnings in 1972 where it was just 3 blokes in corduroy sat around a table waiting for someone to invent a computer which was cheap enough to use in schools.  Years on, Carry will be sharing her knowledge and expertise to help you get the most out of of BETT.

Travelling to BETT

MJP: So Professor Carry, let’s start with the basics, how would you advise teachers to get to the BETT show?

Professor Carry: Well most people will go on the docklands light railway from London out to the Excel centre, but this is the first mistake they will make.  The journey from central London to the exhibition centre takes around 9 hours, with 227 stops en route, many of them at stations invented just to hold the train up, such as ‘Gorblimey Parade’ and ‘Citytwat Plaza’.  The journey is so long that the train drivers all died of boredom and had to be replaced by souped-up Raspberry Pi’s.

A far better way of getting to BETT is via a time-travel enabled vehicle such as a modified De Lorean or one of the steampunk mash up things you get in a Jules Verne film.  If you travel to BETT in a time machine, you won’t make the basic error of going to the 2015 show, instead you can go to the 2020 show, or even the 2030 one.  Then you can be sure that you’ll be right on the (b)leading edge. You can return to school and wow them with tales of computers no larger than a button which project the screen direct into your brain and you control them by thought, with software so adaptive that it knows what you want to learn before you even know yourself and has taught you it as well, and even a Smartphone which can last all day without needing to be recharged.

Truly a vision of the classroom of tomorrow. Just remember to take £475 with you, in case you need to buy a sandwich.

What to wear at BETT

MJP: Many teachers will be scouring blogs like this for advice on what to wear whilst at the BETT show, what is your advice?

Professor Carry: My advice is to wear clothes.  And if you can, wear your own clothes.  Other people’s clothes may not fit; they may be too tight and chafe as you go round the show. Going naked to the BETT show is not a good idea as this means you won’t have any pockets to put your free pens in, you’ll get cold waiting for the train, and of course you will violate universally accepted human behaviour codes which state roughly that you shouldn’t go out in public in the nack.

MJP: So not a case of emperor’s new clothes then?

Professor Carry: I think we can leave the emperor’s new clothes meme for the stands…

MJP: And what should you wear on your feet?

Professor Carry: Shoes, definitely shoes. I once went to BETT wearing scooped out avocado shells on my feet and it just didn’t work.  I was only just past the part where a surly blokes zaps your badge and they fell apart. On the plus side my feet were beautifully moisturised that year.

Get a GamePlan

MJP: So now to the most important part of the interview. The teachers have managed to find their way to BETT and are wearing clothes and shoes… what should they do next?

Professor Carry: The vital thing about BETT is to always have a gameplan. Just don’t go meandering around the hall expecting to get what you want, instead be ruthless and plan a strategy in advance. Remember if you are teacher then your aim is to collect as much free stuff as possible. Concentrate on pens. Get as many free pens as you can, remember it’ll be a year before you’re back, so stock up, go crazy.  Fill your boots, or even your avocado shells.  And once you have pens covered, concentrate on bags.  Get as many bags as you can. If you go batshit crazy collecting bags then you’ll end up with so many you won’t be able to carry them. You’ll need to get a bag just to carry your bags, and then a bag to carry that bag..

MJP: What kinds of conversations should teachers have with people on the stands?

Professor Carry: What kind of idiot question is that? Carry’s first rule of BETT is never to speak to the stand staff. If you have to approach a stand for the purposes of swagging free stuff, then sidle up sideways like a teenager buying his first pack of condoms from the village barbers. Never make eye contact with the staff, and hide your badge inside your jacket.  If an earnest young man with floppy hair wearing a printed T-shirt called Sebastian does manage to ask you a question, then just mumble something about ‘having no budget’ or if that fails speak in a Scandinavian accent and explain you have lost touch with your travelling companions from Helsinki.  Remember stand staff are not there to explain the product to you, they are just a human barrier between you and the free stuff on the stands.  If stuff gets too confusing then just head to an enormous stand for a company with a household name like Microsoft and hang about on that.  After 15 minutes or so you may have no idea what Microsoft have to do with educational technology. But don’t worry about that, none of the stand staff do either.

MJP: But if teachers don’t talk to people on the stands, how will they share their insights back in school and make recommendations to SMT about where to spend the ICT budget?

Professor Carry: That’s easy, when you get back to school, spend a few minutes on Google looking up the products you were sent to BETT to find out about. All of the details will be on the website and you can request demos very easily. It’s almost like the BETT show wasn’t really needed in the first place.

MJP: What should headteachers and budget holders do at BETT?

Professor Carry: They should remember Carry’s first rule of BETT: ‘you are here to buy technology you don’t understand, at a price you can’t afford, to solve a problem your school does not have, and which your teachers will probably never use’.  If you stick to this rule you can’t go far wrong.

MJP: I thought Carry’s first rule of BETT was never to speak to stand staff?

Professor Carry: whatever…

BETT trends this year

MJP: So what trends have you noticed at this year’s BETT show?

Professor Carry: good question, when I visited the 2015 show, 5 years ago I noticed a few important new trends. The first one was bags; bags are always big news at BETT, but this year there’s even more bags than usual. So bag yourself your bag, and then another one to put that bag in and so on.  The second one is the concept of ‘device agnoticism’

MJP: ‘Device Agnosticism’ sounds very complicated, can you explain it in layman’s terms?

Professor Carry. Of course. Well being ‘agnostic’ is not really believing properly in something. Lots of technologies are only built for one particular platform or hardware.  The technologies probably won’t work, but they only don’t work on a single platform. When a technology is ‘device agnostic’ that means you don’t believe it will work on any platform at all. This is obviously much better, instead of a technology not working on one thing, it doesn’t work on anything at all, and that must be progress,

MJP: Thank you Professor Carry for those wise words.

Professor Carry: no, thank you…  by the way that pen you’re using, can I have it. It would fit just nicely in this bag.

Scaring the C++P out of KS1 teachers….

So it’s July and now we have sight of the new Computing part of the National Curriculum. On taking office, Michael Gove was determined to impose rigour on a curriculum he had argued had become flaccid and unchallenging during the new Labour years and very soon he had his sights

on the ICT curriculum. There was much evidence that work for students, particularly in Key Stage 3 when they went to Secondary school was not challenging, and at worst little more than a continual rehash of Microsoft Office skills. Of course that caricature has power as anecdotal evidence and it was not the case that ICT had become moribund in all schools. But during my time as a researcher going into schools I did see some pretty boring ICT lessons and talked to students who felt they did much more creative things with computing outside the school curriculum. So Gove sucked ICT into the maelstrom of his National Curriculum reforms, and the term ICT was ditched in favour of the more rigorous term ‘computing;. During the planning of the curriculum many bodies (including the British Computer Society and Mirandanet) gave evidence as to what should be in the new curriculum, and a concensus of such emerged that there should be more emphasis on programming and coding. So the conceptual workout provided by figuring out how to write computer programs was to replace endless dicking around with fancy fonts and Word Art. Which is probably no bad thing.

But reading the curriculum today I was struck by how the concept of rigour had rather taken hold of the thing too much, in fact it seems to have created some rather questionable ideas about what can be taught appropriately at certain ages. I reserve my comments here solely to the KS1 curriculum, with a reminder that these are children between the ages of 5 and 7.

Here is the first part of the curriculum

Key stage 1
Pupils should be taught to:

  •  understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented as programs on digital devices; and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions 

actually, let’s just take those first 4 words ‘understand what algorithms are’ and look in a little more detail about what is being asked of young children and their teachers here. If you set off to find a hard and fast definition of what an algorithm is, you will soon realise that a straight forward unequivocal definition is not easy to find.  Computer scientists and mathematicians will argue about exactly what constitutes an algorithm and even a cursory search through literature in the material will soon have you enmeshed deep in the conceptual difficulties of computation, Turing Machines and Hilbert’s ‘decision problem’. At its most basic an Algorithm is a series of steps through which a problem can be solved (in this case by a digital computer). But an algorithm is not necessarily the same as a computer program.

Firstly you can write computer programs which solve nothing and therefore are not algorithms.  Showing my age here, my first computer program (in BASIC) was the 80s classic

10 PRINT “hello world”

20 GOTO 10

This made  a very pretty pattern on the screen and delighted teenage boys, and it is clearly a computer program (when you type RUN it did something). But it’s not an algorithm because it doesn’t solve a problem, and even worse it’s non-terminating, the program will run for ever until you hit the ESC key and saved the computer from its hellish loop. An algorithm has a clear set of steps and a procedure for termination (just like a good drinker, it knows when it’s had enough and stops)  At the other end of the scale from my jejune tinkering with the Commodore PET in 1983, it is the case that more complex computer programs may have thousands of algorithms contained within them. Most often these are nested like Russian dolls with the output of one algorithm feeding into the input of another in myriad patterns of dizzying complexity (to us humans at least). The next time your computer screen freezes, you can be sure that somewhere in the bowels of your computer two or more algorithms have had a falling out and the consequences of this are slowing your game of angry birds to an agonising crawl.

The conceptual complexities of algorithms are fascinating but is it not too much to expect KS1 teachers to grasp these when they have to be generalists, teaching every subject in the curriculum?  This is not meant as patronising towards these teachers, in fact I have nothing but admiration for their skills and I know enough about schools to realise I would probably last about 15 minutes in charge of a KS1 class.  The question remains why the curriculum obsesses about teaching this notion of an algorithm to such young children and what they think will be gained from doing this.  I imagine that this first part of the curriculum will scare the C++P out of many Ks1 teachers who will either ignore it completely (in which case the curriculum is poorly framed  as it is asking something which cannot be done), or they may come up with a notion of what an algorithm which is not correct and therefore risk confusing children unnecessarily.  I searched in vain for any government support documents or extra guidance to help explain this concept of the algorithm to teachers who will be delivering this curriculum from 2014 and could find none. That is perhaps not unsurprising for a DfE which under Gove’s custody has become extremely good at dictating terms to schools, but not so good at supporting them.

Just to be clear, I think that teaching older children (from KS2 onwards) about algorithms and computer programming is a great idea, but I see little evidence that the new curriculum takes account of what children at KS1 are able to learn (in a way which is genuinely) and what their teachers are able to teach them concerning the complexities of computing science.

I think it would  have been better to have framed the KS1 curriculum to have some programming in (as it does), and omitted the notion of algorithms at this stage to avoid unnecessary complexity (coincidentally a trait of a good programmer is to do this too).  This would be something along the lines of ‘Pupils should be taught to understand that computers run programs which consist of a series of precise instructions’. For me this sounds more realistic, more achievable at KS1 and avoids the unnecessary fetishisation of the concept of the algorithm.

But if you think differently, please go ahead and leave a comment.