Unplugged activities are tasks that take place away from a computer in order to model key concepts (e.g. selection, variables, algorithms) in different ways. The term ‘unplugged’ originated with the CS Unplugged project in the 1990s, and it has become a popular approach to teaching computational thinking and other computer science concepts. You can find a large number of specific examples for Key Stage 1 and 2 lessons on the Barefoot website.
Below you will learn about the two main reasons why this type of activity can be particularly useful for teaching learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
Making the abstract tangible
Curzon et al. (2018, Computer Science Education, ed. Sentance et al.) detail how unplugged activities can help learners understand abstract concepts through physical objects that can be touched, manipulated, and described:
“This can make it much easier to explore the concepts involved and makes it easier to ask questions about things that aren’t understood. […] By providing a physical representation, the learner can point to and ask the question at the level of the analogy rather than having to fully verbalize it at the technical level.”
This can be of great benefit to learners with communication or learning difficulties who find abstract concepts difficult and require a multimodal approach. Unplugged activities can include a range of sensory approaches, from physical movement to music, and from manipulating objects to drawing pictures. Learners can make a tangible connection with an abstract concept, such as count-controlled loops or the internet, helping them to create a mental model.
Harnessing authentic and familiar contexts
Teachers can use familiar contexts to teach new concepts and knowledge through unplugged activities. For example, you can introduce count-controlled loops through dance, or create search algorithms to match up odd socks. This approach will help to reduce the cognitive load of learning new information, by reducing the number of unknown elements being introduced.
The added bonus of being able to harness a range of contexts is that learners with a specific set of interests can be motivated through their passions. Curzon et al. explain that “if topics can be set in a context that relates to a student’s interests and pre-existing knowledge and understanding, then that interest can drive their learning” (ibid.).
Many students with learning difficulties and other special educational needs find it difficult to make connections between what they are learning in one context and another, and “teachers need to spend time helping students connect new knowledge, skills and strategies to different contexts rather than expecting that transfer will happen spontaneously” (Westwood, P. (2013) Learning and Learning Difficulties: Approaches to teaching and assessment.).
An explicit link needs to be made between the unplugged activity and the computational model that it is helping to describe. This is good practice for all learners, but some learners with SEND may need extra support to make the connection.
For example, when teaching the concept of selection using everyday instructions (for example, “If you have brown hair, then hop 3 times, else sit on the floor”), make links with the programming software being studied and what it looks like. Discuss why we use selection in programming, and trace through existing code together to find examples of selection. Model the key language throughout the unplugged activity, to help as a prompt when revisiting the concept.
When moving on to programming activities, refer back to the unplugged activity: “Do you remember when…? What happened when…? What was this called?”. This will help learners make the connection with what they learnt previously and apply it in the new context.
In the next step, you will learn about some examples of unplugged activities that can be effective for learners with SEND.
In the comments, share an example of how you make links between an unplugged activity and a corresponding programming activity, and how you help students to apply the learning between contexts.