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Skip to 0 minutes and 3 secondsThe unplugged approach allows learners to access computing concepts without the use of a computer, making lessons engaging and accessible to a variety of learners. It demonstrates that computer science is not about using computers, but exploring its fundamental concepts. There are key demographics that are underrepresented in computer science, people from minority ethnic groups, people with an educational need or disability, girls, and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Research suggests that using unplugged activities may encourage more learners from groups to participate in computer science. Unplugged approaches work best when they are used to introduce a new concept to your learners that might be difficult to grasp through a typical theory lesson such as Boolean logic. Boolean logic is an essential element of programming.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 secondsIn key stage three, your learners need to know how to evaluate Boolean expressions using operators AND, OR, and NOT. Before trying this in a programming language, you could carry out an unplugged activity using playing cards. Have your learners each choose a playing card. Then move to an area marked true or false, depending on the Boolean expression, such as king AND hearts, spade OR diamonds, higher than five AND black, queen OR king and NOT red.

Skip to 1 minute and 41 secondsOnce your learners make all their decisions, check for any misconceptions and address them, the Boolean expression should increase in complexity as learners become more comfortable with the terms used. Playing cards are inclusive, because they don't rely on physical features to carry out a true or false activity. You can even take it to the next level and use jumbo sized cards and lots of space to move around to make it as visual and kinesthetic as possible. This type of unplugged activity will help learners understand the concepts of Boolean logic before progressing to a programming activity. In the next step, you'll explore Boolean expressions further using a Scratch project. Which unplugged approaches have you used already? How successful were they?

Skip to 2 minutes and 27 secondsHow did you connect the unplugged activity with the concept that you were aiming to teach? Share your experiences and ideas in the comments section.

The unplugged approach

The unplugged approach was originally created to allow learners to access computing concepts without the use of a computer. This had benefits in making lessons engaging and accessible to a variety of learners. It also helped to demonstrate that computer science is not about using computers, but exploring the fundamental concepts of computer science. The approach was made popular after Tim Bell, Mike Fellows, and Ian Witten published a book called Computer Science Unplugged: Off-line Activities and Games for All Ages. This has since been developed into a popular website with downloadable resources for educators.

The meaning of unplugged has evolved and continues to evolve as we learn more about computing pedagogy.

Despite research findings around unplugged approaches being mixed, educators continue to use the approach in their classrooms. This is because the approach appeals to and engages with a wide variety of learners.

Tim Bell and Jan Vahrenhold wrote a 2018 paper titled CS Unplugged — How Is It Used, and Does It Work? In their paper they note how unplugged activities might contribute to broader participation in computer science. According to the latest Roehampton Annual Computing Education Report there are key groups that are underrepresented in computer science: people from minority ethnic groups, people with an educational need or disability, girls, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds. The CS Unplugged paper shows that there is some evidence that unplugged activities encourage more learners from these groups to study computer science.

What does an unplugged activity look like?

CS Unplugged states that “students are given challenges based on a few simple rules, and in the process of solving those challenges they uncover powerful ideas on their own”. They go on to suggest that unplugged activities should be very kinaesthetic and “the bigger the materials, the better’.

If you want to start using unplugged activities in your classroom, these websites are a good starting point:

An unplugged example: introducing Boolean logic

Unplugged approaches work best when they are used to introduce a new concept to your learners that might be difficult to grasp through a typical theory lesson. Using Boolean logic is an essential element of programming. At Key Stage 3, we want our learners to be able to know how to evaluate Boolean expressions, with particular focus on the operators AND, OR, and NOT. Before trying this in a programming language you could carry out an unplugged activity.

selection cards including four of clubs, king of hearts, seven of spades, three of diamonds and queen of clubs

The set-up

You will need:

  • Jumbo playing cards
  • A large space to move around (ideally a playground or field)
  • Either chalk for writing on the floor or two large signs for “True” and “False”

The activity

Give each learner a playing card and ask them to study it. They will need to know:

  • The colour
  • The suit
  • The number of the card, or jack, queen, king, ace, joker

They also need to know whether the ace is high or low.

Make sure that learners know where to go if they think their card represents True or False. This could be a giant chalk circle on the floor or a certain area of the classroom depending on your setting.

It is now time to start the activity. Learners must listen carefully to the Boolean expressions and decide whether their card would be evaluated as True or False for that expression. They then walk to either the True or the False area.

Some example Boolean expressions could be:

  • King AND hearts
  • spade OR hearts
  • Higher than five AND red
  • (Queen OR king) AND black

Once they have all made their decisions, take some time to check for any misconceptions and address them. The Boolean expressions should increase in complexity as learners become more comfortable with the terms used.

Why playing cards?

Playing cards are inclusive because they do not rely on a child’s features to carry out a True or False activity. It might be tempting to have Boolean expressions like “Is a boy”, “Is taller than 1.2 metres”, or “Has blonde hair”. These kinds of questions can make your learners uncomfortable and aren’t inclusive. Playing cards allow for lots of Boolean expressions to be used and are generic.

Moving to the computers

This type of unplugged activity will help learners understand the concepts of Boolean logic. The next logical step would be to get your learners to complete a programming activity that involves this concept, for example the Boolean expressions Scratch project I’ll show in the next step.

Discuss

  • Which unplugged approaches have you used already?
  • How successful were they?
  • How did you connect the unplugged activity with the concept that you were aiming to teach?

Leave your answers in the comments section.

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Programming Pedagogy in Secondary Schools: Inspiring Computing Teaching

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