From French and Spanish to Computer Science

24 September 2020

Rebecca Connell talks us through her journey into computer science teaching. From starting out as a Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) teacher, to becoming the Head of Computing at The Cowplain School. Rebecca shares her unique experience and insight, through her engagement with our Computer Science Accelerator programme and the online courses supported by Google.

I originally trained as an MFL teacher, specialising in French and Spanish. I have spent my teaching career working at The Cowplain School, a wonderful, inclusive 11–16 secondary school in Hampshire. Bizarrely, it is the school that I attended as a pupil many moons ago. Early in my career, I took the opportunity to teach IT. This was well within my comfort zone - once I had undertaken a web design course - as I had previously worked for a large corporation and had top Microsoft Office skills! I am now Head of Computing, a role I manage on a 70% part-time timetable. We currently deliver GCSE computer science, and until this year had offered an alternative qualification such as Creative iMedia. The biggest challenge for me has been the move away from an IT to a computing curriculum. To say this has been a steep learning curve is an understatement!

Initially I had little knowledge of computer systems or programming. As I was nudged towards teaching GCSE computing, I was daunted at first by the technical nature of the subject matter. I was fortunate to teach KS3 initially, whilst continuing with GCSE IT. However, before I knew it I had picked up some GCSE classes. In upskilling, what surprised me most was the creative nature of the subject. I tell my students that we are the most creative subject, as they can literally make anything they can imagine — there's always a way!

I had a GCSE in computer science from way back. I remember completing a programming project for my coursework element. It was a program that converts binary to denary written in BASIC — still relevant! When we visit the National Museum of Computing, I love seeing my students code on their vintage BBC machines. Initially, I undertook some one-day programming courses in Python. These were impactful and gave me the basics to start coding. Since then, I have worked steadily to improve my coding knowledge. I learn from wherever I can — often from my students! Recently, I have found the Raspberry Pi courses, as part of Computer Science Accelerator programme,  to be really useful in building confidence and taking my skills further. The frustration is the same as any computing teacher — being dragged away to work on other things. I would love more time to code. So far, I have completed Programming 101— great for revision and teaching ideas and am now into Programming 102. I have passed the Computer Science Accelerator programme and it feels good to have some sort of certification having come from a different subject background.

Most of the computer systems knowledge I initially learnt from books. Although I am now taking some online courses on computer systems and networks to firm up my knowledge — my greatest fear is saying something that's not strictly accurate! These courses also give alternative explanations of the trickiest concepts. I think one of our greatest challenges is making abstract concepts concrete. These courses have some good ideas to help explain complex concepts to students.

I really like the new resources and supporting materials from the NCCE — these have really helped me to look again at our curriculum. They are easy to follow and include everything you need to take students forward, including lesson plans. Next I would like some trickier programming challenges — with possible solutions! And a way to teach search and sort algorithms at key stage 3, please! Students get the physical explanation, but the code is harder. Other resources I would use include glossaries with clear definitions and knowledge organisers to cover KS3 and KS4 knowledge. These are things that I make myself at the moment.

During lockdown, I have spent a lot of time developing our curriculum. I want it to be exciting for the students, but it also needs to be deliverable by non-specialist computer science teachers. Our department is supported by an excellent PE teacher who delivers lessons in Years 7, 8, and 9. She has also enjoyed completing some of the National Centre for Computing Education courses to help her to deliver the new curriculum and is also enjoying her learning journey.