Everyone who has taught children before will know the excited gleam in their eyes when the lessons include something to interact with physically. Whether it’s printed and painstakingly laminated flashcards, laser-cut models, or robots, learners’ motivation to engage with the topic will increase along with the noise levels in the classroom.
However, these hands-on activities are often seen as merely a technique to raise interest, or a nice extra project for children to do before the ‘actual learning’ can begin. But what if this is the wrong way to think about this type of activity?
How do children learn?
In our 2023 online research seminar series, focused on computing education for primary-aged (K–5) learners, we delved into the most recent research aimed at enhancing learning experiences for students in the earliest stages of education. From a deep dive into teaching variables to exploring the integration of computational thinking, our series has looked at the most effective ways to engage young minds in the subject of computing.
It’s only fitting that in our final seminar in the series, Anaclara Gerosa from the University of Glasgow tackled one of the most fundamental questions in education: how do children actually learn? Beyond the conventional methods, emerging research has been shedding light on a fascinating approach — the concept of grounded cognition. This theory suggests that children don’t merely passively absorb knowledge; they physically interact with it, quite literally ‘grasping’ concepts in the process.
Grounded cognition, also known in variations as embodied and situated cognition, offers a new perspective on how we absorb and process information. At its core, this theory suggests that all cognitive processes, including language and thought, are rooted in the body’s dynamic interactions with the environment. This notion challenges the conventional view of learning as a purely cognitive activity and highlights the impact of action and simulation.
There is evidence from many studies in psychology and pedagogy that using hands-on activities can enhance comprehension and abstraction. For instance, finger counting has been found to be essential in understanding numerical systems and mathematical concepts. A recent study in this field has shown that children who are taught basic computing concepts with unplugged methods can grasp abstract ideas from as young as 3. There is therefore an urgent need to understand exactly how we could use grounded cognition methods to teach children computing — which is arguably one of the most abstract subjects in formal education.
A recent study in this field has shown that children who are taught basic computing concepts with unplugged methods can grasp abstract ideas from as young as 3.
A new framework for teaching computing
Anaclara is part of a group of researchers at the University of Glasgow who are currently developing a new approach to structuring computing education. Their EIFFEL (Enacted Instrumented Formal Framework for Early Learning in Computing) model suggests a progression from enacted to formal activities.
Following this model, in the early years of computing education, learners would primarily engage with activities that allow them to work with tangible 3D objects or manipulate intangible objects, for instance in Scratch. Increasingly, students will be able to perform actions in an instrumented or virtual environment which will require the knowledge of abstract symbols but will not yet require the knowledge of programming languages. Eventually, students will have developed the knowledge and skills to engage in fully formal environments, such as writing advanced code.
In a recent literature review, Anaclara and her colleagues looked at existing research into using grounded cognition theory in computing education. Although several studies report the use of grounded approaches, for instance by using block-based programming, robots, toys, or construction kits, the focus is generally on looking at how concrete objects can be used in unplugged activities due to specific contexts, such as a limited availability of computing devices.
The next steps in this area are looking at how activities that specifically follow the EIFFEL framework can enhance children’s learning.
You can watch Anaclara’s seminar here:
You can also access the presentation slides here.
Try grounded activities in your classroom
Research into grounded cognition activities in computer science is ongoing, but we encourage you to try incorporating more hands-on activities when teaching younger learners and observing the effects yourself. Here are a few ideas on how to get started:
- Try out one of our hands-on lessons and learning activities for young learners from The Computing Curriculum. For example, in this Programming unit for Year 1 learners (aged 5–6), students learn how to program with the help of reenactments and classroom robots.
- Explore the ‘Teach Data Literacy’ guide, developed by the Data Education in Schools team, which offers some practical activities to support young learners to develop their data literacy skills. You can find out more about the Data Education in Schools initiative in Kate Farrell and Judy Robertson’s seminar on teaching primary learners how to be data citizens from May 2023.
- Check out Barefoot Computing, which offers a range of resources for early years education that involve physical manipulation and simulation.
Join us at our next seminar
In 2024, we are exploring different ways to teach and learn programming, with and without AI tools. In our next seminar, on 13 February at 17:00 GMT, Majeed Kazemi from the University of Toronto will be joining us to discuss whether AI-powered code generators can help K–12 students learn to program in Python. All of our online seminars are free and open to everyone. Sign up and we’ll send you the link to join on the day.