Making sense of computer networks in Year 6

Thanks to Computing teacher, Neil Rickus, for this blog post which looks at a recent lesson on networks he carried out with his Year 6 class.

Earlier this month, we received Rising Stars’ second edition of Switched on Computing Year 6 and, having successfully programmed adventure stories in Python, as outlined in Claire Lotriet’s recent blog post, I was keen to begin teaching the children subsequent units.

We’ve been using Switched on Computing since the new Computing curriculum was introduced in September 2014 and it was evident pupils’ understanding of key Computing concepts was increasingly advanced, so I chose the We are network technicians unit for our next sequence of lessons, which focuses on how computers communicate and transfer data. The Computing curriculum states by the end of KS2, pupils should:

  • understand computer networks including the internet; how they can provide multiple services, such as the world wide web; and the opportunities they offer for communication and collaboration

However, when speaking to other teachers, this topic can be seen as difficult to teach, as the theory is often delivered away from the machines (known as Computing Unplugged). Therefore, in order to engage children, it was great to see how Switched on Computing combined unplugged activities with those taking place at the machines.
The initial lesson in the unit, Communicating digitally, examines how text is represented in a digital format and a number of pupils had extended their learning beyond the topics studied in class by also investigating how images are stored. With this in mind, I ensured the second lesson in unit, What is the Internet?, as outlined below, provided opportunities for pupils to further research the topic if required. I also checked my subject knowledge was up to speed by using Switched on Computing’s CPD videos.
I started the What is the Internet? session by asking pupils to discuss what they knew about how the Internet worked. From this task, it became evident that the children were familiar with terms such as router and server, with many pupils aware their Instagram photos were stored on a server. We also made an extremely interesting attempt at trying to draw the Internet, which culminated in a jumble of lines connected to a few clouds!

Rather than simply describing the various networking components, we now, “walked the network”, to see the route data takes when travelling from children’s machines to a location on the Internet. Starting from the Ethernet cable coming out the back of the machine, we followed the cable to the network switch in the room, then to the server room in the adjacent building and subsequently to the cabinet located on the street. As the pupils began to make sense of the various network components, I was extremely pleased with their questions, which related to their experiences outside the classroom, such as, “does Windows firewall work in the same way as our school firewall?”, and, “is the Internet connection at school quicker than at my house?” Our IT technician was also on hand to provide more details for those children wanting to develop their understanding further, along with a list of networking equipment for further exploration.

Once back in the classroom, we watched the video A Packet’s Tale which details how data is split into blocks, called packets, in order to be transmitted from one machine to another. In addition to preparing the pupils for the activities involving packets in the next session, Passing messages, this led to a conversation on how the Internet and the World Wide Web were not the same thing, so we also watched a BBC Bitesize video on this topic.  

Due to there potentially being limited evidence of pupils’ understanding from the session, we finished with a brief class quiz using Kahoot. This “gamifies” assessment by awarding points for correct responses and allows the teacher to analyse pupils’ answers once the activity has ended. The quiz identified how some pupils needed further work to understand the acronym ISP (Internet Service Provider), so I ensured this was mentioned a number of times in the subsequent session. Despite this, recall of key terms in the next lesson was extremely encouraging and pupils even asked to “walk the network” again!

As with programming, the Computing curriculum specifies the concepts children need to understand when it comes to examining networks, rather than outlining the technology to use within lessons. As seen in this Switched on Computing unit, I would certainly recommend using a range of approaches, both away from the computers and at the machines, in order to help children make sense of one of the curriculum’s trickiest areas.

Want to find out more about the new Switched on Computing Year 6? You can download a free sample activity to try out in your classroom here.


computing, on, switched

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