Abstraction in action: K-5 teachers' uses of levels of abstraction, particularly the design level, in teaching programming.

  • Jane Lisa Waite Queen Mary University of London King's College London
  • Paul Curzon Queen Mary University of London
  • William Marsh Queen Mary University of London
  • Sue Sentance King's College London
  • Alex Hadwen-Bennett King's College London
Keywords: design, abstraction, levels of abstraction, computational thinking, programming, K-5, algorithm


Research indicates that understanding levels of abstraction (LOA) and being able to move between the levels is essential to programming success. For K-5 contexts we rename the LOA levels: problem, design, code and running the code.  In our qualitative exploratory study, we interviewed five K-5 teachers on their uses of LOA, particularly the design level, in teaching programming and other subjects. Using PCK elements to analyse responses we found our teachers used design as an instructional strategy and for assessment. Our teachers used design as an aide memoire and the expert teachers used design: as a contract for pair-programming; to work out what they needed to teach; for learners to annotate with code snippets (to transition across LOA); for learners to self-assess and to assess ‘do-ability’. Teachers used planning in teaching writing to scaffold learning and promote self-regulation revealing their understanding of student understanding. One issue was of our teachers' knowledge of terms including algorithm and code; we propose a concept of ‘emergent algorithms’. Our findings suggest design helps learners learn to program in the same way that planning helps learners learn to write and that LOA, particularly the design level, may provide an accessible exemplar of abstraction in action. Further work is needed to verify whether our results are generalisable more widely.


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Author Biography

Jane Lisa Waite, Queen Mary University of London King's College London
Jane is undertaking a part-time PhD with Professor Paul Curzon at Queen Mary University of London looking at how programming is taught to primary (K-5) pupils. She is particularly interested in computational thinking and the role of abstraction and design in pedagogy. Working for King's College London, Jane is the Computing At School's Regional Manager for CAS London. Jane also works on research projects, she has worked on a review of the introduction of the Microbit,  a study of PRIMM and she was recently commisioned to provide the Pedagogy Literature Review for the Royal Societies Report on Computing Education in the UK. She provides primary computing training to trainee teachers, in-service teachers and teacher trainers as well as presenting at conferences.


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How to Cite
Waite, J. L., Curzon, P., Marsh, W., Sentance, S., & Hadwen-Bennett, A. (2018). Abstraction in action: K-5 teachers’ uses of levels of abstraction, particularly the design level, in teaching programming. International Journal of Computer Science Education in Schools, 2(1), 14-40. https://doi.org/10.21585/ijcses.v2i1.23