Flash (as in Gordon, not Marvel?)

Flash Mob – JD Hancock

Actually I mean the software. Or the plugin. Which is a big part of the problem.

“Flash Banner Ads Banished By Google”, heralds the BBC. And bang goes another nail into the lid of the coffin of a software tool I have spent years getting to grips with. This morning I saw some comments, not for the first time, suggesting that schools, and teachers, should not be “teaching Flash”.

Well, I agree, and I disagree. Teachers shouldn’t ‘teach’ specific software packages – I don’t ‘teach’ Photoshop, or Fireworks, or IDLE, or Sketchup. I hopefully teach image editing techniques, programming, problem solving and 3D modelling. It might seem a trivial difference in phrasing, but the intention it conveys and the techniques used in the classroom are very different.

As for consigning my very expensive Flash licence to the dustbin, I’m not quite so sure.

There are a couple of issues here besides pedagogical nomenclature, and while my first instinct was to defend the software with which I have a long love/hate relationship, it bears some pause for thought.

  1. Are we talking Flash the program, or Flash the plugin? The program allows me to create multimedia products – whether I choose to focus on stop frame animation, tweening, embedding of other media types or scripting. Once finished then the natural output format is a SWF file, for which you need a Flash plugin.The Flash plugin has been plagued with security holes and its demise has been clear to see for years. The newer HTML5 standard means that you no longer need to play Flash video, and Flash banner animations (the subject of today’s BBC news story) is certainly well on the way out.

    However, even in my lowly CS3 incarnation of Flash the program (released in 2007 and superseded by several newer versions) I can export projects as a Flash Movie (SWF), Quicktime video (MOV) or animated GIF (along with a host of other formats, though I find those less useful). So the animations that my Y12 students made this half term can be embedded into a website as GIFs, providing all the functionality with none of the security holes or controversy. I could create the same animation in Fireworks, but find the interface more clumsy (and that’s before we get onto the Fireworks vs Photoshop discussion on obsolescence).

  2. The Flash plugin is not dead yet! OK, it’s not a forward thinking technology. Neither is VGA and look how much fun in schools has been spoiled by having to fudge a HDMI to VGA adapter, with Raspberry Pis. There are pros and cons in looking forward and also in using what works NOW. Yes, we want to prepare students for the future, but training them in HTML5 versus teaching them principles using current tools that are mature and stable is not a simple problem to get around.

    In the meantime the Flash plugin still works, and will for some years to come. So I can still teach about frame by frame versus tweening, still Rotoscope (thanks to David Philips for showing me that one!), still help students create complex interactive products that use a range of multimedia and interactive techniques and can still get them all to work in a web browser.

  3. The alternatives aren’t (IMO) great just yet. I have some software that is great for frame by frame animation (I Can Animate, Pivot, Fireworks). There is very little out there that does tweening well (I’ve played with Swish in the past, but haven’t seen much else). There are various languages out there for scripting (VB, VBA, Javascript, Python) but none that I’ve come across that will let me combine the animation and the scripting together (and I don’t just mean a script that will play an animation, or not, but one that I can embed into the animation). Ultimately, HTML5 may well allow me to do all this, but there is no package, or set of packages, that will let me achieve what I want THAT I HAVE FOUND (I do keep looking, but tell me if you know of one!).

We do have an obligation to keep a little up to date with what we are teaching, but the skills and techniques transcend (or underpin – depending on your visualisation of choice) the tools we choose.

I find it fascinating that this comes in the same week as teachers are celebrating the release of the Usborne programming books from the 80s, surely a much more significant example of outdated software and hardware (though certainly still valuable despite that).

Is Flash the program as irrelevant to students as Flash Gordon? Or, like the Marvel version, is there still a good use for the franchise? Flash is undoubtedly on the way out, and I fully expect to be teaching the same techniques and principles using different software tools in the future. Until I can find a mature and stable product that does what I need, though, I’ll be using Flash for a little while to come.

Just say Yes!

I wonder how many times I’ve had a good idea (or a bad one) and managed to talk myself out of it. It’ll just make more work, I’ll look stupid when it falls through, I won’t pull it off, someone else would do it better than me.

I remember, some years ago, being invited down to the Emirates to do a 15 minute talk on collaborative technology. I think it was because I started a shared slideshow on Google Docs to collect and share ideas for non-techie teachers but I’m really not sure.

I’d never stood up in front of other teachers before, I was on sage or role model, I’d never even been to a conference. I read the email, read it again, thought for about 30 seconds and replied yes and hit send. I did it quick because I knew that if I thought about it I’d say no.

I didn’t know what I would say, what I would recommend or how it might be perceived. And I’d have to wangle the day out of work. But if I said yes quickly then what the hell, I’d just have to make it work. And I did.

15 tools in 15 minutes turned into a 10 minute rush through as they were running late by the time it was my turn, but it went down very well. It led to my first Teachmeet (where I further compressed it to a 7 minute version – mostly by skipping all the pauses to breathe I put into the original), a further series of sessions (including a visit to BAFTA) and ultimately, gave me the confidence to run all kinds of CPD sessions that have kept me sane.

At the same time, I’ve had lots of ideas for after school activities. I’ve bought sewable, wearable Lilypad kit, PicAXE robots, Arduino kits, Raspberry Pis and more. But my Y11s need coursework catchup time. It means more work when I am flooded with marking. It doesn’t provide ‘measurable impact’ for my appraisal. I’m tired!

However. In the same way that my CPD sessions, my CAS work and my other ‘extra’ stuff keeps me sane, running this kind of stuff is a big part of why I became a teacher in the first place. Not to get people through exams, or controlled assessment. Not to make sure my PP, SEND, Level 4, Most Able and other cohorts make the requisite demonstrations of progress according to their KS2 data. Not to convince students who ‘don’t like IT’ that they should engage for 60 minutes a week because I want them to. Those things are important, but the thing that really gets the blood flowing is working with enthusiastic people who want to know more about something.

I did that in passing before I was a teacher, and it was what made me look into a PGCE. It’s why I like running CPD for teachers. And it’s why, when I saw a tweet showing a wind speed graph at the Forth Bridge during a storm I decided I was buying a weather station, talking to the science department and doing something with students.

It’s early days, and I’m not sure I have a clear end goal – but then the end goal isn’t really the point. I’ll find some interested students, we’ll do some stuff, get lost along the way and we’ll all learn something. I don’t really know what I’m doing – so it may all go horribly wrong. It will undoubtedly cause more work for me. And I’m sure there are others (@tecoed) who could do it better. But if I don’t say yes quickly then it won’t happen. And that would be a great shame.

Re-finding my teaching mojo

Back to School – Bluesquarething

So, it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. But this year I am determined to find the time for self-reflection that I missed out on last year – and forcing myself to blog at least once a fortnight should help me do that.

The return to school after such a long break is always a funny one, and this year I’ve felt less organised than ever. Partly I think I overworked myself last year and really needed a long break, meaning that I didn’t even do the token 3 or 4 days in the run up to starting this year.

And yet, it really doesn’t take long to get back into it. This morning I felt quite disillusioned arriving at school. The same corridors, the same room, the same tip that I didn’t tidy properly at the end of term… and the same requirements to be excellent, to be outstanding, to have engaging, entertaining lessons. I really didn’t think I had the energy for it any more when I rolled up at 8am.

By third lesson I’d spent two hours with my new form, taught a tutorial lesson that didn’t result in me wanting to bang my head against a wall and was starting to take some shiny new Y7s through the intricacies of logging on. I didn’t have time be tired, found myself making jokes the kids didn’t get (is it just me that does this?) and just generally felt quite at home.

This afternoon I met both of my new Y10 classes and was impressed by their work ethic, their ability and my planning (I might be one-sided but I genuinely thought they both lessons were well paced, included varied activities and both actually had a plenary!).

So, while it seemed a dispiriting moment to be heading back to the front lines, it’s actually reminded me of all the things I love about teaching. Interactions with enthusiastic kids, being helpful and supportive, seeing people make progress on a minute by minute basis and all that stuff.

We’ll see how it goes in week two once they’ve gotten a little more comfortable 😀

On being a hard-ass

Strict rules

Originally uploaded by Craig A Rodway

This is an issue that’s plagued me since the start of my teaching career and it’s something I’ve never quite gotten to grips with.

As a child I had a lovely upbringing, but it’s fair to say that my parents had clear and high expectations of my behaviour and general attitude. I had to ask permission to leave the dinner table, I had to listen when I was spoken to and I apparently didn’t know what a good hiding was (or so my mum used to tell me).

I happen to think I turned out OK. I consider myself to be well mannered, respectful of others and I seem to do pretty well for myself in life. Seeing that this model certainly worked in my case I’ve adopted a similar approach with my own children. As my children’s dance teacher once said to me, she knows what each parent is like. Some kids they get 3 chances, some get twenty, mine get told once.

Translate that to a classroom and some kids have recently told me that I like to argue, that I need to lighten up or that they wish I wasn’t their teacher/form tutor. It’s easy to laugh that off as just kids, or say that it means I must be doing something right, but I do wonder.

As a child you make mistakes. You do things and you might or might not realise that it wasn’t a great idea. It might be how many times you can tell the same joke (any parent of a 4 year old will know that they never tire of “knock knock – Doctor Who”), how far you can go with a bit of banter before you cause offence or whether you’ll get away with playing Google Pacman instead of finishing the 3D model of a house you were asked to design.

Yes, we need to steer the youngsters right and help them to make the right decisions (in this case once, not as far as you think, probably not), but we also need to make sure that we create positive relationships built on trust, respect and safety. I worry about how much of a barrier I put up by being too strict, and have expectations about behaviour and attitude that are perhaps not realistic.

As usual this is really an opportunity for me to reflect on my own teaching rather than being aimed at an audience, so I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but I do think I probably get the balance a bit too far to one side and wonder how I can bring it back a little while still being me.

Sssh… it’s a secret!


Originally uploaded by daniel_pfund

I had a tutorial lesson today. Or maybe citizenship. Or PHSE. You get the jist…

The aim of the lesson was for the students to understand the concept of budgetting. In addition to the central aim I wanted them to appreciate what their finances might be like in the future and to compare their expectations with harsh reality.

So, printing off a semi-random budgetting sheet found on letting agent’s website we proceeded to fill it in as a class. It took the full hour.

We discussed the cost of renting vs buying, shopping at different types of supermarkets, repayments on loans for different standards of car and, with some degree of shock for the students, the difference between gross and net salaries!

At the end of it we packed up, threw the paper in the bin and went to lunch. I didn’t formally assess their work, they didn’t produce evidence of having completed tasks or showing progression in their knowledge and understanding. I would have been graded as Requires Improvement, or probably Inadequate.

And yet, I’m absolutely certain that EVERY student in that class learned something. They might not remember the figures, but they were surprised by how inaccurate their preconceptions about incomes and expenditures were, and they bought into the lesson really well.

I could have built in more activities – learning checkpoints, scaffolding, differentiated resources and mini-plenaries. And in many cases those tools are incredibly useful. But every once in a while I like to just spend the full lesson exploring something and not necessarily weighing the pig every 10 minutes to see if it’s gotten fatter.

But I’m in the middle of my appraisal, so sssh… it’s a secret! 😉

The Best Things In Life Are Free (a story about CPD)

FREE BEER 3.3 Ready to Drink!

Originally uploaded by AGoK

They say that the best things in life are free, and yet people regularly pay £200-£400 for a one day course on a variety of topics. Heck, I’ve been lucky enough to charge for running CPD sessions myself, so I’m not writing here to complain!

This last Friday, though, the decision in school was that for our staff development PD day, where previously we have had outside speakers come in and run session on whole-school issues, we would take advantage on some of the that already exists within school. Part of it is that there are pockets of expertise in one particular area and part of it is that some teachers are (naturally) better at some things than others.

Heads of department signed their staff up to 3 sessions a week before the day and the idea was to spread staff around the sessions so we can all feed back in the next departmental twilight (this week).

I signed myself up for ‘Planning for Outstanding’ delivered by a local assistant head, ‘Starters and plenaries’ jointly run by an HE and a science specialist, and ‘Building Challenge to Support Pupil Progress’ by one of our assistant heads.

Feel free to skip a section or two if you like, but as you might have guessed by the title, the day was really, really useful and productive. It did that thing that happens at Teachmeets, the CAS Conference and other events that I would class as the very best I’ve been to – left me enthused and convinced that I have the tools to be a better classroom practicioner.

I ‘decided’ before the day that it was going to be a good one and that I wasn’t going to be cynical about being told how to teach by my fellow teachers. While I mean that, it also tells you something because I initially had to decide not to be cynical. I can safely say that no conscious descision was involved in deciding that it was a genuinely powerful and incredibly worthwhile day.

Right then, gushing over, here is a breakdown of the 3 sessions (which I summarise largely for my own reflection, but also with the hope that others can steal the same ideas for themselves).

Planning for Outstanding

In this session we looked at how we can use our in-house lesson plan to plan effectively for learning and progress. This sounds a bit dry, and it’s hard for it not to be, but after the talk about Ofsted and standards and what Ofsted expect to see and how we can make sure we plan for it, the best thing to come out of the session was a really interesting version of a lesson plan that the kids get to see.

The idea is that you produce an A4 or A3 document that looks like a lesson plan but that lasts for a whole topic of work. You have aims and objectives, key words and a place for pupil and teacher comments at key stages (say three times over the course of the unit). This allows an opportunity for providng (and, perhaps mildly cynically) evidencing AfL and students’ responses to AfL. I say mildly cynically as it saddens me that we have to produce evidence for Ofsted. That said, I think that overall it leads to a positive result as this kind of back and forth can only, really, be useful for the students.

The really intriguing section, though, is the bottom half of the page. Here you have a 3 x 10 grid (assuming a 10 week topic, adjust as necessary). For each lesson there is a satisfactory, good and outstanding description of the lesson outcome (e.g. I can create a 3D drawing of a house, I can create a 3D drawing of a house and use textures to make it look realistic, I can create a 3D drawing of a house with a range of extra features such as a garden, fence, hedge and swimming pool). You could rename these as All, Most, Some; you could use grades A-B, C-D, E-F; you could use levels 4c/4b, 4a/5c, 5b/5a.

Each student gets one to stick in their books (I know, I know, ICT, I’ll come to that) and this is their primary document throughout the project. Now it’ll take some time to prepare and you need to allow some freedom for course correction along the way, but it’s basically a whole SoW mapped out from the pupils’ perspective. I’m very, very seriously considering giving it a go.

Starters and Plenaries

This was a really, really fun session. It wasn’t run by anyone above me in the food chain (which always takes the politics out of the equation) and we more or less had a load of ideas thrown at us and we got to have a go at them. Nothing makes a session like this greater than having practical things to do and much fun was had. Here is a run down of some of the ideas we tried out:

Stand Up Sit Down – Students have 4 cards pinned together on a keyring, lettered A B C and D. Stick 15 questions on a slideshow and everyone has to show a letter. Get it wrong and you’re out (but still have to play). Be still standing at the end and get a merit, sticker, sweet or some other reward.

What’s The Image? – Print a picture, get it laminated, cut it into odd shaped pieces and instant jigsaw. Starter is to assemble the picture and deduce the topic of the lesson or kick off a discussion.

Loop Cards – A bit like dominoes with a question on the right and an answer on the left. The cards go round in a circle so read your question, whoever has the answer asks the next. Time two teams or pit whole classes against each other in a time trial.

10 Questions – One volunteer (or victim) has to answer 10 questions asked by the teacher. The class don’t comment but give a tick if they think the answer is right and write their own answer if they think it’s wrong. Discuss the answers but it takes some of the pressure off the need to be right all the time.

Mystery Bag – get a cloth bag or even a box. Put objects inside that relate to a topic and students have to feel their way around and either guess the linking theme or suggest 5 more items that could be added.

Guess The Logo – Pretty simple idea, get osme logos related to the topic and remove enough detail to make them less obvious.

Question Answer Question – Write out a list of 10 questions. The students have to first answer the question, then write a new question that leads to that answer (which you can’t do if you don’t understand the topic).

Artist’s Easel – Provide a paragraph of prose explaining a method or process (e.g. how an email gets form one computer to another). Students draw a diagram to represent the process, highlight (say) 9 key words and finally perform a diamond rank or similar.

Memory Board – Put 10 or so words on the board. Give students 20 seconds to remember them then hide them. Students have to explain all of the key words on paper or whiteboards.

Weakest Link – Odd one out game, stick 4 pictures on a slide and get students to identify and justify the odd one out. Especially good if you make the answer ambiguous.

You Say We Pay – Slideshow of images related to a topic with obvious names written underneath. One (or two if you want some competition) pupils sit with their back to the screen and have to guess the object. Those giving clues aren’t allowed to use any of the words on the board.

What’s In My Head? – At the end of a lesson have a picture of a head with some key words behind it (unseen). Pupils list the keywords they think you will have included and then you can reveal the answers or get students to elaborate on their suggestions.

What’s The Question? – Based on jeopardy, have a series of answers on the whiteboard and students have to work out the questions.

Guess Who – Just like the Churchill advert (Am I…. Genghis Khan?). Laminate some A3 paper, cut into strips and apply velcro to make a headband. Laminate some people, objects or ideas and away you go.

True/False – Write some HARD true/false questions. Two teams have a go at guessing the answers – teams because this encourages debate and discussion about WHY the answer is true or false. They’re tough questions so there’s no shame in getting it wrong and even if guessing you have a 50/50 chance.

Scrambled Letters (this was my favourite) – laminate 3 copies of the alphabet per group (groups of 3 work well). Each person should have one copy of every letter. Set a question and the winners are the first group to spell out the whole answer. Teachers (at leasT) get HUGELY competetive. And it hits the literacy agenda too.

Dominoes – Produce domino cards with words relating to the topic in hand. Students have to play the cards however they want as long as they can justify the links in the context of the topic.

Diamond Rank – Produce 9 cards or key words. Students (preferably in groups) organise these into 1 most important, 2 very important, 3 important, 2 less important and 1 least important.

Missing Object – Create a slide with 15 or 20 objects. Then a blank slide, then the same slide with 1 object missing. It’s surprisingly difficult to spot the missing object.

As well as those, check out ContentGenerator, Quiz Busters and Triptico for loads more white-board based ideas

Building Challenge to Support Pupil Progress

This was another great session, with a good mix of theory and practical ideas. Initially expecting it to be about G&T students I actually found myself being given a whole range of strategies that fit in well with my minimally invasive strategy. They’re mutually exclusive in the sense that I have to be invasive enough to set specific tasks, but the principle of encouraging students to think and learn for themselves is on the same wavelength. The workshop leader even started with the same sat-nav metaphor I used with my Y8s last week.

The theory stuff included why we need challenge (e.g. top football teams raising their game against their closest rivals) and what happens if we don’t have it (no sense of achievement, slow progress). We looked at the fixed vs growth mindsets and examined questioning strategies (which I have always found to be a weakness of mine). The Pit is an idea whereby if you draw a graph of clarity vs time you start just positive (concept), dip way down (conflict), start to turn a corner (construct) and shoot out higher than ever (consider). The idea is that by tackling tricky concepts without being spoon fed you get confused, but then work your way back up and ultimately understand the topic far better. All of the practical tasks below are designed to support this pattern.

The practical stuff that supported this could largely fit into the previous session as well, although some tasks were too long to be thought of as plenaries and starters. not all, though, by a long shot.

TarsiaGoogle it and you’ll find a website that lets you input key words and spits out triangles that fit together by linking two things together. Like a domino but with more complexity and more thinking involved.

Concept Mapping – Something that many of probably come across, but I hadn’t. List key words randomly around a piece of sugar paper then draw lines to connect some of them. On the lines write (in prose) about the links and explain them. After a few minutes, swap with another group and you can’t make any new connections, but have to expand on the previous ones. Perhaps repeat once more and then go back to see what has happened to your original map.

Which Wordle Words? – Use Wordle or Tagxedo to create a uniform word cloud and have students select just 5 of the most important. Then make them rank them or use them in a sentence. Tagxedo has the added benefit that you can mouse over the words and they will pop out on the screen so you can highlight them interactively.

Thinking Tube Line – Grab a screenshot of a train line (preferably with a branch somewhere) and remove the station names. Have one concept at one end (e.g. freedom) and one at the other (Internet). Students then have to fill in the station getting from one to the other. It may end up as a journey or a continuum, or something else. Surprisingly tricky to do and if you do get a high flier finished early then add a thir word at the end of the branch (safety) and get them to think a bit deeper.

Folded Opinion Line – A twist on a classic. Have ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’ on the back wall and students stand according to their opinion. Get the left-hand half to step forward, turn around and shuffle to the far end – the most extreme on the right is facing the most central, and the other most central is facing the furthest on the left. Each side must talk for 30 seconds without pause or interuption about why they chose to stand where they did and at the end they decide on a (potentially) new place to stand.

Challenge Cards – Rather than rewarding quick finishers with more work at the same level, give them a card with a question. A really tough question. Maybe give KS3 students a GCSE question, or GCSE students an A Level question. How does the Internet work? When is it OK to ignore copyright? What is the definition of a computer?

6×6 – Produce a 6×6 placemat of pictures or key words (or both). Students roll a die to select the row and the column, ultimately collecting two pictures. They then have to explain the link between them in the context of the topic at hand. Surprisingly engaging and more-ish.

What If? – What if the Internet broke tomorrow? Students consider the question and suggest 3 things. Now ask which is th emost likely, the most appealing, the most concerning?

Bloom’s Taxonomy Planner – There are a few versions of this around. Print one out and stick it near your desk or wherever you plan. You could devise questions for your lesson plan or make them up on the hoof, but by having the starting points at your fingertips you can tailor the level of challenge to the progress of the students. Struggling? Ask some basic knowledge questions. Doing well? What about some application or analysis? High fliers? Jump straight to synthesis and evaluation.

Thinking Dice (URL)- This wasn’t actually included in the session but following a brilliant session by Steve Bunce at the Optimus Education ICT2012 conference last week the whole department are getting some thinking dice. 6 brightly coloured dice with question starters ranked by their level according to Bloom. Get the students to come up with the questions for you. Weaker students can start with the red – the most able with the blue and purple. At £10 a throw (no finaincial gain for me, I promise) I think they look pretty good.

Matching Words – Start with an unrelated topic (e.g. cars). Individuals (in teams of 4) have 60 seconds to write down as many words as possible. The team captain then reads out their list and ONLY gets a point if EVERYONE in the group has that word. Repeat for a related topic and add the scores. In theory, all teams should do better on the second attempt, and they are surprisingly reluctant to cheat.

So there you have it. 34 ideas by my reckoning. That’s even more than you get at an average teachmeet, for an entire staff and at a total cost of £0. Easily the best value CPD I’ve had this week.

Another way?

Business Plans Don’t Suck – Mind Games Do

Originally uploaded by pinkpurse

I woke up this morning and came across two Telegraph articles via @schoolduggery that, at first, look like teacher bashing.

In the first, we have some quotes from Michael Gove on the day before tougher Ofsted rules come into force with sound bites like “zero tolerance of poor teachers” and comments such about how Ofsted “will even assess how well teachers ‘articulate and mouth’ the sounds of letters” and “check payrolls to ensure the salaries of weak teachers reflects their performance”.

In another article we are told that “Those admirable goals have earned him the undying hatred of organisations and individuals who put the interests of inadequate teachers above the interests of children who need, and are entitled to expect, a decent education.”, with several comments about the introduction of performance related pay for teachers.

What worries me is not that teachers are being measured against a high standard, or that the dreaded ‘O’ (who are expected to come knocking any day) will be taking a tough stance. What worries me is all the talk of those teachers who are judged to be ‘not good enough’ being sacked or (effectively) fined. It’s the punitive aspect that scares me the most. If we were to translate that into the classroom then we would be giving punishments to students who are underachieving. We could expel those working towards an E or an F within a term instead of a year*. As it is, I find that shouting at, restricting the free time of or otherwise punishing students who aren’t flying high doesn’t have a particularly good effect. Giving them support, encouragement, engaging them, differentiating resources, etc, etc, etc. all seems to have a much more significant effect.

It is particularly worrying when you see schools drop from Good to Unsatisfactory in the course of a single Ofsted inspection, when you see an ‘Outstanding’ teacher three years on the trot suddenly labelled as ‘Satisfactory’ on the grounds of a single observation. Measuring the ‘performance’ of teachers is not as simple as timing a race or counting the profits, and in such a subjective environment we find observations and appraisals can appear more as an ordeal to be survived rather than the positive, constructive activities they are meant to be.

I’m not saying that there are no teachers out there who are sitting back and not giving the best for our students. What I am saying is that creating an atmosphere of collegiate support and positive help for those who might need it is likely to have a much more powerful and lasting effect than threatening teachers with frozen salaries or a P45.


* Just to clarify, this is a response to a comment in the first article (“Heads and governors will be able to sack the worst-performing staff in just a term – rather than a year – under new “capability” procedures.”). It is not the case that any school will expel a pupil for achieving poor grades.

Minimally Invasive Education

Library girls

Originally uploaded by dcolson5201

Let me take you on a short journey.

Around Easter time I wanted my Y8s to try web design using WordPress instead of Dreamweaver. Not an IT expert? I wanted them to use a new piece of software they hadn’t used before. So, I prepared some supporting resources and did my ‘teaching’ bit – standing at the front of the room, demonstrating how to do various things.

The result, perhaps predictably, was that the students got bored pretty quickly, didn’t really pay attention, I got cross and little progress was made – both in terms of the physical outcome (a website) and in terms of student understanding.

I realised that the students weren’t paying close attention because they didn’t need to know that bit of information at that time. I knew they would in about 3 minutes, but they didn’t. And so I showed everyone at once, no-one really cared, and then I had to do it again, 20 times over, as each person got to the point where they *did* want to know. But by then, I was grumpy and that only put the students off wanting to ask.

My immediate solution was to produce a quiz based around the software (What button do you press to do this? How many different themes are there to choose from? Etc…). The next lesson I got the students in groups, handed out the quiz and explicitly refused to help the students to get the answers. The result this time was students that wanted to know the answers and were engaged in trying to figure out the software and also helping each other. Resilience, peer support, all that (pedagogical) jazz.

That wasn’t a big pedagogical realisation for me, it was just part of the day-to-day continual reflection and readjustment that forms part of my job.

A month or two later I went to the Computing At School conference in Birmingham, and there I was fortunate enough to choose a session run by James Franklin entitled “The productive teacher”. There, I learned about Sugata Mitra, an Indian professor who has done pioneering work in the field of Minimally Invasive Education. The theory is quite simple – take away the teachers and rigidity, provide an environment in which people have the tools and resources required to learn, then just let them get on with it.

I realise now that this is exactly what I did with that pesky Y8 class. I provided the tools (computers and software) and the framework (quiz) to allow the students to learn. I then took myself out of the equation. The concepts were simple enough, the software relatively intuitive and the students now had a reason to want to learn. It’s a small experiment, and hardly conclusive, but I think there’s something in this idea.

Jumping ahead to the last two weeks of term and I’m trying a (slightly) longer experiment. Those same Y8s (2 classes of) have been given the CodeAvengers URL and been told that most of the rules no longer apply. They can talk to each other, they can move around the room at will, and I won’t be answering any questions. “Can we use a calculator?”, I’m not answering any questions. “How do I do this bit?”, I’m not answering any questions.

So far both of my Y8 classes have had a 1 hour lesson. The atmosphere has been massively more positive and there’s been a genuine sense of energy. The fact that students are walking around the room adds to that sense of energy and hasn’t detracted from the sense of purpose. The students are talking about their progress, how far they’ve got and what they can do to help each other. I did have some reservations about the idea, and here are the kinds of questions I would ask if this was someone else’s blog post:

What about the student who chooses not to engage or do the work?

I know this student. I’ve had a full year to know which student it is. And I’ve watched him (and her) like a hawk. This students chooses not to engage in ‘normal’ lessons. They typically find the work hard and find the option of not trying easier than having to apply effort and probably failing. In both lessons this student worked harder, and for longer, than they have in any other lesson this year. This student is not suddenly top of the class, but he/she has made significantly more progress in this lesson than in previous lessons. The momentum in the classroom pulls everyone along.

What about the student who finds it really hard and doesn’t want to look stupid in front of friends or the loner?

While there are loners in secondary schools, there are no hermits (that I’ve met). Even the student who hates working in groups and would much rather do his own thing has ended up engaging with others – far more than they would if they were forced to work in a group. One of my quietest and weakest students spent most of the lesson out of her seat. She made middling progress over the lesson, but having been shown how to solve one problem, she went on to help about half the class solve the same problem. This from a student who never speaks and is totally overwhelmed during group work.

How do you measure progress?

Measure, shmeasure. you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it every day. That said, you do need to measure progress, rightly or wrongly. Observation is good, and if I was going to make this a longer term strategy (which I am), then there would need to be some assessed tasks. But that comes *after* the learning, not during. Formative assessment can be informal and can be as simple as giving out a couple of stickers, or an occasional “well done”. It’s important to stil be there and to offer encouragement – just not ‘teaching’.

How do you make sure that the work is the students’ own?

If I give a student a series of 4 buttons to click on to achieve the outcome, and they do the clicking, whose work is it? Them because they did the mouse work, or me because I’m the only one who understands which buttons to click and why? Most good learners that I know *want* to learn. If they get stuck and they end up getting help then they have a burning desire to know *why* this answer is better than theirs. Now, yes, some of these students are not the most effective learners, but they do still want to know – especially when it’s from a peer. Me, I just *know stuff*, or I know loads of stuff, or I do this all the time (this is what the kids have told me). Peers are on an equal footing. It is to be expected that the sage on the stage will just know everything. If little Johnny in the next seat understands it, then why the heck shouldn’t I?

And those challenges, and my responses, are the reason why I think this idea might just be a huge one, for me at least.

Next year I plan to do a lot more MIE (or ‘sitting on my backside’, as it probably appears), and over prolonged periods. We (the students and I, together and separately) need to do some reflection on what we’ve learned, how we’ve learned it, why we’ve learned it, and whether this new (to me) strategy is a good one. I suspect it’ll require quite a bit of setting up in terms of preparing resources that the students can access independently and in a non-linear fashion, but I think the rewards might well be worth it.

CAS Conference 2012

I’m writing this post on the train home from the amazing CAS Conference 2012 (#casconf2012).

I tried ot tweet as much as possible during the two days, but between a limited battery life and (more importantly) getting actively involved in many of the sessions there is much I haven’t talked about.

As always, my blogging is almost entirely selfish and my main priority is to start to reflect on what I’ve learned over the last two days. It’s all very ‘gut reaction’ stuff before I forget the details.

Thursday – Bring & Brag

The evening before the main conference is traditionally a ‘bring & brag’ unconference style event. Meet up, eat nibbles, drink wine, then a series of short presentations .This year the whole thing felt tight and slick, with quick turnarounds, short presentations and little reliance on slideshows. Being partly involved in the running of the B&B session I didn’t really get chance to make many notes, but Alan O’Donohue (@teknoteacher) was as energetic as ever, Ben Gristwood (@Mr_G_ICT) talked about some really interesting work with Digital Leaders and someone (I forget who!) talked about a 6th form student who built a gaming PC for their A2 extended project – something I want my Y7s to get involved in this term!

Thankfully Leon Cych (@eyebeams) was there capturing everything – video, audio and stills – and I should have the audio from each mini-talk to post on the CAS Rounup Podcast over the next few weeks.

Friday – Plenaries – CAS LAndscape & Future and Centres of Excellence

Partly housekeeping and partly letting everyone know where everything is going, Simon Peyton-Jones (chair of CAS) and Bill Mitchell (Director of BCS Academoy of Computing) talked about the many, many events that have occured over the last 12 months, including the Royal Society Report, the official withdrawal of the ICT PoS and, vitally, the fact this isn’t the government saying ‘we don’t value ICT’ but TPTB offering us the opportunity to decide what WE think is important. Bill also talked about the CAS/BCS Network of Excellence. The hope was to get 200 schools and a couple of universities involved int he first year, with maybe 30 universities and lots of schools by 2020. So far there have been over 500 school applications and over 20 universities have expressed an interest, so the motiviation is there and next year should be a very exciting one.

Keynote – Replacing City Traders With Robots – Dave Cliff

Keynotes are funny things. Sometimes they’re fascinating and engorssing, sometimes they’re practical and involving, sometimes they’re dull and seem t go on for ever. This one was definitely the first. Giving a bit of context (horses and pigeons being the early information and communication technology used by the very first stock market traders) we looked at how automated systems have developed to the point where they are involved in 95% of all stock market transactions – many with no human involvements at all. Then we looked at how humans have managed to screw up complex technology on a grand scale. The scariest topic was ‘normalisation of deviance’ – the idea that something outside of acceptable parameters doesn’t immediately end in failure, so we accept it as ‘normal’. This is ultimately what led to the Challenger disaster and demonstrates nicely why relying on technology can be a risky business. Bring the two topics together and you have an almost entirely automated multi-national economic system written by software engineers that has repeatedly shown in recent years that it is working outside the bounds of safety (an IPO going from $15 per share to $0.00002 per share in less than 1.5 seconds, quicker than the CEO can hit the off switch, with no rational explanation from any financial authority is just one of many scary examples given). This might not sound like the most fascinating of topics, and it might not be the most obvious way to start a conference about teaching computer science in schools, but Dave did a fantastic job of demonstrating not how, but WHY computer science is so important.
Workshop 1 – Arduino: If seeing is beliving, what is touching? – Chris Martin

I’ve been hearing people talk about Arduinos for a while now. I even tried to buy a kit a few years ago but the company, for some reason, decided not to process my order and I never did get round to chasing it up. With a simple programming interface (there are only two buttons you need and a space for some syntax), a USB lead and any manner of ‘bits’ you can program a physical device. Starting with making an LED flash on and off we were quickly controlling the speed of the flashing using potentiometers, using light sensors to turn motors and using acoustic proximity sensors to set off explosions (because, and I quote, “it’s not just chemists that get to blow s**t up”). The kits are around £40 with everything you need to get started, and with paired or small group programming you could get away with 4 or 5 for a class. As a workshop should, this was hands on from the start and while some students naturally engage with on-screen programming, the idea that you can do something with a physical output in seconds is undoubtedly engaging for many. I think half a dozen Arduino kits half just become my top priority with any spare budget, even more so than the Kinect I was after.

Workshop 2 – Algorithmic Problem Solving – Joao Ferrerrira

I’ve mentioned more than once that while my GCSE Computing students have really engaged with computer programming and have enjoyed getting to grips with the discrete elements (assignment, selection, iteration, file handling, etc.) my big bugbear is that most are not good at problem solving, decomposition and abstraction. That is to say, ask them to write a for loop to display the first 20 square numbers and you’re sorted, but give them a problem (like how many trips it will take to get a load of vampires and maidens to a hotel bar) and they just don’t know how to start breaking th eproblem down into manageable chunks. Joao presented some really interesting approaches to generating algorithms without a computer. Some of it was quite heavy (Hoare triples and state change diagrams, for those who know about such things) but I really do think there’s scope here to investigate better ways of helping students to start thinking computationally, which is an essential part of computing as a discipline.

As an added bonus, it turns out Joao lives less than 3 miles from my school and is running his undergraduate course on algorithmic problem solving in September at my nearest university. Suffice to say I’ve made sure he’ll be presenting at a hub meeting before veyr much longer!


Now I’m not normally one to go into *so* much detail, and this isn;t about the food (delicious though it was). The point here is I actually 5 minutes (maybe as much as 10) to catch my breath. Those 3 sessions were all genuinely inspiring and packed with brilliant ideas and stuff that I wanted to think about. The cogs were whirring and had that been the end of the day then I would have happily set out for home with a spring in my step and feeling that I’d got a heck of a lot of value. As it was, there was still much more to come!

Workshop 3 – The productive teacher – James Franklin

James wanted to talk about a pedagogical approach called Minimally Invasive Education, pioneered by Sugata Mitra. His argument is that in the absence of a teacher, learners will teach themselves. If you provide them with the resources and the encouragement then they can learn at least as effectively without direct intervention as they would with it. To this extent James showed his Y7 class a series of manipulated images and gave them 6 lessons to teach themselves and each other the skills required to replicate them. He actively refused to do any teaching or answer questions and removed any rules in order that they shouldn’t be barriers to learning. Want to text your Dad to help solve that problem? Fine. Want to use your phone to wathc a video tutorial on YouTube? Fine. Want to tie your tie around your head like Rambo? Well… only if you can justify it pedagogically.

A very similar technique apparently worked well for spreadsheet modelling too and feedback form the students was overwhelmingly positive. James’ GCSE cohort didn’t do quite as well, however. While they learned a heck of a lot about databases and could explain why forms were useful in terms of your ability to add macros, action buttons and user-friendly interface elements, they scored very poorly on practice papers because they weren’t hitting the rote answer expected by the exam board.

Maybe this says something about the way in which we assess students, and maybe this approach is better suited to skills-based topics rather than knowledge-based. James admitted himself that he would be very wary of using this technique to teach programming from scratch as it is too easy for students to waste a lot of time exploring the wrong avenue when a simple array would save them all the hassle.

Overall it’s a brave approach, and one that would almost certianly fail an inspection on the grounds that not eveyr student can demonstrate progress over one lesson (in fact, the fact that they can sometimes make no progress in a lesson is actually the point!). That said, if we want independent learners who can solve problems, communicate, work collaboratively and don’t sit around waiting to be spoon fed then this might be just what the doctor ordered.

Workshop 4 – Sensing the world (with Scratch)

My final workshop of the day was spent playing with picoboards, a £40 sensor board that plugs in via USB and talks directly to Scratch. With nothing more than a simple driver install I was playing the trombone by blowing into the microphone and moving a slider bar, and then managed to quickly write a working game with a variety of controls including light sensing, buttons and more. Much simpler than an Arduino and much more focused on physical input that a Raspberry Pi, I can see why these engage students so well and they’re going second on my shopping list after the Arduino kits mentioned earlier.

Plenaries – How Google can help you & Raspberry Pi

I have to admit, I was totally exhausted by this point and somewhat overwhelmed. Andrew Eland and Alan Mycroft both spoke eloquently and engagingly about their respective topics and Google is very keen to support computing as a discipline. Particularly as their UK recruitment of software engineers is doubling every 18 months (a trend that shows no sign of letting up in the near future). I *still* have yet to get my hands on a Pi, and even when I do, I think I might just be too busy playing with Arduino kits and sense boards to get much done.


In summary? Best. Day. Ever. Last year was great, the year before was fantastic. This was simply awe inspiring. All the things I haven’t mentioned – chatting with Susan Robson, catching up with frineds from the CAS Working Group, shared conversations in the atrium over sandwiches (or a pint, last night). They were a huge part of it all and I’m heading back and JUST the right time of year, all set to plan the most kick-ass curriculum you’ve ever seen.

The latest bandwagon, or something better?

What’s the joke

Originally uploaded by theirhistory

I’ve been kicking around an idea for a few months now.

Actually, no, that’s a lie. I’ve been following some other people kicking around an idea for a few months now and I’ve been feeling like this has the makings of a very good idea. Possibly.

Chris Allen (@infernaldepart) and Brian Sharland (@sharland) keep posting messages about Digital Badges, and a blog post by Dave Stacey (@davestacey) has really filled me with enthusiasm (and a bit of awe at the scope of his pedagogical vision). The basic principle is quite simple; instead of assessing each piece of work as Level 4a, Level 5c or whatever you use the Scouting model of awarding badges as a way of recognising achievement.

This has a real advantage for me that it’s not about me looking at each piece of work and grading it at one of several levels, it’s not about hawkishly passing judgement on the student every time. The emphasis is instead focused on rewarding work, and specifically in rewarding progress.

At Beaver Scouts, my daughter recently earned her ‘1 night away’ badge. Does this represent any learning objectives? No. Does it represent an achievement? Absolutely. It won’t be long before she earns her ‘5 nights away’ badge, then 10, 20… I think my son should be approaching 50 by now. Progress, achievement and rewards.

And actually, it’s not entirely dissimilar to the real world. When I have to write a particular document it is ultimately pass/fail. My SEF either comes back needing amendment or it is accepted, I get to keep my ‘administrative paperwork’ badge and everything else that comes along with it.

All this is helped by Mozilla’s Open Badges framework. The idea is that people can complete tasks and be awarded a digital badge for their efforts. They even have a virtual backpack on which you can proudly display your badges. And being open source (hence the Open Badges name), anyone can create their own badge, or set of badges.

There are two issues I still need to overcome, however, if this is going to work.

One, I need a way to embed the badges in the student mindset. They need to be displayed somewhere in a way that is “automagic and omnipresent”. It’s no use asking them to sew them on their jumpers and I don’t like the idea of students having to go to a third party website just to check their badges and to see the badges of others. One idea I’m looking at is a login script that will display the student’s badges on their desktop. I’m also hearing rumours of a potential plugin for with Edmodo and/or Moodle.

The second one is that in order for this to work, it needs to be consistent across the department, approved by SLT and mapped to levels so that we can still report using the existing systems. None of that is necessarily insurmountable, I just hope that my departmental colleagues are willing to give it a go.

I genuinely think that there is an opportunity here to provide feedback, offer recognition and to motivate students in a fundamentally different way.