Logically Speaking

Logic gates
Logic Gates – Rain Rabbit

Never underestimate the power of friendship.

A couple of weeks ago a science technician at school was clearing out a store cupboard and came across two suitcases filled with blue Unilab circuit boards and some 6v batteries. Having no use for them he was about to chuck the lot until he wondered if the nerdy geek in the room downstairs might be interested.

Suffice to say, I’m chuffed to bits. Not only do I have 9 functioning logic boards and 10 binary counters, I have a load of worksheets as well.

I’m missing the BBCs and some big boxy units to get the computer and memory modules to be of any use but we can do some hands-on physical experimentation and there are even a set of 8 worksheets to try out different practical circuits to work on.

Combine this with Logic.ly to create virtual circuits and my Logic Circuits Challenge Cards and there’s a pretty good suite of resources I think.

If you don’t have any old, spare kit lying around then the logic circuits can be bought for around £10 a throw in eBay or you could create your own using a Raspberry Pi, Arduino or Shrimp. £10 is still a lot less than buying a new kit though, and a lot more straightforward to use I think.

Programming Pedagogy

Radar Chart B Dark

Originally uploaded by Jinho.Jung

I’m a parent. I sit through dance practices, music rehearsals, gymnastics lessons and (in the past) swimming lessons. This leaves me with a lot of time to think (or, if I can find a table, mark).

In particular, I like to see and reflect on how other people teach – especially those who aren’t in a school environment. And increasingly, I find myself comparing programming, as a discipline, to swimming.

Traditional teaching tends to be linear. So I might teach students about variables, then inputs & outputs, then if statements, then loops, then arrays and then file handling. I can picture that in my head like train route – but I don’t think that’s right.

When kids first start swimming lessons the teachers don’t teach them everything they need to know about using their arms, then everything about their legs, and then breathing techniques. First, they get them in the water. They get them to play games, to put their face in the water, to move around in a situation that is comfortable (shallow, well within their depth).

Sometimes the youngsters will be tasked with swimming from one side to another. Sometimes they’ll focus on kicking their legs. Sometimes they’ll have to swim with only their arms. Sometimes on their front. Sometimes on their back. Each lesson will include a bit of this and a bit of that, reinforcing each element a little at a time. It’s anything but linear.

In the same way, I’m starting to think of programming skills in a radar chart. The students start at the centre, with no skills in any particular area. Over time they get a bit better with dealing with variables, then a bit better at dealing with conditionals, another time getting better with loops.

I can see it in my mind as a time lapse animation, the graph flexing in different directions, occasionally even contracting, but generally spreading further and further from the centre.

It’s going to take a bit of work to turn that image in my head into a curriculum, and it’s going to be a case of tweaking rather than revolutionising my practice, but it seems to work for me as a big picture to work towards.

Minimally Invasive Education – An Update

I am Here for the Learning Revolution

Originally uploaded by Wesley Fryer

At the end of the summer term I wrote a blog post about Minimally Invasive Education – the idea essentially being that you provide students with the tools to learn, but step back and let them do the learning for themselves.

This year I’ve been trying to put that idea into action with my three Y8 classes.

I see each class once a week and have now had 3 lessons with each.

Week 1

In the first lesson I provided a slideshow of some images I had edited and pointed students to the VLE where there was a collection of large, high quality images and a link to tutorials I had created around each image. I was obliged to give them a boy/girl seating plan but told them that they could help each other and move around the room as necessary, but that I would not give them any help otherwise.

Some students clearly found this liberating and enjoyed having the freedom, but many found it difficult to cope without direct intervention from the teacher. Students would moan that they were ‘stuck’ rather than actively seeking a solution – and this is a pretty good demonstration of why I am doing what I’m doing in the first place.

At KS3, ICT is an almost entirely skills based subject. It’s entirely possible for students to get by for 3 years by pressing the correct button when told to, and some students have learned that figuring out which button to press is an entirely pointless exercise when the teacher will just tell them anyway. Rather than remembering the solution for next time, students can simply ask again. This isn’t as efficient, but when every job lasts one hour regardless of the amount of work completed, that is not necessarily a problem.

Week 2

For the second lesson I started out by discussing with students where they could find help since I’m refusing to give them any answers. Suggestions included each other, my tutorials, the Internet, the online help and by looking through the menus and onscreen options. This exercise helped some students who were starting to get the idea, but there were still others who remained fixated on asking the teacher for help.

While some students had clicked by this point and were exploring the tutorials and other sources for ideas, many were drifting somewhat aimlessly, either playing with just the paintbrush tools or frustratingly making the same mistakes and not finding any way forward. For the 2nd and 3rd classes I produced a checklist of skills I wanted the students to learn, breaking it down into Basic, Intermediate and Advanced techniques. I made sure that the students knew they could use the checklist however they saw fit – following it in order, picking and choosing which tasks to complete or ignoring it completely. Some students chose to use it, many did not.

It was interesting to note that students were still sat in their seating plan. Some would move across the room to discuss ideas or seek help, but would immediately return to their computer again. It was fascinating to see simple but effective techniques such as selective colour or magic wand and adjusting hue & saturation to change hair colour spread across the room.

Week 3

Given the seating plan situation I decided to turn off half of the machines in the room before each lesson, and removed the power cables just to make doubly sure. As students came in I told them to sit anywhere they wanted temporarily, explained the situation and allowed them to arrange themselves around the room. Although this was perceived as a further step away from traditional classroom rules, I had deliberately never stopped anyone from moving anywhere in the classroom in the previous two lessons. It was more explicit this way, though, and i did talk to a few individuals and see how they felt being forced to work together might improve their opportunities for learning during the lesson.

This third week was when I started to get a bit more concerned about some of the students’ rates of progress. Being in a Mac suite the kids have access to PhotoBooth, a simple app that takes a photo using the webcam and lets you apply filters that bypass all of that ‘learning how to actually do stuff’. Some students, especially now they were in self-defined groups, wanted to spend all of their time taking silly photos of themselves.

Minimally invasive education should (I think) mean that I step back and allow students to work through this phase. That’s a very risky strategy, though, and after another half hour of this I really felt I had to intervene, and so I tried asking students what the objective of the lesson were (learn new image editing skills and learn about how to solve problems and pick up those new skills without just being told). Some of the students acknowledged that playing with PhotoBooth wasn’t hitting either of those and said they would grab a couple more photos and then try some editing. Others persisted and eventually I had to ban specific groups from using PhotoBooth for the remainder of the lesson.

Additional Thoughts

So far the students have, on the whole, responded well to my experiment. I’ve already seen a change in attitude from many students and they are willing and eager to help each other and share ideas. There remains a hard core of more apathetic students who are making little progress and are either struggling with basic tasks or drifting aimlessly without any real direction. These are the students I need to be supporting, but I’m loathe to jump in and intervene as this goes against everything I’m trying to achieve.

I am considering some form of badge system as championed by the likes of Doug Belshaw and Chris Allan, although that will take a bit of implementation to get right. I’m also considering setting some specific targets for students who are not choosing to use my tutorials (which on its own is fine) and are not making progress otherwise.

I did manage to convince one group of girls that instead of using a web-based wizard type image editing tool they could try comparing it with a tool such as Fireworks or Photoshop and see which one is easier, which is more powerful, which is more fun, etc. I was particularly heartened when they got quite frustrated that they couldn’t rotate a picture inside a photo frame in the web-based app as hopefully they’ll be able to figure this out in one of the installed programs.

My final thought for now is that with the recent installation of GIMP (I had initially left it out as working in X11 can be frustrating, but there is now a native Mac version of GIMP 2.8) students are really enjoying the fact they can get the same professional software for free at home and they find GIMP more appealing in terms of the colour scheme and icons.

Next Steps

My plan is to complete 8 lessons of minimally invasive learning, followed by a 2 week assessment after the half term break. The first lesson will be a ‘test’ with a series of tasks to perform, and the second lesson (with maybe a third) will be to create a portfolio of work using a range of techniques.

My immediate challenge is to add something new at the start of each lesson so that students are doing something more than just ‘turning up and getting on with it’. There is an argument that this is not always a bad strategy and certainly there are times at KS4 and KS5 where just getting on with it and allowing time to get things done is important, but those students who are drifting now will only drift more without some motivation or support of some kind. The difficulty is identifying strategies to get this done that don’t involve me telling them what to do!

I’ll be back with another update in a few weeks, and in the meantime I’ll continue to tweet about my MIE lessons and ask for help and ideas there!

Something’s Gotta Change

Why Here We R Not Failing

Originally uploaded by GerritsenBeach.Net

Edit: This TES article suggests that the % of schools receiving Ofsted Grade 4 have doubled since the new framework came into force


Two years ago I had to make a really tough decision. I talked it over with my wife, I talked it over with my colleagues, I talked it over with my kids. In the end, we collectively chose the school we thought was right. The school that would offer the best opportunities for progression and the school that had the most positive atmosphere.

We sent my son to the local voluntary aided secondary school.

It’s not been a faultless relationship, and you always worry, but I’ve been happy that my son is in a good school.

And then Ofsted arrived. This isn’t about them, but it’s an important plot point. Ofsted came, Ofsted saw, Ofsted went away to write their report. Rumours abounded – they’e coming back, they didn’t like us, one fell down the stairs, we’re a failing school.

My son came home to tell me he is attending a failing school. Did I make the wrong choice? Have I ruined his education? Do I pull him out now? Where do we send him instead?

The official letter arrived yesterday morning, and it was a Grade 4 – Notice To Improve.

The school responded with a meeting for parents, a meeting that was pretty well attended. Those present were a self selecting group, and I suspect there was a greater than average representation from those parents involved in education, but there were plenty who aren’t.

I left the meeting with a mixture of emotions. Some parents were clearly angry with the school, and the question was raised about ultimate responsibility and whether the Head should step down. I’m happy to say that he isn’t, and much of the meeting was actually very positive.

The school’s problems stem from poor progress in English, particularly amongst boys, significantly disruptive behaviour from a small number of students affecting the learning of others, a lack of consistent feedback, too much didactic teaching and a lack of stretch and challenge for the more able*.

At my place we’ve had a lot of initiatives from SLT of late on progress, feedback and narrowing the gap (terms with which I am certain you are familiar). With the exception of the behavioural issues that is pretty much an identical list. I guess this means that my SLT are doing the right things.

The really important thing that I’m taking away from the meeting is the comment from a parent that we have to go home and we have to talk to our children. Today, the SLT need to talk to the children. And we all need to speak with the same voice and tell them that this is not a failing school. This is a school that needs to do some things better. And we all have a responsibility to do that. Teachers, leaders, pupils and parents. We *are* the school. We’re working hard and we will make mistakes. And we will learn from those mistakes and we will do better. And next time the inspectors come, they’ll see that this is a Good school.

* My interpretation of the publicly available Ofsted report

** Apologies to @simfin for stealing his title

[cynic] And while it wasn’t mentioned, come hell or high water I will fight tooth and nail to fight any suggestion of academy status. It would be incredibly cynical to suggest a link between Ofsted downgrading schools and the DfE pushing for all schools to become academies, so I will take great pains to avoiding making that suggestions. [/cynic]

Is this for real?


Originally uploaded by mistersnappy

My daughter (7) was watching the latest episode the The Apprentice this morning, and the candidates had to come up with a marketing strategy and a video advert for some product or other (I think it was some wine or other).

Having watched the filming of the adverts she turned to me and asked “So is this advert going to be a real one, shown on TV?”. When I said no, she asked “Then what is it for?”.

The answer, of course, is that it’s for Sir Alan. It’s an arbitrary, made-up task to appease a powerful overlord who has the ability to wield power over the contestants. A slightly dramatic take, but stick with it.

Many of you will see where I’m going… My Y11s this year made a website that Y6 pupils and parents could use for the transition to secondary school. The sites, of course, will never see the light of day. They’re an arbitrary and made-up task to appease a powerful overlord who has the ability to wield power over the contestants. In this case, Sir Alan is played by the examiner / moderator / exam board / DfE, and the contestants are pupils (who are, indeed, in a contest for their grades).

Now I can complain about the situation, highlight the problem and try to exert a small influence, but there’s not really a lot I can do from the chalkface to fix it.

What I *can* do, however, is make sure that I use the freedom I have at KS3 to make sure that *I’m* not the powerful overlord. My Y8s have been instructed to build websites for someone, some club or some group that they know – with the aim that they might actually be able to use it. I have told them repeatedly that *I* am not the audience. It hasn’t quite sunk in with them yet, but it’s a long-learned practice to try and shift.

My Y13s build interactive multimedia products. I quickly learned that letting them choose their own imaginary clients (Lamborghini, Ferrari, the local football club) was a weak strategy, and so they now have to find a member of staff who wants a learning resource. Real client, real feedback, and some of them are now coming up through the school using those products and knowing that they’ll be able to make their own in a year or so.

Motivation is significantly improved, as is the quality of the work. So where I can, I’ll be avoiding arbitrary and made-up tasks with my students and looking for opportunities to make use of their work.

After all, I don’t want to end up like Alan Sugar. Next I’ll be making all the kids call me Sir…

Introducing CAS Roundup


Originally uploaded by Terry Freedman

A while ago I used to attend a weekly Flashmeeting called EdTechRoundup. It was a truly fantastic event, where a host of educational technologists would log on for an hour or so to have a natter about this, that and the other.

Sometimes it was quite heavy pedagogy, sometimes it was sharing a cool new tool or website, sometimes it was thrashing out ideas or sharing experiences.

For the last year or so I’ve been thinking “I really should organise something similar for Computing folk to have a regular chat about whatever irks them or inspires them at that time”. And so, finally(!), I have!

The plan is, as well as the round table discussion format, to start the meeting off with a couple of very short audio-based presentations so that we can podcast the whole thing and allow teachers to download and listen to, initially, 10 – 15 minutes of great idea followed by (if they wish) another hour of interesting and relevant discussion.

At the time of writing, it’s 8pm on a Monday, and the first meeting is running tomorrow – 6:45 for 7pm. There is no signup sheet (although there is an agenda that you can add to if you want) – so all you need to do is turn up.

The agenda is currently sitting at http://casroundup.wikispaces.com/ the resulting podcast will eventually be appearing at http://casroundup.wordpress.com/.

See you there!

Which Way?

Which Way?

Originally uploaded by edd.ie

I’ve started planning for the next Teesside CAS Hub Meeting and following the last one, which was really an introduction for local teachers, I wanted to go down a more pro-active and supportive route.

My initial plan was to have a number of short workshops on a variety of topics, but then I saw that Alan O’Donahoe was planning a meeting all about Python (http://caspreston.eventbrite.co.uk/), having run the previous one on Scratch and it got me to thinking about what model would work best.

I ran a quick survey after the last meeting and the consensus was that short-medium sessions of 30 minutes – 1 hour were preferable, rather than 2 hours on one topic, and I have a responsibility to respond to that of course. I can’t help but wonder, though, if a longer session on a smaller topic might be more productive in the end…

I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others about their experiences of attending or running either long or short Computing CPD sessions.

Thinking Out Loud

Drink More Ovaltine

Originally uploaded by emotionaltoothpaste

I’d like my students, especially at KS3 and KS4, to have more opportunities to explore Computing as a discipline (this should not be news to anyone who has rea this blog before), but I don’t have time to run a club.

One idea that’s quite popular is to run a small competition, so here is me thinking out loud about it:

It needs to be quite simple. I applied to have a crack at the British Informatics Society’s Informatics Olympiad late last year which promised to be a fascinating computing competition backed by Lionhead Studios. It turned out to involve a 3 hour exam and was quite complex.

The competition needs to be easy to get into. It needs to present a student with something they think they have a reasonable chance of succeeding at. I don’t want to pitch it too low, but pitching too high will simply leave me with no competitors.

The competition should be language independent. I know some Y10s who have taught themselves VB, some Y8s who have taught themselves Java, etc. while it’s true that once you understand the basic principles, transferring them to a new syntax is usually fairly straightforward for simple programs, it’s another barrier.

I need to be able to see what is genuinely the students’ work and what is the work of parents, forums or plain copying and pasting. Comments will help but I might need to go so far as to interview each entrant! (Or at least a shortlist).

Students don’t like being given a blank piece of paper (often). giving them a skeleton to hang things on makes getting going much easier.

Here’s my main idea right now – I write a simple cipher program that shifts the characters 3 spaces to encode and -3 spaces to decode. Make sure it uses a loop (for the menu), an if statement (for the menu) and methods/functions/procedures to do the work. I write it in Python, Java and VB (6? .net?) with a few comments and provide lots of links to tutorials (codingbat, codeacademy, etc…).

The students have a short list of suggested improvements, but they are encouraged to expand as they see fit. Some example extensions might be to let the user choose the number of shifts, to use a more complicated algorithm, or even generate a cipher using a passcode.

I’m no cryptography expert so I’m not looking for SSL or PGP standard stuff, but I think that a keen Y8 pupil ought to be able to do something with it…

And winners would receive a Raspberry Pi (I could find £50 in the budget for a KS3 and a KS4 winner…).


What future for Computing?

Intel Pentium die shot

Originally uploaded by mark.sze

This isn’t a post supporting and slating a national, or even regional, agenda for computing in schools (those who read this blog regularly will know I am already incredibly pro-computing).

In our school we offer GCE Applied ICT at 6th form and for many years we have also offered AS Computing as an ‘enrichment’ option. This means that myself and one other colleague used to give up a couple of free periods and a couple of hours after school each week.

Now that my other colleague has left, it’s just me. And while I’m really enjoying teaching the course in my own way, using Greenfoot as an intro to BlueJ, it’s pretty tiring to do the planning, marking and teaching on top of my full teaching workload and Head of Department responsibilities.

If we were to run Computing as a full option it would cost us 10 hours per week once we get both year groups up and running, and we just don’t have the staffing to do it – either in terms of hours or in terms of willing specialists (I’m convinced that all of the colleagues in my department are capable of delivering the content, but they’re not).

So, as we prepare leaflets, flyers and other parts of our annual recruitment drive I am seriously considering dropping the course from September 2012.

Ironically, this will be the first time we have a GCSE Computing cohort coming through into the 6th form and I thought it only fair to try and gauge interest before making my decision. The result? 6 of the 11 are seriously considering taking the course even though it would involve having less teaching time than they deserve, and some of this being outside of school hours.

This is in addition to 2 or 3 other students I know are considering it who have not taken GCSE Computing.

While I’m not sure I could find the energy to run another year of Computing (200 hours of my time) for a class of 2, I would feel horrendously guilty for not allowing students who have followed Computing for 2 years to carry their studies on, especially if I’m heading for double figures.

I’ll need to make a decision pretty soon…

Life as a Head of Department

stress free zone

Originally uploaded by thornypup

Our Y11 cohort are running through 4 possible IT options.

GCSE Computing students have completed one controlled assessment, have one more to do and a summative exam in June.

Our GCSE ICT students have completed one controlled assessment and one exam. They are likely to resit the exam in January as results were poor, have another controlled assessment to do and a summative exam in June.

iMedia students have completed Unit 1, Unit 6 and Unit 7, which is worth a single award, and need to get those submitted for external moderation ASAP. This year they need to get Unit 3 and Unit 5 done by Easter and get those moderated as well.

OCR Nationals students have finished Unit 1, a thick unit and a thin unit – enough for a First Award (worth 1 GCSE). They need to finish one more thick unit for an Award (worth 2 GCSEs) and one more thin unit on top of that for a First Certificate (worth 3 GCSEs).

In Y10 though, there are only 3 options.

The GCSE ICT students are just starting their first controlled assessment, with one exam in June.

The OCR Nationals students are aiming to complete Unit 1, a thick and a thin by the end of the year.

Those choosing the new Creative iMedia are simultaneously working towards Units 203 and 214v with one member of staff and 204 and 212 with another. Due by the end of the year, they will then have to try and complete 201 and 202 to achieve the double award with the option of picking more units up for a triple award.

Then we get on to the AS Applied ICT, A2 Applied ICT, AS Computing and KS3…

In regard to administration of qualifications I was asked today “Is it actually complicated or does it just seem that way?”. I’d have to go for the former.

No wonder I haven’t been blogging much of late!