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.

This is not a CPD session


Jam Packed Roadshow, Darlington, January 2015 – Mark Clarkson

This Saturday I will be spending 6 hours at school.

Why? Because I’m launching the first Teesside Raspberry Jam – a hopefully regular meetup for people interested in Raspberry Pis.


I say first, because I’m not counting Alan O’Donohoe’s excellent JamPacked roadshow that came to nearby Darlington last year. That was a fantastic event, and one I attended as a parent and a tech nerd rather than as a teacher. But it sowed a seed in my mind, and this year I’m determined to do more of the stuff I enjoy.

So, this Saturday I am inviting ANYONE who has an interest in Raspberry Pis to come to my school any time between 10am and 2pm. Turn up late, leave early, bring a friend, whatever works. It’s for children, adults, parents, teachers, nerd, geeks, newbies, the uninitiated, the hackers, the builders – anyone.

I will have some Pis, some robot arms, power and networking. That really is it – no program to stick to, to objectives to be assessed.

As a result of my typical network reach I’m expecting it will be largely populated my teachers from the area and pupils from my school. It would be GREAT to have a wider reach, but maybe that will come later if we can establish this as a regular (monthly?) event…

Please do come if you can, and please do spread the word.

A fresh head and a new state of mind



I hate the whole ‘New Year’ thing. Calendar wise it’s completely arbitrary and it feels like a solution looking for a problem to have to generate a new resolution each January.

So it is completely coincidental that this January I find myself in need of a fresh start.

For the last two academic years I’ve been trying to steer a department through various challenges – new curricula, changes to exam structures, a shift towards computer science, having staff poached by other departments and an increasing pressure to be accountable for all things at all times (and the inevitable paper chase that goes with it).

I’ve noticed that my positive, jovial demeanour most of the time has been strained. I’ve become more cynical, pessimistic and generally unhappy. In the run up to Christmas I found myself trying to support a large group of students through ECDL, and I put myself under far too much pressure and that ultimately put strains on the strongest professional friendships I have as well as my personal life.

I have no scientific backing for what I’m about to say, no double blind studies or journal citations. What I do have is 11 years of experience at the front of the classroom and about 18 years at the back. A stressed, cynical, unhappy teacher makes for stressed, cynical, unhappy students. I’ve found myself snapping at students for not knowing something that I do or, worse, for not knowing the thing that I taught a different class last week.

So I’ve made a deliberate effort this Christmas to take a proper break. No school emails, no marking, no planning, no reports or even a stray thought for school work for about a week and a half. Yes, it means that I’m a bit behind now but, you know what? I will get done what I need to and the rest of it will just have to do. Ultimately I’ll return a happier, more productive teacher and middle leader – which I hope will lead to more interesting and engaging learning experiences for my charges. I’ll continue, in fact redouble, my efforts to teach them things ‘for the sake of learning it’ rather than because it might turn up on an exam paper. And I’ll trust that the results will bear out their learning rather than being the sole objective.

Ask me in a week how well it’s working…

Thoughts on the Hour of Code 2015


via Facebook, original source unknown

So it’s that time of year again – and next week sees the CS Education Week and the Hour of Code. You’ve seen Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates encouraging kids to essentially play with Logo using Angry Birds & Plants vs Zombies, this year it’s the Disney Star Wars team and a virtual BB8 robot.

The KS3 students in my school will all be abandoning their usual lessons to have an hour of interactive coding*. It’s a fun, engaging way to give students a taste of what programming is about in addition to the programming and problem solving we already have in the curriculum and I think it’s as important to give every student the opportunity to get excited about computers and computing as it is to give every student the opportunity to try drawing, music, art, drama, design technology, etc… So I’m all for it.

It comes with a caveat, though. There is a danger that teachers will see a successful lesson in which the students come in, get told what to do by the computer, achieve it and leave happy. And this is a dangerous precedent.

The Hour of Code is extremely gamified, so the students will intentionally be rewarded, and the aim of the project is to give students a taste of success. There is a very clear route from start to end, so it’s virtually impossible to get lost along the way. And as a tool to engage young people (or not so young people, for that matter) this is a key element. Make it too hard, too slow, too dull and you lose people.

The danger comes because it is easy to see this successful lesson and try to repeat it. Sit the kids in front of Code Combat, Code Academy, Code Avengers, etc. Lots of gamification, instant rewards, easy route from start to finish and also a quick win in terms of planning. But this doesn’t help develop the resilience or the detailed technical understanding. The fixed start, end and check points mean that there is no freedom for students to learn at their own pace or to explore the elements they are particularly interested in or need to spend extra time on. Very often the step by step solutions don’t help students with larger scale skills of abstraction and deconstruction. It’s a good start but not a good end.

Dropping students in front of one of these systems and leaving them to it is a particularly easy trap for those with less confidence in programming to fall into, or those under pressure and without the time, support or understanding from above to help them gain the skills and confidence needed. The tools can be useful if used wisely and scarcely, but they are still not a replacement for the detailed and timely input that a highly trained and skilled educator can apply.

I had a kind of breakthrough, but this post is already getting long so I might save that for next week.

For now, I think the Hour of Code is a magnificent movement and I’m really looking forward to seeing the enthusiasm and energy across the whole school, as has happened in previous years. But remember that it’s a tool and it has a specific audience and a specific purpose.


*I can, do and will rant at length about the difference between ‘coding’ and ‘programming’ – and this is definitely the former.

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.

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 😀

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.