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.

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.

Python Summer School

Python rocks!!

Originally uploaded by Kushal Das

Over the past year lots and lots of people have asked me about a programming summer school – an opportunity for non-coding ICT teachers to pick up some programming skills in advance of next year.

I always feel a pang of altruism when I hear things like that always want to try and offer something to fill in the gaps – but the result of that is that I spend lots and lots of time sorting out CAS hub meetings, attending teachmeets, sharing resources and lots of other stuff that I massively enjoy and get a lot from, but it doesn’t half eat into my free (ha ha!) time.

And so I decided last week I *would* run a summer school, but that (unusually for me), I would charge for it.

Having done a bit of research, the likes of Lighthouse and exam boards themselves usually offer CPD courses for £225 – 300 + VAT per day. After a bit of calculating, I reckon that charging £250 for two days (so half the price of the others), I can still sleep at night, most schools can afford to spend the cost of a day’s supply for 2 days of training without needing any cover and I can earn a few quid to help me try and reach my financial aspiration of one day getting to the lofty heights of flat broke.

So, I present to you the first ever Teesside Python Summer School. Your £250 gets you a place on a small course (max. 14 delegates, so you can get the individual attention and support that you need), two lunches, any and all resources I can come up with and a big does of good karma for helping to offset all the other stuff I have (and will continue to) given away.

I’ve provisionally shifted half the tickets already, which is great, but do get in touch if you have any queries.

The one in which Mark feels grumpy

In the last few days I’ve had several conversations about the use of programming software in schools. Scratch, Alice, Kodu, Logo, Starlogo, Gamemaker, Scratch BYOB, Greenfoot, BlueJ, IDLE… the list goes on.

A number of people have tried to convince me that I should drop Scratch for Scratch BYOB, drop Gamemaker for Starlogo, etc. Now I know these people (in a virtual sense, at least) and I know they are speaking from their own experiences and beliefs. I know they want what’s best for the pupils, the teachers, the future, etc. And I tried really hard not to get too defensive about my position. (And I’m really not aiming to offend them. Really.)

My position, as Head of Department, is to set out a curriculum that will help my students, as taught by my staff. That means that although one of my staff loves Alice, because a majority really don’t then we’re not going to include it. This doesn’t stop colleague A from using it as and where he sees fit, but the written Scheme of Work, resources, etc. for the department as a whole will not include Alice.

Likewise, I’ve tried Starlogo. We wrote a Scheme of Work, taught it, and it didn’t work. Maybe we should try again, maybe we should try harder. Well, one of my colleagues has spent a great deal of time getting into Gamemaker and writing a Scheme of Work. Under no circumstances am I going to turn around and tell him we’re not using it because someone on Twitter told me Starlogo would be better.

I’m also not convinced that there is a right way to introduce programming using these graphical tools. In fact I *am* certain that there isn’t one.

I got really grumpy a minute ago when I saw someone tweeting that Kodu “SHOULD replace Scratch in schools!”. I have several issues with this. First, our all-in-one PCs, our thin clients, our netbooks and our Macs all refuse to run it. We do have some PCs that will run it, but not enough for every pupil in a cohort. Secondly, WHY should Kodu replace Scratch? Nothing other than a link to the Kodu page was posted. I’ve seen Kodu, I’ve had someone from Microsoft demonstrate it for me. It looks lovely. I can see why someone might WANT to replace Scratch with this. I can see why someone COULD replace Scratch with this. I disagree strongly with the suggestion that we SHOULD.

Somebody asked me why I was considering a Scratch-based animation unit and not using Flash. This was a very fair question, and being made to question our decisions is a good thing. No-one was telling me I was wrong, they were just trying to get to grips with my point of view to see whether I had a point. In hindsight I think they were right and I think I’m going to run a couple of lessons in Scratch followed by a few more in Flash and then compare them. But at no point did anyone say that I SHOULD be using Flash.

To give another example, I am a *huge* fan of Moodle. Enormously so. I honestly don’t believe I have told anyone that they HAVE to use Moodle, or that they SHOULD use Moodle. I’ve told them that they COULD. I’ve told them that I will help. I’ve generally also told them about Edmodo in the next breath. Sometimes Frog. Sometimes a blog. Sometimes a wiki. I just don’t believe that telling people that they SHOULD do things is really the right way to go.

So there. I’m being a grump today. Harumph.


Image attribution: Grumpy #5 Originally uploaded by Dagza

Why I don’t want to be a specialist


I remember making a blog post a year or so ago about the fact that I was being pulled in several different directions and I wasn’t sure if I liked it. We’ve all the heard the phrase “Jack of all trades and master of none”, and I was worried about exactly that.

When I was first starting out in teaching I came from a relatively technical background of computer programming with a bit of networking and web design thrown in for good measure. I expected teaching ICT to be similar, but quickly found I had to brush up some relatively specific tasks – vlookups in Excel, switchboards in Access. This was OK and while it was a little less technical than I would have liked I figured I knew where I stood.

Then along came iMedia, and suddenly I reading documents that referred to the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Means, Shot Angles and Match Cut Edits as though I knew what the heck was being talked about. I had the good fortune to work with some brilliant colleagues from Thespian Studies (or Drama, as they are more commonly known) who got me (and the students) through the basics. Suddenly the Rule of Thirds was being applied not just to images or videos, but to web design, leaflets, presentations and more. I became the media ‘expert’ in the department (for the time being, although I’ve since been superseded in that role).

I still hankered for my programming though, something I had enjoyed since I first realised you could do more than just play cassettes with a Spectrum. I tried a couple of after school clubs over the years, got involved with the AS Computing course and am single handedly manning the new GCSE Computing as of about 3 weeks ago when my first after-school classes started. My Head of Department is more of a coder than I ever was, but I’m up there.

After two and a half years at the school I was looking to move on, until the Head offered my a Second in Department role that was effectively Head of KS3 ICT on paper (although I still maintain that “Assistant to the Head of Department” is essentially what I was doing within the first 12 months) – and so I’ve had the responsibility for managing, preparing and overseeing the KS3 curriculum for some time.

A lot of people have made mention of my love of cross-curricular ICT. The use of Cloud Computing and Web 2.0 to improve access to software and the sharing of ideas. The use of free and open-source software to provide access for students without £3k to drop on a copy of the Adobe Master Suite. The Techy Tips newsletters that I wrote for a while (I’m so far past deadline on the last I’m declaring a hiatus) seemed reasonably popular with a few. My Mukoku resource sharing site is not the central hub for resources just yet but I’m getting a fair bit of traffic and feedback.

Did I also mention that I’m the lead teacher on the AS and A2 ICT courses? And in charge of the school website since a colleague and I redesigned it from scratch 3 years ago?

So I have lots of hats, and it worried me for a long time that I was a master of none of them. What a load of tosh.

OK, I’m no Stanley Kubrick, but not that many people actually know what a Match Cut Edit is. I’m not the best in the school, not even the best in the department, but I can get kids to understand and even apply the rule of thirds, to understand why a low angle shot is menacing and a high angle shot makes the subject look meek. Second best at programming still means I can hack the PHP on the school website well enough, write enough Python and Java to get me up to and including the AS Level Computing standard without having to stay up until 3am. I genuinely think that our KS3 Programme of Study and the resources we have made are pretty sound and while I’m not spending as much time as I have in the past trying to push out ICT ideas to the rest of the staff, I’m still dropping the odd URL in pigeon holes and mentioning particular tools and sites when I get the chance. So yes, I am a “Jack of all trades” – but I think I’m pretty good at most of them. And if I ploughed all my time into programming, or into media, then my life would be a lot less rich and my skills far less useful. So sod being a specialist in one field. Why not just aim to reach the level of “damned good” in all of them?

An Introduction To Python

I’ve been offline for much of the last month, but I’ve not been doing nothing.

Next year (and quite possible for the latter stages of this year) I am likely to be running the new OCR pilot of the first GCSE Computing course in living memory.

The decision was taken to use Python as the language of choice and, not having any experience of Python, I’ve spent the last fortnight learning the language and writing a guide / workbook / printable resource for the students.

My 3rd draft is now available at scribd, and all things being well should also be shown below.

Feedback is, of course, more than welcome. And the document it itself can be printed for your own use should you wish.

Introduction to Python (3rd Draft)

Mukoku course: Y9 programming w/Alice


As mentioned in a previous post, I have been working on a 6 week Scheme of Work aimed at introducing Year 9 students to programming, specifically with Alice for 5 lessons out of the 6. I’ve run this unit this term and have made minor changes so I’m pretty confident that I could use this ‘off the shelf’.

As always, the materials are provided with a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license and there is a full Moodle backup of the course available so you can drop it straight in if you’re Moodled up yourself.

This course (and several others) is now available at