Thoughts on the Hour of Code 2015

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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.

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Sssh… it’s a secret!



Whisper

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 Big Picture

On Thursday I presented a 7 minute skit at Teachmeet Tees on my Image Of The Week exercise.

Every week, in my tutorial (Citizenship / PSHE) lesson I show students a picture I’ve grabbed from the Boston Globe’s Big Picture site, get them to discuss it in pairs or small groups and then always ask them the same 5 questions:

  • What can you see in this picture?
    Not – what is happening / what’s the story – a much more literal approach
  • Where is it happening?
    What continent, what country, what city… what clues are there?
  • Who are the people in the picture?
    Citizens, refugees, civilians, soldiers, students, parents, children…
  • How do they feel?
    Happy, sad, scared, lonely, excited, nervous. relieved…
  • Is there anything we can / should do as a result?

At each stage I get a number of people to contribute ideas and always try to refrain from giving them any real feedback as to the accuracy of their suggestions.

The last question we rarely get to answer, as the students still don’t know what the real story is – but I like to think that it gets them wondering about their social responsibilities and what they could do to help others.

Finally, I explain what the current situation is. Grab a map and some information from places like Wikipedia and BBC News as well as the information that comes with the galleries at the Big Picture site.

We’ve looked at war zones, natural disasters, campaigns, protests, celebrations – all sorts of things. And we’ve discussed geography, politics, current affairs, language (just this week we had ‘ambiguous’ and ‘juxtaposition’), how to read  images for meaning, global citizenship, charity and much, much more.

It has helped to improve speaking and listening skills within the class, as well as social skills and turn taking. It’s also improved our relationship and on those occasions  where I’ve been too busy or forgotten to do this I get moans and complaints – so I’d call that a success.

In addition to the Big Picture website, I would also recommend checking out the Sacramento Bee’s Frame website and TotallyCoolPix for more top quality photo journalism..

Apparently Scribd are evil…

There has been a bit of a ruckus in recent weeks over Scribd, a website for sharing and embedding PDF documents. Rather than just uploading and downloading the files you can read them online and embed them in a website or blog with incredible ease.

The furore is over their new policy of requiring users to be premium members to download archived documents (that is, documents that have been up there for a good while – although I’m not sure how long is too long). I can understand that this might be frustrating for those who have uploaded their documents to Scribd with the aim of sharing them (as I have) and a lot of the complaints centre on the lack of clear communication about this issue.

You can tick a checkbox to exclude your documents from the archive (although I’m not sure whether this means my documents will always be available for free or not…) and while it’s not ideal, a lot of documents have a limited shelf-life anyway and all of the resources I really like I post up at Mukoku anyway (eventually, at any rate). Embedding / reading the documents online is still free regardless of the age of the file.

I assume Scribd have bills to pay and can’t really begrudge them trying to make enough money to survive. They’re still offering a valuable service for free and a tweet looking for good alternatives came up with exactly no responses whatsoever. So I’m still using them and have just uploaded a Scratch tutorial for a sharks and fish game I ran with my Y10 Computing class this week.