Author Archives: Nick

About Nick

I will start training to be a teacher in September 2015, specialising in Computer Science. My previous career between 1988 - 2013, was as a Librarian, Systems Librarian and Website Manager. I am currently on a career break, taking the time to read, to think, to listen, to observe, write and photograph.

The true power of programming languages is in their libraries

A few snippets taken from this insider’s view of what it is to be a coder in the industry.

“The true measure of a language isn’t how it uses semicolons; it’s the standard library of each language. A language is software for making software. The standard library is a set of pre-made software that you can reuse and reapply.  Take Python, which is “batteries included,” meaning that it comes with tons of preexisting code, organized into “modules,” that you can reuse. Its standard library has functions that let you copy Web pages or replace words in a document.  I am made of code, and I have a standard library of functions of my own. Sliders and buttons and timers can get wired up to anything on the page, because the page and every object on it is code, too.”

“What does that mean, to process text? Well, you might have a string of text (The Quick Brown Fox) and save it in a variable called my_string. So now you can call standard methods on that string. You can say my_string.lower(), and it will make all the words lowercase, producing “the quick brown fox.”  Truly understanding a language’s standard library is one of the ways one becomes proficient in that language. Typically you just visit Web pages or read a book.  But the standard library is only the beginning. For many languages—and Python is exemplary—there’s an enormous library of prewritten modules available for nearly instantaneous download, using “package manager” software. A module (or library, or package) is code that is intended to extend a language’s capabilities.”

“A coder needs to be able to quickly examine and identify which giant, complex library is the one that’s the most recently and actively updated and the best match for his or her current needs. A coder needs to be a good listener.”

Paul Ford (2015) What is code? Bloomberg.

 

The goal of education

I came across this quotation from John W Gardener

“The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else.”

It made immediate sense to me. I even wrote it down in my little book of quotations.

I would modify it slightly.

“The ultimate goal of the educational system is to engender the habit of learning and seeking to understand throughout the rest of the life of the student.”

For my perspective that is a central factor to my career and life. I have learnt many new things since leaving College. Some of them entirely new to me, some of them building on previous knowledge.

I know that I do not understand somethings when first encountered; but I also know that if I apply myself and seek to learn I will understand and be able to master new things. This could be a new central heating system, a new way of laying out and formatting text and images on a web page, or how to complete a form to apply for a job.

Learning how to study, research, and analyse to gain knowledge and new skills is very important in life. School and college are one of the main inputs that push students from spoon fed children to self-aware, learning adults.

Reskilling or deskilling: the advance of the robotic digital age

There has been a recent spate of articles in the press predicting that rise of the robots will take over from humans. This is of course the stuff of science fiction, but there have been other voices that are more considered and perhaps more concerning. These predict that many skills and jobs will be taken by computerisation and robots.

“The upcoming digital age may cause more upheaval than previous technological revolutions as it is happening faster than before and is fundamentally changing the way we live and work. Technology in the 21st century is enabling the automation of tasks once thought quintessentially human: cognitive tasks involving subtle and non-routine judgment. Through big data, the digitisation of industries, the Internet of Things and industrial and autonomous robots, the world around us is changing rapidly as is the nature of work across occupations, industries and countries. Although we can’t predict exactly which jobs will be affected, we do have a reasonably good idea about the type of tasks computers will be able to perform in the near future. Based on this, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne predict that 47% of the US workforce is at high risk of automation as a result of these trends and low-income and low-skill jobs are now, for the first time, most likely to be automated.”

I would suggest that you check your own career or skill set against the predictions in this report – Technology at Work: The Future of Innovation and Employment. It could be a sobering thought! For example at the top of the list as least likely to be replaced by computerisation are Recreational Therapists. At the bottom of the extensive list are Telemarketers.

An earlier report attempted to predict which professions will no longer require humans and what new types of skills will be required I have summarised this in Table 1 at the end of this post.

The skills that cannot easily be replaced – the so called computerisation bottleneck – will be skills in three main areas:

  1. Perception and Dexterity
    For example, gardeners working in small parks or gardens will not easily be replaced, though in agriculture large machines for ploughing, planting and harvesting will replace most human labour.
  2. Creative Intelligence
    It is predicted that in the legal profession the legal secretary will be increasingly replaced by automated filing, searching, retrieving suites of software, though the actual lawyer will still be required.
  3. Social Intelligence
    Computers will be able to simulate social intelligence but the human customer will continue to prefer interaction with other humans, or at least it is hoped. So hair dressers will still exist.

We will see the proliferation of computing devices in the Internet of Things, so that all walks of life will be networked, communicated with and controlled. This is now starting with the “Nest Learning Thermostat!” for home central heating systems.

It is predicted that the skills that will be in demand are those who can build, control, and maintain computers. Which is why teaching Computer Science at schools should be a very important step in the development of an individual’s career path and also contribute to the competitiveness of the country that educated them.

TABLE I – O*NET variables that serve as indicators of bottlenecks to computerisation

Computerisation bottleneck

O*NET Variable

O*NET Description

Perception and Manipulation

Finger Dexterity

The ability to make precisely coordinated movements of the fingers of one or both hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble very small objects.

Manual Dexterity

The ability to quickly move your hand, your hand together with your arm, or your two hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble objects.

Cramped Work Space, Awkward Positions

How often does this job require working in cramped work spaces that requires getting into awkward positions?

Creative Intelligence

Originality

The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

Fine Arts

Knowledge of theory and techniques required to compose, produce, and perform works of music, dance, visual arts, drama, and sculpture.

Social Intelligence

Social Perceptiveness

Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.

Negotiation

Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.

Persuasion

Persuading others to change their minds or behavior.

Assisting and Caring for Others

Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others such as coworkers, customers, or patients.

Transferable skills

Transferable skills seem to divide opinion quite strongly. On the one hand we have some educationalists who like the idea of teaching transferable skills like “critical thinking”, “resilience” etc. And there are others who regard skills as being inextricably interwoven with the knowledge of the subject and the exercise of the skill to achieve something.

As an example think about the selection and evaluation of primary sources in history:

  • The transferable skills group will see this as a way of instilling a healthy scepticism about reading newspapers and other modern sources of information.
  • The knowledge and skills are scrambled group will merely regard it as a teaching children how to select and evaluate primary historical sources.

Who is right?

I am beginning to position myself with the “scrambled egg” theory of knowledge and skills. There seems to be a lot of evidence from cognitive science that this is actually how the brain works. Though I would acknowledge that some macro-skills like use of language, numeracy etc. do cross subject domains and are thus transferable.

What put me in mind of this debate is the following quote from a website from the Michaela Community School

“ICT is taught through the other subjects but does not have its own discrete lesson. For instance, spreadsheets are learned in Maths lessons and the basics of coding will complement the learning of algebra. Digital photo software is used in Art lessons and films can be made using complex technology in Drama and English lessons. Four state-of-the-art computer suites are being built. At GCSE, we plan to offer Computing GCSE (as private schools do, instead of ICT GCSE).”

Interesting. This seems to be a very strong statement that they think all of ICT / CS skills are transferable. And perhaps they are correct. I would agree that my Word Processing skills are not stuck in the subject domain of English. Though I do wonder how they will teach the appreciation of computers in society, operating systems, hardware and other rather singular subjects.

Food for thought.

 

The Learning Pyramid: Myth!

I have been reading up on the The Learning Pyramid, attributed the National Training Laboratories (NTL) at Bethel, Maine. My tutor mentioned this when we were talking about peer based learning. He remembered that there was some interesting research on the different methods of instruction.

Here is a “version” of it. It has many variants.

The Learning Pyramid

However, the more I have looked at this simple and persuasive little diagram and the more I dig about the less good it seems. Here is a great little blog that attempts to find out more about it. This writer attempts to understand how such an unreferenced, unresearched piece of “wisdom” is repeated so often.

The best scholarly article I have found on this is James P Lalley and Robert H Miller “The Learning Pyramid: Does it point teachers in the wrong direction?” Education, Sep 2007 This article attempts to find out the origin of the Pyramid. The researchers also attempt a review of all the current research for each teaching type.

I would urge you to read it in full. But for the tl;dr crowd I have extracted two sections:

1. No reference found

‘Additional information regarding the pyramid raises questions of credibility. The National Training Laboratories, in response to an email request from a member of the Academic Computing Department at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, stated the following about the pyramid:

“It was developed and used by NTL Institute at our Bethel, Maine campus in the early sixties when we were still part of the National Education Association’s Adult Education Division. Yes, we believe it to be accurate – but no, we no longer have – nor can we find – the original research that supports the numbers. We get many inquiries every month about this – and many, many people have searched for the original research and have come up empty handed. We know that in 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers appeared on p. 43 of a book called Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, published by the Edgar Dale Dryden Press in New York. Yet the Learning Pyramid as sucb seems to have been modified and always has been attributed to NTL Institute.” ‘

2. A continuum not a hierarchy

‘If we were to draw any conclusion based on the pyramid, it would be that the methods be thought of as on a continuum as opposed to in a hierarchy. Therefore, the less prior knowledge students have the more likely it is that effective methods would be found toward the direct instruction end of the continuum, and as students’ knowledge increased, they would be more
capable of learning with methods involving discussion and teaching. However, because learning is an ongoing process, this will not preclude that further learning will take place with more direct methods. Thus, even the most experienced learners, such as successful heart surgeons, could learn from a more experienced learner, a surgeon with a new technique, and the best
initial methods would likely be lecture/demonstration which would lead to practice by doing, and possibly teaching others. Not surprisingly, this retums us to the assertions of Dale (1946) and Dewey (1916) that for successful learning experiences, students need to experience a
variety of instructional methods and that direct instruction needs to be accompanied
by methods that further student understanding and recognize why what they are
learning is useful.’

The world is not so simple.

Well. What a surprise. The world is more complex than a simple diagram tries to make it.

The dangerous thing about “The Learning Pyramid” is that confirms what we all know about reading and listening to lectures. They are not only dull and boring, but now we learn they are useless too. Excellent. Let’s concentrate on more modern techniques that the Gradgrinds of Teaching would never use in the dusty classrooms. And off we skip.

24250063The best advice from research seems to be is to use a variety of methods. This is also echoed by research into learning and memory from the cognitive sciences.

I have been reading a modern summary of the learning sciences by Benedict Carey “How we learn.” The research highlighted in this book points out that learning is at its best when it is varied, regular and revisited. Memory is an amalgam of recall and stored information. We seem to store everything we do, along with the emotions and environment in which we study. The trick is is to improve recall and this is best done by studying the same information in different places and in different ways and this assists the recall process winnow out the facts from the noise of the environment.

It’s an excellent little read and has certainly changed my attitude to learning. And it is great to see that the Lalley and Miller study also concludes that variety works too.

 

Intuition or Ignorance: why teach computational thinking?

I was trying to explain to a friend why I was learning about the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and Arithmetic Logic Units (ALU) on my course training me to be a teacher of computer science.

I did not need to know about the workings of a CPU during my career. Perhaps the only time I considered a CPU was when I was buying a new computer. And even then I did not need to know much more than the relative speeds and power of the CPUs available.

So I was pleased to read this article “Computing is too easy” which makes the case for why educators need to add the study of computational thinking to the school curriculum. And it makes a lot of sense to me. I am lucky enough that I learnt to use computers when knowledge of the command line, knowledge of roughly how programs work was necessary to get the best out of computers. So teaching something about how computers actually work, and why they sometimes don’t work and what limitations they have and what power they have should contribute to the knowledge base of a well educated student.

And I understand the other point of view, put to me forcefully by my boss. All she wanted was the computer to do something. Why couldn’t it just do what she needed to do? She wanted a hammer to do a job, a car to do its job and a computer to do its job too. Was she asking too much? And my patient explanation of a particular computing quirk was just dismissed: “make it work and then come back to me.”

And of course I do prefer to use the modern shrink wrapped operating systems and shiny new laptops and smartphones. I switch them on and they enable me to do stuff. So much better than the old Win 3.11 for Workgroups and DOS 6.22. Though I do dislike Apple computers because they are too shiny and easy, and encourage people to know nothing about the Mac they are using, they just use it. For example the Daily Mirror puts out this explanation of how to turn off a default on your iPhone that most people probably never knew was there because they had just taken the thing out the box, switched it on and then gleefully tell everyone how intuitive it is to use. No, Mac’s infantilise you, more than PCs, at any rate.

In summary: there seems to be two schools of thought. Those who want to know more about their computers so they can understand them, control them, and make informed decisions and those who want to use them as a tool to achieve something.

And this argument will rumble on and on. I think it has more to do with personality than rationality.

My position is that a computer is a too complex and multi-faceted tool to operate like a hammer. But if you want to retain the defaults set for you by someone who makes decisions about things you have chosen not to be aware of, then don’t blame them when some of those decisions come back to bite you or do things you wouldn’t opt for. Do not swap intuitive interfaces for ignorance! But if you do, take responsibility for your choice of ignorance and blame yourself.

Which is why I am willing to teach computer science.

Hopefully I can make a little bit of difference. Hopefully I might contribute to some children’s overall level of education by adding some awareness of how computers actually work.

Subject authority

This is a new concept for me. So I am really parking a link here with a quick description so I can come back to it later on.

The concept is that a teacher’s subject knowledge gives them the authority to teach a subject.

I first came across this idea when I was on my first day of teaching observation and I was talking to a teacher about my worries about my lack of knowledge of computer programming. An experienced teacher said in response that kids do detect a teacher’s depth of knowledge and problems can arise. It’s as if the little darlings are challenging teachers to be experts and if they find them wanting they start playing up.

It is also the subject of this book, Authority and the Teacher, by William Kitchen,  I found being reviewed in spiked

The central premise of his book is his claim that ‘the development of knowledge 
requires a submission to the authority of a master expert: the teacher’. Kitchen argues that it is the teacher’s authority that makes imparting knowledge possible; in the 
absence of authority, teaching becomes simply facilitation and knowledge becomes 
inaccessible. He is careful to delineate authority from power, and he locates teachers’ authority within their own subject knowledge, which in turn is substantiated and held in check through membership of a disciplinary community. Without ‘the authority of the community and the practice,’ he argues, the notion of ‘correctness’ loses its meaning 
and there is no longer any sense to the passing of educational judgements.

Those words “simply facilitation” bring back memories of teaching some classes in Spain. We were instructed to only teach conversation and not to do grammar. And I remember one class of adults who got me into a mess when we started talking about the conditionals. It was then that I realised I did not know my English grammar sufficiently well and I started to struggle and get confused by my lack of knowledge of English grammar. Not a nice experience!

I also remember what my frind Gavin said to me when he heard I was going to train to be a teacher. He sent me an email telling me about three teachers he remembered from his time at school. He recalled their individual teaching styles and subject knowledge of French. He remembered a primary school head who let him study French, instead of other subjects. He  particularly his A level teacher who taught him how French was really spoken. Gavin went on to be a French / English translator.

He was inspired by these teachers’ knowledge of the subject and their inspired methods to teach it.

Seven myths about education – Daisy Christodoulou

This little book – Seven Myths about Education – has received some attention from reviewers – herehere and here and appears to have caused a minor stir.

I have managed to get a copy from the library and have read the intro and first two chapters.

I will give my reaction to the books message later.

For now I want to deal with how the book deals with evidence and theory. This book has been accused of putting up straw men to easily knock down. And in the reviews above you will find elements of those accusations.

So I was prepared for a book that might annoy me with an over simplistic positioning of the myth makers. And what I got was a much better thing. Each chapter is neatly organised into three parts:

  1. Theoretical evidence
  2. Modern practice
  3. Why is it a myth?

Part three is all about evidence from cognitive sciences, and psychology. And this is what most attracts me. There seems to be a growing cross disciplinary subject called “learning sciences“. And what struck me is that the evidence from the first section is from writers who had no evidence but their experience – they were working at time when there was no scientific study. Great thinkers like Rosseau, Dickens, Dewey, and Freire were writing cogent and persuasive arguments based on their experience and analysis of contemporary education and classrooms.

Compare this to cognitive scientists, memory scientists and others who attempt to tease out how we actually remember things, and how we think. I have been reading another book that reviews the current work on “How we learn” which demonstrates that the learning sciences are growing rapidly and counter so many of our commonly accepted ideas about study and learning.

One of the best lines from the the Seven Myths book is the scrambled egg metaphor by E D Hirsch: “who sees the relationship between knowledge and skills as being like a scrambled eff. You cannot unscramble an egg, and you cannot unscramble knowledge from skills.

Which in turn reminds me of the jam being stirred into a rice pudding image from the wonderfully thought provoking play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. (I wonder if Hirsch borrowed the idea from Stoppard and who in turn Stoppard stole it from?)

And this is what pedagogy needs. We need to shed the thinkers who used only the evidence of their experience. Anecdote is not evidence. The subject of how we think cannot be left to an individual’s experience of their own thinking. All the studies and books I have read about the cognitive sciences generally echo the fact that our thought processes are not transparent to our conscious brains. A scientific basis is required, on which we can build an evidence based craft of teaching.

 

ICT, Digital Literacy, and Computer Science in Schools

I have been reading articles on ICT educational policy in the UK.

I am doing this because this is the subject I will train to teach and because these articles were written by my future tutors – it will always pay to know your teacher’s profiles better.

This particular article is worth noting: Embedding Information and Communication Technology across the curriculum – where are we at?* . It opened my eyes to a larger problem that I might encounter in schools. That computers and the ability to use them and understand their social impact can be regarded as a transferable skill, that can improve a students performance in other subjects, and is not being formally taught at GCSE or A level.

Here I detect danger signals. Many schools are so focused on exam results that if a “thing” cannot be tested – whether that thing is a skill, a subject or whatever – then it will get little formal teaching time. Even though ICT skills and digital literacy are thought of as good skills / knowledge to have, it will not be taught.

At least under the much maligned ICT GCSE some attempt to teach ICT skills and digital literacy was made. The focus now is moving to the formal teaching on Computer Science (CS).

It would be silly of me to suggest that the newly released syllabus for the CS GCSE should be changed at a time when everyone is running around trying to cope with the changeover.

So the only route I can think of is to either dedicate some of the formal CS teaching time to “other” ICT skills and subjects – a dangerous thing – or to teach it in after school clubs. Or rely in the more motivated student to just pick it up as they go along.

Or persuade a school to drop another subject. The argument going that it will benefit the performance across all subjects. Which subject would a school be happy to drop?

Mmmm…

* The article can be found here at Research in Teacher Education, October 2014.

Survival: The Shipwreck Game

Learning Aim

I use this game as an aid to encourage English conversation for both children and adults. The students can talk within their team, between teams and with the teacher.

It works best with English language proficiency levels of Intermediate (B2) and above.

It introduces new vocabulary about islands, the tropics and ships and seafaring.

In lower ability classes you can teach them future phrases like “I will search for…”  “I want to find…” or “I hope the boat does not sink“.

Scenario

The situation – a shipwrecked survivor – seems to be familiar to all people. Many people know of Robinson Crusoe or the film Castaway.

Players seem to like working out survive strategies. It engages students and gets the class to think of imaginative solutions to problems.

Teams

The game is best if you divide the class into teams of 4 to 6.
Each turn a different team member is nominated to be the leader of the team. This person should lead the discussion and will take the decision for the team that turn.
Let all the teams discuss their next move. The teacher calls time and invites each leader to write down their “order” for the next turn.

At the end of the game, the teacher should invite each team to criticise the choices of the other team and speculate as to who would survive or be rescued.

Explaining the game – its mostly a shared story

I start the game by drawing a tropical island on the board and asking the class if they can name things they would typically find on such an island. I start by drawing a mountain and palm trees. After the class has exhausted their vocab I start to add things like coconut trees, banana trees, streams of fresh water, coral reefs, wild pigs and goats.

I then draw a sailing ship wrecked on the coast.

On the ship I draw “compartments” and I number them from the bow to the stern in descending order, starting at 8 or 7 down to 3. I do not explain these to the players.

I tell the class a story.

They are on the ship that has been shipwrecked and we are going to play a game called “survival”. I draw a stick figure on the shore and tell them that they have managed to get off the ship and they are alone and standing their in the pyjamas on the beach, and are wet, tired, thirsty, and hungry. Their ship is stuck on a reef and still afloat though it is taking in water through a hole in the bow of the ship.

I tell them that there are things on the ship that they might get that will help them to survive.

I divide them into teams. I ask the teams to discuss what item they want from the ship. I ask them to nominate a leader or spokesperson.

Searching

I do not use any rules for finding the item they require. What I do is to ask the player where they might expect to find the item they are searching for on the ship.

I want them to give a rationale, an explanation. Sometimes if they do not give a good enough reason – my judgement – I will let them find a lesser type of object. For example they often saw they want a gun. Unless they tell a good story about why the ship has rifles with lots of ammunition, I let them find a pistol and a few bullets.

Rules

Every time a player goes back onto the ship they risk making the ship unsteady and it might take on more water and possibly sink.
To simulate this I use a simple system called EDNA* (Ever Decreasing Number Allocation). This is a simple disaster modelling system. 
The target number is the largest uncrossed number in a ship’s compartment. The player rolls two dice.

  • If the sum of the dice is less than the target number then that compartment withstands the sea and does not flood. 
  • If the sum is equal or higher than the target number, then that compartment floods. 
  • If the sum is higher and a double, then two compartments flood.
When all compartments are flooded the ship sinks taking any unwary player down with them.
So long as the ship does not sink, the player always manage to collect the item they are searching for.

Sometimes if the players are being slow or cannot agree I warn them that the wind is picking up and the waves are tossing the ship about on the water and water is flooding into the ship. If they don’t get the hint, I make the leader roll the dice, and determine if the compartment floods. I do not allow them to collect anything. It rarely comes to this, but it does add to the excitement.

Example

Using the image of the ship above as an example. 
The players have already gone to the ship to retrieve two items, an axe and something to make a fire with. On the last of those forays they have rolled an 8 or more, but not a double 4, 5 or 6, and one compartment in the bow has flooded. The compartment with 8 is now crossed off.
If they want to go on the boat to search for something else they will need to roll 2 – 6 to avoid flooding another compartment. On a roll of 7 to 12 one compartment will flood, if the roll is a double 4, 5  or 6, two compartments will flood.

Completed game

Below are two completed games, I played with Max (11) and Nico (8), two Italian boys who have recently started living in England and picking up English. We all took it in turns to draw on the paper.

The boys were good, and selected relevant things, like clothes, an axe, tinned food, a knife and matches. But both pushed their luck too far and went back to the nearly flooded ship and sank when the ship was overwhelmed by the sea.

Materials required

  • Two six sided dice
  • Pen and paper, or whiteboard and markers

Time required

This game can easily take an hour to play. It could be done as a quick 15 minute session.

You can vary the game duration by telling more elaborate stories or discussing some vocab in more detail.

Modelling a catastrophic event

*EDNA was invented by Graham Hockley. I first used it in 1990. It has been incorporated into a some game rules.

EDNA is a simple but effective method to model an unpredictable catastrophic event that becomes more likely as time passes. It does not degrade a situation, it models sudden and absolute change from one state into another state. The ship is afloat; the ship is sunk. The volcano is dormant; the volcano is erupting. There is no half-way degraded state.

The probabilities are:

Succeed         Fail
<8 = 58%        >=9 = 42%
<7 = 42%        >=8 = 58% 
<6 = 27%        >=7 = 73%   

<5 = 16%        >=6 = 84%

<4 = 11%        >=5 = 89%
<3 = 03%        >=4 = 97%