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.

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%

What are new skills to teach in the 21st Century

One brave blogger has attempted to list the skills they thought are the important ones for school children to have in the 21st Century.

21ST CENTURY SKILLS – THEY EXIST AND THEY MATTER…

They had broken their list into three parts:

  1. Totally new skills (did not exist pre-21st Century)
  2. Skills that existed in the past but are much more important now
  3. Skills that are always in demand but now have technology to help!

As I read the list I wondered about how these skills should be imparted? Should they be directly taught? For example tell them we are going learn touch typing and how to position the hands and which fingers are used on which keys. Or should we teach them via work? As them, for example, to write 200 words about their favourite film and the first person to finish gets to read it out.

For me any listing of 21st Century skills should be broken down into these parts:

  1. Best taught directly
  2. Best acquired by doing as part of other work
  3. Best a blend of both

And then it might become more apparent which skills a teacher should be concentrating on in designing lessons.

What’s a game for a teacher?

I came across this:

while many teachers say they are using digital games in the classroom, a lot of the time they just mean interactive activities or worksheets.”

With this example.

"For example, a recent study from A-GAMES, a research collaboration between New York 
University and the University of Michigan, last year surveyed 488 K-12 teachers, and 
found that “more than half of teachers (57 percent) use digital games weekly or more often in teaching.” That’s a pretty high adoption rate. But according to Millstone, “the most frequently used ‘games’ aren’t really games at all.” Teachers seem to label any 
interactive activity that happens on a laptop or a tablet a ‘game.’ The categories are unclear. To which activity does each buzzword refer? What counts as blended learning? 
What’s the difference between game-based learning and gamification?"

Teachers or administrators, who’s the real problem?

Like most debates agreeing on definitions is the starting point. Though at the moment I have a few questions first.

  • What is a game?
  • Do teachers define games differently when they use them in education?
  • Do the participants distinguish between playing a game for “fun” and playing a game in classroom?

I used games in teaching to the learners talking and thinking in English, in TEFL classes. My answer to the above three questions is that you have to remember to respect the players desire to have an outcome.

As the teacher I am not concerned or interested in who won the game, or how the players were ranked at the end of the game. I just want my lesson aims to be achieved. But if you have really engaged your learners – and this applies to adults as well as children – they will want to know their scores or at least what happened at the end. There is an need for immediate outcome: success, or failure. There is a need to compare each others achievement. They are competitive.

If “the thing you call a game” doesn’t provide

  1. an outcome – success or failure
  2. comparative performance – a ranking structure that is obvious to all participants
  3. the thrill of competition

It ain’t a game.

 

 

 

 

Computer science teaching in USA

I am very surprised – nay, gobsmacked – by this stat.

"Even if students are fortunate enough to be in one of the less than 10 percent of U.S.high schools that offer computer science..."

Why there’s no such thing as an ‘F’ in computer science

How do I align this with my concept of the USA being the temple and forge of so much computer based technology?

Do they poach a lot of their computer scientists from overseas?

Is training yourself to be a “hacker” better than a formal education?

Do most computer geeks in the USA leave school with formal education and home grown programming skills and then do computer science at college?

I am so surprised by this little snippet that I stopped reading the rest of the article.

 

 

How to make teaching great.

I have made it a rule of mine to ignore internet articles that say something like “Seven reasons..” or “Five great…” or “Nine things…”.

Articles that promise short, sharp lists of things are link bait. And like most link bait tactics it works, you are tempted to click. Though when you get to taste the articles they contain slim content, are easy to read, and usually disappoint. So I generally ignore articles listing things.

Unfortunately I have to ignore my rule because I am interested in reading about teaching. So with a little trepidation I clicked on this link – Seven ‘great’ teaching methods not backed up by evidence. And as the article was on the theConversation.com website made me think it was going to better than something I found on yahoo and its paler imitators.

And it was interesting, and better still, it had a link to substantial report – What makes great teaching. There is even a summary of the report –  How to make teaching great – for those who don’t want to plough through the 57 page report.

And then I started digging around a bit more and discovered that there is a book that has a very similar title Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou and also book review A Perspective of ‘Seven Myths’

I have not read and digested all of these resources. My quick skim reading has left me with the impression that all these writers favour direct knowledge led teaching by subject matter experts. They generally agree that there is no such thing as an abstract skill. All skill and knowledge are interwoven – though that leaves me wondering is there not such a thing as a transferable skill.

Thus far I using this post as a bookmark. I have the book on order from the library and I am going to print out the Sutton report – sometimes known as print and disregard.

My initial thoughts is that I am not experienced in the background of this debate. It is all new to me. There seems to be two broad camps in education. What I will characterise as traditional teaching and method teaching. The traditionalists prefer teacher lead teaching, explaning, testing, assessing, scaffolding etc. The method teachers prefer discover led learning, group activities, gamification etc.

Hmmm… a lot to digest.

 

 

 

 

 

A bee needs 6 grams of honey

A bee needs to eat 6 grams of honey to make 1 gram of wax or beeswax. This is the assertion made in the description of the production of beeswax at the Design Museum.

The production of beeswax and its use in efficient hexagons inspired Torsten Sherwood to choose honeycomb as their top design structure.

Personally, I find the evolutionary explanation of honeycomb to be all the more 
wondrous and inspiring. In a world limited in resources, bees that use wax most 
efficiently are more likely to survive, and given enough time this would naturally 
produce a race of bees building the optimized hexagonal design. This insight 
reveals honeycomb true designer, not God or even the bee, but the process, design 
methodology even, of Darwinian evolution.
Honeycomb of beeswax

A honeycomb made of beeswas forming a hexagonal tessellating structure.

An interesting concept of design: a blind designer, a design process is his top designer.

I wondered if this could be modeled using algorithms.

1. How many grams can each worker bee collect to feed the colony? What is the optimal ratio of collectors to hive workers?

1. Only bees sufficiently well fed could exude beeswax?  How much beeswax do you need to make a honeycomb to breed new workers and store excess honey? How do they choose between larvae or honey?

3. If we got hives to use alternative structures, which would be able to produce the most surplus and thus survive or grow bigger.

I thought it would be a nice test of efficiency in shapes within algorithms describing a similar process, but with one aspect different, the shape of the honeycomb.

Making a Mind Map at the Design Museum

I visited the Design Museum, London, on the excellently named street Shad Thames. I have never been before and I was curious to see what was on. I was also looking for a present for a friend.

Whilst I was there I started thinking about what links I could make between the concepts and ideas I saw at the museum and any future lessons plans.

In the Designers in Residence 2014: Disruption I found they had a hands on section, with pens, pencils, and paper and an open invite to respond to the exhibition.

As I had been in the museum for about 2 hours I was overloading with ideas for teaching and decided to sit down and draw a Mind Map of “Teaching Computers.” I started just playing with the colours and drawing shapes and lines and added concepts and links as they popped up.

I will write a post about each idea at a later stage.

It was a very interesting hour spent amongst all the objects and other ideas crowding round me. I need to start writing up my notes and ideas.

Mind Map - Teaching Computers

 

The growth mindset

I dislike simple ideas that promise great success.

The world is too complex for there to be simple advice that will work for all people in all situations. Except perhaps for “keep breathing.”

And so it is with a recent trend to invoke “the growth mindset” within educational circles. Take for example this recent post from Dylan Wiliams Is the Feedback You’re Giving Students Helping or Hindering?

"Students must understand that they are not born with talent (or lack of it) and that
their personalities do not determine whether or not they are “good at math” or 
“good at writing.” Rather, ability is incremental. The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, 
students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers."

So that’s simple then. You will get better if you only you work harder AND if you understand that only hard work works.  It’s all down to blood, sweat and tears and a little gritty determination then.  Or as Carol Dweck has it:

Talent = Hard work + Persistence (A Growth Mindset)

I am a little wary of these sort of simple statements. People do seem better able at somethings than others: playing the piano, dancing, maths, or spelling. It seems to be innate.

And is there not a role for the environment, your cultural background, the wealth or lack of it you have to call on? Are there not a lot of studies that show that one of the biggest determinants of your exam achievements is your socio-economic status? Here is a great take down of Dylan and the Growth Mindset – The Growth Mindset : Telling Penguins to Flap Harder?

I do wonder if this Samuel Smiles “boot lace pulling” methodology to success is a variant of your political viewpoint. The upside, poverty will not grind you down if you work hard. The downside, if you are still poor then it is because you have not worked hard enough. Your choice. Now stop whining about inequality.

Anyways. And then I saw this study Understanding the success of London’s schools. This study has gone into a detailed statistical analysis of the UK’s exam and Ofsted results and finds that after correcting for all kinds of categories, like ethnicity, background, etc:

"More broadly, my interpretation of this leads to a focus on pupil aspiration, ambition and engagement. There is nothing inherently different in the educational performance 
of pupils from different ethnic backgrounds, but the children of relatively recent 
immigrants typically have greater hopes and expectations of education, and are, on 
average, consequently likely to be more engaged with their school work. These results 
help to explain the ‘London Effect’; they do not explain it away. My argument is that 
the London effect is a very positive thing, but much of the praise for this should be 
allocated to the pupils and parents of London for creating a successful multi-ethnic 
school system. By the same token, there is less evidence that education policies and 
practices had a large part to play in terms of innovative policies."

Interesting. So the role of effort is demonstrable here. Why? Are there special circumstances at work here? Is the Growth Mindset not so bad after all?

I need to read this 35 page report in detail and see what I think. But I find it a challenge to my above dislike of the Growth Mindset.

 

Some references

I have been reading “Independent Thinking” by Ian Gilbert and got a little annoyed by one bit of his otherwise interesting book. My review is here.

Anyways, here are two references to other books from his book.

And two quotes from the books.

1, “The highest goal of education is to teach people to ‘read and write the word’ so they can come to ‘re-read and re-write the world’.”
P Freire “Pedagogy of hope” 

This resonates. In an earlier post I was asking what the purpose of teaching was. Gilbert quoted the above as the summation of his philosophy of teaching. At the moment it works for me too. I will come back to it and expand on this.

2. “Before you build a boat you have to need a boat”
Zoe Elder “Full on learning: involve me and I’ll understand”

This is appropriate to me. I started a website to learn how to make websites. I started blogs for the same reason. I have never written a computer program because I have never had to to achieve something with a computer that I could not do with somebody else’s program. I have tinkered with other people’s scripts and I have made some basic “hello world” programs as part of a class room exercise, but I have never thought of myself as a programmer.