How do you find out new stuff?

I sometimes worry I’m becoming stale…  Looking back with ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ it seems that in the past I was able to spend more time keeping abreast of new things than I am now.   I seemed to be more able to find new opportunities, to discover new things and to learn new things in the past.

So how do you discover new and exciting things to do in the classroom with Computers?

I’ve managed to make use of a myriad of avenues to help me discover new things here in the UK…

Conferences

I have attend conferences such as the (now sadly defunct) Naace Conference where for many years (over 10) I relished the opportunity to network with old friends and made new ones too.  I picked up some gems from the main presentations, but in many ways more important were the little ‘show-and-tell’ sessions running on the side where teachers and consultants would quietly show you what they’ve been doing.  Some of the best things I have taught (and still do) come from sessions like that!

More recently I’ve attended the E2BN conference in St Neots.  It seemed to capture the same feeling as the Naace conference and sent me back to ‘work’ with a fresh step and new ideas bubbling up again.

I have attended Bett annually in London for over 15 years now, often trying to put a high priority on choosing sensible seminar sessions above the exhibition.  It’s amazing how the slightest thing can be that spark of an idea which can turn into something excellent.  Bett as a conference is too large still and you really need to go equipped with a plan of action or a specific focus to get the most out of Bett.  This year I started by sitting down with the seminar timetable and drafted myself a list of those to use as a scaffold to then build my Bett visit around.  I then created a must-visit list of exhibitors and also a list of things I am looking for.  As  travel around bett I will keep my eyes open for anything else that catches them too!

The CAS Conference is a really CHEAP conference which takes place over a weekend and which has provided me with excellent ideas over the years BUT focused exclusively on the programming and logic side of Computing.  I have attended three CAS conferences over their nine-year history and taken away many things which I have tried in classrooms.

Some of our local Apple re-sellers have offered excellent free days where you could go off to a nice location to see experts showing you what’s new and ‘funky’ in the Apple world.  I got many great ideas from these sessions, things that helped me become really creative with iPads especially.

The issue with conferences of any kind is that they are often not cheap AND you usually need time out of the classroom or work to go.  A double-whammy!

TeachMeets

TeachMeets CAN be great.  I have helped run several over the years and attended dozens, but not so much recently…  Having said that I am signed up for the 2018 Bett TeachMeet taking place on the Friday of Bett.  I am even tempted to sign up to present!

What is a TeachMeet then?  Well, it’s a kind of cross between speed dating and a conference.   They are usually run in the evening (so negating the cost of release from the classroom).  They are also usually free to attend (often sponsored by some education company) or very cheap to attend.  They are run in a social atmosphere, often with drinks and nibbles and they are usually organised and run by teachers.   Anyone can sign up to give a presentation.  Presentations are normally either 3 or 5 minutes long and you can’t go over time (or give a sales pitch)!  I’ve picked up many gems over the years from TeachMeets so I am really looking forward to the Bett one, and getting a chance to catch up with some old faces there too!

CAS

I guess that brings me on to CAS or Computing At School to give the organisation its full name.   CAS is a free community of educators created to help ‘support and promote excellence in computer science education’ according to their strap line.   I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with CAS for many years.  They have an active online presence, an annual conference and a printed magazine but more importantly they have unique regional ‘hubs’ (I used to help run one).  These CAS hubs arrange local teachmeet-like sessions where teachers meet up and share what they’ve been doing in Computer Science.

CAS predates the changed computing curriculum and have campaigned to raise the profile of computer science for many years.  I agree with much that CAS do, but their tight focus just on the logic and programming side of ICT (and the fact they tend to be more successful at engaging Secondary Schools rather than Primary Schools) means that they are not the whole answer for me, but a useful part for sure.

Social Media and the Internet

I used to be an avid Twitter follower (I don’t really Tweet much myself) but I hardly visit it anymore.  The fact that even when you are fairly selective over who you follow I found I missed far more than I read.  The amount of time it takes to sort through and skim tweets for the return I got just didn’t add up.  Every now and again I feel I ought to go back, and I spend an hour or so ‘catching up’ but then it seems a bit fruitless.  IF I were engaged in conversations I am sure it would be different…  There used to be some great resources for finding ACTIVE educationalists on Twitter…

Newsletters

I do subscribe to some newsletters.  I think these probably came from people I followed on Twitter or saw present at a conference or TeachMeet.  The newsletter is an interesting concept…  It’s an opportunity to condense the kind of content I used to find spread out on Twitter into one place.  Generally the newsletters I follow bring me ideas and concepts which are edited together by the newsletter creator saving me time in trawling twitter and the net!

Doug Belshaw crafts an excellent weekly newsletter called Thought Shrapnel which arrives most Sundays.  There’s usually something which I follow-up in more detail.  Not so much the classroom teaching ideas as the bigger picture from Doug.  Doug also has a live version of this where you can discover new ideas and thoughts as they happen to him and an archive of older posts.

Audrey Watters produces her ‘HEWN‘ newsletter weekly too.  Often with a more American focus, Audrey produces thought-provoking pieces.

Terry Freedman has produced newsletters since the year 2000.  They are more spasmodic in frequency but also more content-rich than other newsletters.

Blogs

There are more educational blogs than you can shake a stick at (this being just one of them).  To be honest I don’t follow ANY of them…  I’m sure there are some excellent things out there (and my very mildly autistic side hates the fact I’m missing them) but HOW do you discover them?

I guess it doesn’t really matter how you get your new ideas, so long as you do!

 

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Snapshotting understanding

A couple of weeks ago I was challenged to provide inset for one of my regular schools to help them get more use out of their iPads.  To be honest I didn’t get around to really thinking about it until the day before, and then it was a bit late to get apps sorted so I reflected back on how I thought I should be using iPads more.

Recently as a company we’ve been recommending Prowise interactive screens, as much for the software as the hardware.   There’s one excellent feature of the software that seems a real game-changer to me and as it’s web-based, device agnostic and also FREE.  It got me thinking on how I could use it more.

Prowise Presenter is fairly simple to use and quite feature-rich compared to many interactive whiteboard programs I have tried in the past BUT the clincher for me is ProConnect.  This feature links your whiteboard to a large number of internet connected devices (iPad, smart phone, android tablet, chrome book, laptop, PC) via a simple code.  Once the devices have joined you as teacher there is so much you can do.  There is a free Proconnect app for iOS, Andoid and I believe Windows too.

You can ask a quick question, vote, use and create quizzes.  You can also share your screen out to their devices and they can annotate or create content on the screen you have shared and then hand it back again for you to share on your board.  For instant class engagement it is really efficient and easy to do.

That then got me thinking about other cheap or FREE options for class engagement using iPads:

Plickers is possibly the least high-tech (and so least technically demanding for schools).  Each pupil is provided with a unique laminated QR code which they can hold up one of four ways.  This enables pupils to show one of four choices (A, B, C or D).  The teacher uses an iPad (or other smart tablet/phone) with the Plickers app to very quickly sweep the room and it records each person’s response.  Quick and easy.  Ask a multi-choice question and capture instant responses.  Plickers is currently free to use.

Socrative is an app I looked at years ago and then forgot about or ignored.  I think it has developed a lot since then, and I will be using it a lot more.  Pupils need internet connected devices BUT again these can be anything (phone, iPad, chrome book, pc…).  The teacher logs into their Socrative ‘room’ and the pupils use a unique code to join.  The teacher can ask questions, set quizzes, take votes etc all with ease and instant capture to spreadsheet or PDF file.  Socrative is free, though they now have a pro level you can purchase for a small annual fee.

Kahoot! is a fairly new app to me.  It’s a teacher-lead game show where pupils race each other against the clock to answer questions.  The quicker you answer the higher your score.  There is a large bank of ready-made Kahoots to use, or you can make your own online.  Again, at present, this is free to use.

There are lots of alternatives to the ones mentioned here, but these are the ones I ended up sharing with the staff at this particular school, and I will be using these more in the future!

My return to the CAS Conference for its 9th year

After around five years of absence I returned to the 9th CAS Conference held in Birmingham today.

I was hoping for new ideas and a chance to catch up with people and I got both.

Now, cooling off in the garden with darkening skys (it is nearly 11pm) I have spent a few hours reflecting on the day…

The day started really well.  I boarded my train, bacon roll in hand, and made my way to my reserved seat to find none other than Phil Bagge sitting in the seat opposite.  Phil was one of the CAS people I met at my first CAS conference and I’ve pinched his ideas and shown his jam-sandwich-robot video to teachers ever since.  We had a lovely chat about work and life and I tagged along with Phil right up to the University.

The opening sessions were thought-provoking…

Mark Guzdial introduced us to three keys to improving computing teaching:

  1. Prediction – the power of asking the pupils to make predictions help them understand and remember more
  2. Sub goal labelling – making it obvious (almost decomposition) what we are doing
  3. Instructional design

This gave me my first take-away – trying to include Sub Goal Labelling in future resources and planning

The first breakout was on CAS’s Project Quantum with Miles Berry.  Again someone I’ve known for years and who I’ve quoted and also used his YouTube videos around the new computing curriculum with teachers in the past.  One thing he mentioned that really got me thinking was about hinge points/questions after around 20 minutes of teaching was something new to me and a definite second take-away.

Taking time to check real understanding at appropriate times within a lesson before moving on is something I probably don’t conciously focus on enough.   Project Quantum was interesting, a quantatitive online bank of quiz questions that can be used to assess pupils knowledge and understanding of Computing, but currently heavily biased towards secondary.  It made me want to contribute more primary-level questions…

The second break-out I attended was with the aforementioned Phil Bagge and Mark Dorling.

They have been working on a project around attitudes.  What makes a good Computing Problem Solver…

Phil’s resources and animated explanation and description made me want to try these ideas out straight away (another take-away).  I will certainly be introducing them into my teaching from September, if not before.

After lunch I attended a rather poorly attended session on streamlining assessment using tablets.  Will Franklin took us through Formative, Socrative, Kahoot and Plickers also mentioning Google Forms and Class Kick.  Although there was little really new here for me, it did server to reaffirm my ideas and prompt me to spend some time developing Socrative particularly which also made me think a bit more about Hinge points too… so another take-away!

The final breakout I attended was with Steve Bunce and Mark Dorling (again).  This was a look at how to move pupils from a block-based language (Scratch) to a text-based language (such as Python) via something like Snap.

The plenaries in the afternoon started with Miles once more recapping Project Quantum, but with some interesting audience participation!

The Second plenary was a very interesting and engaging talk from Chris Ensor of the National Centre for Cyber Security who talked about his organisation’s changing role since World War 1 and the modern challenges.  He talked about how they are hoping to encourage and support a new generation of security experts (and programmers who understand the absolute need for code without holes) through things like the Cyber First bursary scheme.

The day was rounded off by a charming and highly engaging session from Linda Liukas.  She’s describes herself as an author, storyteller and computer scientist (and more).  Author of the growing “Hello Ruby” book series.  Her storytelling style had the whole lecture theatre of 300+ people spellbound despite the heat and left me with even more to think about (and an Amazon bill for books).  A superbly engaging way of introducing young children to Computer Science and I can’t wait to share it with a reception teacher I know!

Thank you CAS for a great event, thought provoking and invigorating (and excellent value).

Micro:Bits in the Primary Classroom

I attended an excellent hands-on workshop with the BBC Micro:Bit at an RM Seminar at the back end of 2016.  I forget who it was that lead that session, (though it might have been Stuart Ball).

In the session we were told, anecdotally, that the Micro:Bits had originally been intended for Year 6 pupils and although I had dismissed them it became immediately apparent that they are eminently usable by all Key Stage 2 pupils using the blocks editor which is very like Scratch!

I had spent many years wandering in the wilderness (well around Bett) looking for that perfect storm of a computer-controllable device which didn’t break the bank and was suitable for Primary Schools – it suddenly looked as if I had found it!

At only £15 including VAT for a starter kit from Kitronik they really seem a no-brainer!  Combine that with the Inventors kit for less than £25 or the Line Following Buggy for less than only £27 they are truly flexible, adaptable and cheap!

I must mention here that I am not on commission (I wish I was) and that I don’t work for Kitronik but they have been really helpful and supportive and I enjoyed meeting them at Bett 2017.

Since investing in a class set of these I have really enjoyed introducing them to pupils from year 3-6 (aged 7-11) starting with the virtual experience programming the online emulator (free to do at http://microbit.org/code/) before watching their faces light up as they successfully transfer a program to the actual physical thing and it lights-up before their eyes!

We started simple, basic scrolling text controlled by a variety of inputs.  We moved on to the basic Dice program before exploring other dice options.  We then created our own compass and even moved into controlling an eco-house created from an old dolls house and using the Inventors Kit.

Light-Controlled_Lamp_MicroBit

Whether your computing platform is PC, Chromebook or iPad based (yes they work via bluetooth too) if you are looking for something to control on a budget then I would HIGHLY recommend the Micro:Bit!

The promise of Learning Platforms

My first introduction to a learning platform came way back in 2004/5 as far as I can remember. At that time I was a primary classroom teacher and we (all of the schools in the County) were presented with a Learning Platform and told that this was the future and we were expected to use it…

We were told it offered unparallelled opportunities for personalisation of learning, collaboration and anytime learning extending the learning well beyond the school day. We were presented with an empty box and some instructions…

Looking back

In hindsight (and isn’t that a great thing to have) I think they were ahead of their time, ahead of the technology and ahead of the connectivity. Looking back from here (more than ten years later) I wish I was being given that Learning Platform now…

In 2004 not all homes had a computer and certainly many didn’t have the internet. Now everyone has an online connected device, and in most cases children have their own. What could I do now with truly personalised learning and collaboration?

So the Learning Platform’s time has come but most have gone…

That could be blamed on the change of government and the sudden disappearance of the money for and obligation on schools to have a learning platform. It might have been the right decision for the majority then but some schools could see the Learning Platform benefit and stuck with it.

How could learning platforms work now?

At a time when children seem to be voraciously absorbing YouTube videos on anything and everything and play apps and are often left to entertain themselves it seems a shame that this ‘informal’ learning can’t be steered by something a little more formal.

Imagine a modern “Learning Platform where teachers ask children to blog about the things they find out about online? Why can’t teachers take the children’s interests and extrapolate these to help children to learn AROUND things that interest them? My girls (10 and 12) are interested in lots of things on YouTube, mainly around Minecraft currently but I know they have ‘learnt’ about hair care, hair styles, makeup and beauty tips and far more. Why can’t these ‘interests’ be harnessed to get them to reflect on their informal learning and to guide them towards learning other things through their own interests.

Today

We live in such a connected and accessible world why are most schools ignoring this and pressing on with teaching grammar!

Sometimes I wish I was back permanently at the ‘chalkface’, responsible and able to make decisions for my group of children. Would I be brave enough to grasp the nettle and truly personalise their learning?

Online Safety

Another Safer Internet Day has been and gone and it’s boosted my ‘number of children trained’ (and number of adults) for CEOP via the think-you-know website considerably (boosting the number of children I’ve trained to over 3400).

Having spent some time over the summer fully absorbing Ofsted’s new ‘Online Safety Standards’ (read more at  http://swgfl.org.uk/news/News/online-safety/Making-Sense-of-the-New-Online-Safety-Standards) I have incorporated chunks of that document plus the BBC Newsround research announced on Safer Internet Day into my presentations.  Whilst I was at it I have also been through all of my presentations and paperwork chasing away the remaining references to ‘e-safety’ to replace it with ‘Online Safety’ as recommended by Ofsted.  To be honest I was ahead of the game having adopted ‘Online Safety’ as the new name for ‘e-safety’ some years ago following conversations with 360 Safe assessors about how confusing the name e-safety was to parents!

There are a growing number of Oxfordshire schools engaging with the 360 Safe matrix and quite a few now actively working towards the 360 safe mark.  Many schools are also taking to heart the need to keep all staff updated on Online Safety issues with annual trainning and updates.

Board games and Computational Thinking

Watching our children play board games collaboratively this afternoon I am struck by several things:

  • working with a partner collaberatively requires a high level of communication.  The children need to be able to have a vision of the algorithm they need to achieve their objective in the game and then they need to be able to effectively communicate this to their partner or team to persuade them that their solution and idea is the best one.
  • listening is difficult…
  • learning that other people might have a better idea than yours is something that everyone needs to be able to do!

Even playing simple board games in teams allows such levels of communication and persuasion that there seems to be greate value.

Linking back to computational thinking:

  • identifying patterns is a key to developing your strategy
  • creating an algorithm to achieve the progression you need in the game is key to winning the game
  • the aim of the game needs to be distilled through abstraction to get to win
  • to be successful you need to have an eye on the whole picture to develop a winning strategy BUT you will also need to decomose the whole aim into smaller achieveable parts to work towards a winning position…

Computational Thinking

Having taught ‘Computing‘ for two years now I have taken some time during this summer to reflect on Computational Thinking.  Since September 2013 I have been telling Primary Teachers that the new Primary Computing Curriculum (England) was about ‘reprogramming’ pupils to help them think logically, to attack challenges in a logical way by decomposing them into manageable chunks.  This is a life skill and something with application across their lives and the whole curriculum from Maths to Science to Music…

I have been reading more about Computational Thinking over the summer.  I first really looked at  the phrase when it came up in Barefoot Computing from CAS.  That then made me take a look at Google’s Computational Thinking for Educators online course.  It’s a free course that will make you think a little more about Computational Thinking so if you are interested I would recommend it.

Computational Thinking involves some of the following:

Decomposition (I mentioned earlier) is about taking a large challenge or task and being able to identify sensible parts to break it up in to to tackle it in a logical manner.  This can apply to any physical or mental task from ‘writing a piece of music’ to ‘making a cupboard’ and of course will include ‘writing a computer game program’.

Pattern Recognition is about spotting patterns that can be used to help you work out solutions.  These could be patterns in data which would help you solve a problem like ‘what is causing this illness’ to patterns in a computer program so if you code that bit you can re-use that code again.

Abstraction is a confusing word which tends to make most Primary Teachers panic!.  It seems to be about discovering the principles which make the patterns happen.  Sometimes it is described as being about honing down what is going on to the bare bones. ‘get the little dots and avoid the ghosts’ = Pacman!

Algorithm is another confusing word.  Basically it’s the recipe that makes something happen.  Cooks use them to create their wonderful food, young pupils are taught them for ‘what to do when you first come into the classroom in the morning’ or ‘what we do now it’s dinner time’.  Algorithms are vital for programming.  If a programmer doesn’t understand exactly what the program should do they will not program it correctly.  In Pacman the player character needs to be able to move left, right, up and down but NOT through walls. Once you understand this little part of the program you can work out how to make it happen.

Computational Thinking is definitely a life skill, but it is also something that I believe not everyone will be able to embrace and be proficient in.  Having said that even if pupils just gain a little more insight into how to tackle something logically the benefit to society will be huge.

Taking time…

One of the hardest things to do as a teacher is to take time.   Teaching is a time-pressured occupation where every second counts.  Particularly when it comes to Computing, or even embedding technology in every-day teaching and learning across the curriculum.  Too many schools and teachers rush into decisions and jump on to technologies without really understanding WHY they do or do not need them.

In bygone days there were Local Authority Advisors (I was one) who could take the time to step back from the technology and pressure, were not under any obligation to sell schools anything and who could take the time to summarise the pros and cons of the various technologies.  If schools were very lucky these advisors would also know the schools, staff and pupils well enough to make personalised recommendations based on their experience of the individual setting.  On the whole this has disappeared from most of the English education system.

The loss is felt beyond just the schools.  Companies used to know that if they had a product they belived in they could send it to the local authority who would review it impartially and who would then recommend it to schools which it fitted.  This gave a route to market for the companies, and also a buffer to the schools.

There are some independent advisors who can still be employed by schools to give them impartial advice.  Some who work with specific schools on a regular basis and know the schools and what will and what won’t work for that specific school.  Schools also rely more on their own social networks, recommendations from other schools, colleagues, Twitter…

Despite this we still regularly experience schools who have bought often very expensive technology without really knowing WHY they needed it and WHAT it would do to enhance their teaching and learning.

This isn’t a local phenomenon, there are well publicised high-profile cases where whole school districts in the US have done exactly this and then been lambasted for it in the media.  Surely this is putting the horse before the cart?

Every schools NEEDS to have a regularly updated technology plan (for want of a better term).  This plan needs to consider HOW the school sees its teaching and learning developing over the coming few years.  They need to understand how their use of technology should  develop over the next 3-5 years.  This plan WILL be out of date after 12 months and will need revising every year.  The plan needs to START with the educational outcomes that the school desires and NOT with the latest, best kit or what the neighbouring school has just purchased.  With the clear vision schools will understand what they want to achieve to then find the best way of achieving it.

If a school can explain their vision for HOW the piece of technology they want to purchase will enhance teaching and learning, explain how they are going to train staff and impliment it and how they expect the technologies use to develop over the next 3 years then there is a fair chance that technology will be used.

Unfortunately schools don’t often take the time to do this.  They jump on some technology because someone else has it or someone recommended it.  They buy it, it’s put in cupboards, no training is given, it gathers dust…  because no-one takes the time to ask what do I want to achieve BEFORE asking how can I achieve it…

Technology is not the goal but a means to an end…

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