Hands up who likes PHP?

(Clarification: I’m a UK high school teacher. “School” in this post means high school, not university and “IT Professionals” is the term used to distinguish those who are not teachers on the forum in question.)

On the miffed-off-ometer, I’d have to say that I’m getting quite close to a 9 with some of the CS Education community of late. The CAS Community is a forum for teachers and IT professionals with an interest in Computer Science education to get together and discuss whatever they wish. As we all know, the Computing curriculum is changing rapidly at the moment and there are a lot of questions being asked on the forum by puzzled teachers, wanting sensible classroom related answers.

rollerderbyHere’s an analogy. I’m learning to play Roller Derby at the moment – for the purposes of this analogy the only thing you need to know is that it’s a sport played on roller skates. My coaches do not come up to me and tell me how the skates I’m using are sub-optimal because the wheels are 96a and I really should have a mix of 93a and 88a for my build, the cushions will make my skates squirrelly, my plates are too rigid and I really should tape my toes and double lace because that’s what all the people playing in the big leagues do. Unless you already play Roller Derby, you probably won’t even understand any of what I just said. Sadly, that’s exactly the type of advice that teachers often get from industry pros – the advice is all true but super unhelpful to someone who is only just learning how to skate.

There are a lot of common misconceptions that IT professionals seem to have about CS education, so I thought I’d address some of them here:

Misconception #1

It is a school’s job to churn out students who will be able to walk into a job in industry on day one and work in whatever language/paradigm is flavour du jour.

WRONG! We’re here to teach children the core concepts of Computer Science. Working on that basis to produce someone with employable skills is your job. Do you expect Chemistry students to walk out of school ready to begin work in a lab? Should we stop using Scratch as a teaching language because nobody programs with it in industry? Of course not, so please stop recommending that we should be teaching using Scala/JSON/whatever is currently flavour of the month. It is simply not possible for teachers to be able to keep up to date with the latest flavours in industry. It’s sad that some people label teachers as ‘unprofessional’ for not being equivalent to someone in industry with their subject knowledge – but if you think about it, that’s like asking us to do two jobs at once. We hardly even have time to do one.


Misconception #2

Kids should start off learning the right way to code with an unforgiving programming language, so they don’t pick up bad habits that have to be undone later. (i.e. PHP is beyond reproach)

WRONG! When we teach kids French do we begin with teaching the subjunctive tense  – it’s really difficult but that’s how a French person would say it? Every time they confuse the passé compose with the imperfect do we get on their case nitpicking at their grammar? Of course not. We start with the present tense and useful sentences that mean something to them. OK so if you went to France you may not be able to pass as fluent but maybe saying something basic is better than saying nothing at all and getting disheartened and giving up.

I really have no time for developers who go on about how we should be teaching lambdas or mutability or tail recursion to 12 year olds or that kind of high horse gubbins. A lot of developers seem to have absolutely NO CLUE at what level students work at each age – please, educate yourself, visit a school and instead of looking for faults, just look and listen. Just because YOU had to learn a programming a certain way in the good old days, doesn’t make it the right way or the only way. People used to have to use tin baths, read by candlelight and clean their clothes with a mangle.

It makes me happy when a student writes a program on their own that works and that they are proud of. So they could have used a switch instead of lots of ifs. So they could have put that part inside a function. So their program doesn’t handle exceptions gracefully. SO WHAT. Computing A-Level students are already as rare as hens’ teeth. If we start forcing younger kids to use unfriendly mean programming languages that require 16 lines of set up to get Hello World just because some developer likes that language’s implementation of scoping, there will literally be nobody left to teach.

Oh and by the way, getting a language set up for students to use on a computer is no mean feat either. Some schools have technicians whose favourite phrase seems to be “Computer says no”, some IDEs are not free, the fun is endless.


Misconception #3

A teacher who doesn’t have up to date flawless subject knowledge isn’t fit to stand in the classroom.

WRONG! I find it incredibly rude that so many industry people seem to secretly think that they would be the saviours of CS education, if only they weren’t already occupied as a developer. Wow. Two things I have to break to you:

  • I know less than you about Computer Science
  • I know more than you about teaching Computer Science

Yeah, I said it – I know LESS THAN YOU about Computer Science. I haven’t got a clue about the latest GPUs, lambda calculus is a distant memory and when I explain networking protocols there’s more fudge than a Devon tourist shop. I’m not saying I teach things that are plain wrong or that I don’t take care with my lessons, I’m saying that I know the basics but you probably know the whole picture. This is not a competition about who knows the most about Computer Science.

Quite frankly, you could be Alan Turing himself but that wouldn’t mean you know the best way to teach a child. I’ve gone through a postgraduate qualification and nine years of experience to get to where I am, so don’t presume to know more than me about how to teach children – and if you do, expect that I will be justifiably miffed. Some teachers may ask for help with subject knowledge, but they don’t need a show off who has the arrogance to assume they could do that person’s job better than them. Going back to my Roller Derby analogy, don’t be the guy who skates around really fast doing all kinds of tricks when all the beginner wanted was to know was how to stop.

I know I probably sound a bit peeved in this post (because I am) but I hope it’s also useful to any developers who read this and who are genuinely interested in CS education. We do value and respect your help, but please respect our professionalism – you’re not just someone who could be doing our job but chose to do something else.

Being a 21st Century Teacher

So I’m applying for the Picademy – two days of visiting Raspberry Pi towers, meeting cool people and fiddling around with a tiny computer – sounds good to me! One of the requirements for the application is to write a blog post about “Being a 21st Century Teacher”…which is actually quite a tricky topic to write about, especially when you haven’t blogged in ages!

As I mentioned in a previous post, possibly the most irritating thing you can say in passing to a teacher of Computing and ICT is how hard it must be to “keep up with the kids these days”. It’s simply not true, even for the least experienced teacher of Computing, that what we are doing is simply keeping up with the kids. Learning about the principles of Computer Science is very different to fannying about on 2048 and tweeting a selfie. Possibly both equally mystifying to most over 50’s, but definitely not even remotely similar. As a 21st Century teacher, getting past this perception is one of our challenges.

As a 21st Century teacher I also feel that our professionalism is assaulted on all sides – the media complains of ‘lazy teachers’ and claims abound that we need industry to “step into the breach” to teach children the skills they need to progress in the tech industry. There is a huge need at the moment for CPD for teachers and a huge amount of teachers are acting incredibly professionally, spending their own time and money on improving their skills so that they can use their wealth of pedagogical expertise to teach the next generation Computing skills. Of course schools need to work together with industry, but industry also needs to realise that school is a grounding in all subject areas not a bootcamp for churning out their ideal employees. School will never be a replacement for training, and even the most experienced teachers can’t teach ALL THE THINGS. So, one of the things I must do as a professional educator is to ensure I am sufficiently up to date that I am teaching my students concepts which will be useful to them. It’s no good teaching these concepts with tools that went out of date 8 or 9 years ago when I first started teaching, just because I can’t be bothered to update my scheme of work. (On that note, would somebody put a stake in Access already?!)

And this is why I’d like to go to the Picademy! Yes, I have a degree in Computer Science, I can program, I’m already teaching Computing and I run training for other teachers. It would be easy to become complacent and spend my entire holidays playing Hearthstone. (Oops.) However, every time I go to an event, run training course, go on a course or check my Twitter, I learn something new. I see something someone else is doing and I’m not. I’ve lost count of the times people have come to me for training and I’ve ended up learning about something cool from them too. I’m also a big fan of sharing things – at the end of the day, if it means more children get a better education then that makes me happy :)

The real Computing in an Hour

OK, so the week before half term I had another of those moments where I found my mouth saying “ooh, let me volunteer to do all the things” while my head was screaming “IDIOT! You’ve already got too much to do!”. I’m pretty sure I have shoulder angels and demons. (And maybe a theme tune.)

In the wake of BETT we seem to have spawned several fairytales in the world of Computing:

The Pied Piper of Hamlyn – Those leaflets which frequently flop onto my desk advertising extremely expensive training materials to solve all of your September 2014 Computing woes. Blindly purchase a fat folder of lesson plans and (wooh, so 2008) an interactive CD-ROM and suddenly you’ll be able to switch off your brain and just read off the lovely pre-made lesson plan.

Superman – Is it absurd? Do you have a brain? No? Then let’s all just sit back and wait for developers from industry to save us! Because obviously they are all going to be there 24/7 to help us out of sticky Computing situations and not totally busy at work. Thank goodness for that.

The Emperor’s New Clothes – The emperor paid a shed load of money to go on a really impressive sounding training course because he was scared he might not be able to teach Computing in September. Sadly when he got home he realised he was naked. Go figure.

But seriously, we have a massively awesome resource here – IT’S US!

We’re the experts, not the developers, pre-made lesson plans or rip off training courses. Teachers on the ground doing the job every single day are the best resource humanly imaginable to other teachers because we know what we need to know to be educators. Even if you’re sitting there thinking “I don’t have a background in Computing” or “I only know a little bit”…IT’S STILL YOU! *Cue huge Lottery finger pointing from the sky* You can pass on what you’ve learnt so far, your tips, your pitfalls, your knowledge is all valuable. I remember reading Mark Clarkson’s Unofficial teachers guide to GCSE Computing (which, ironically, now looks semi official :P) and being totally blown away by how awesomely helpful it was. Mark’s been there, done that and as my mum would say, got the tea towel. We need more of this – we are professionals with valuable skills and I want that to be acknowledged for all of us.

Computing in an hour

I would like as many people as possible to volunteer their experiences of how to teach a topic (or if you’re keen, multiple separate topics) in the new programme of study. I want this to be you passing on your experience – including the bad bits – to other teachers, almost like a mini training course. You could even set them activities! BUT the key point is that your whole bit of advice/activities for the teacher on each separate topic should not take them more than an hour to read through and understand.  I don’t want to restrict your creativity so I’m going to suggest some headings, you don’t have to use them all:

  • Which one topic have you chosen? (Please do topics separately rather than giving one hour’s worth of advice on lots of things)
  • Which key stage are you aiming at?
  • What do you think are the main points to be learnt in this topic?
  • Can you give an adult friendly explanation for teachers who may be unsure of what the topic is about?
  • Where can you find specific good resources for this topic?
  • What progression can be made through key stages in this topic?
  • What sorts of questions could you ask students to test understanding?
  • What have you found hard when teaching this topic?
  • What misconceptions have the students had?
  • What do you think might be good activities for students to do?
  • Have you got any activities for the teacher to do? (And answers?)
  • Top tips?

Ideally we will end up with a big set of advice for teachers where each part can be read through in an hour or less – because who has loads of spare time anyway?

Submit your “Computing in one hour” advice here

I will collate your work along with your name, 200 word bio and pic (optional) and publish it so that other teachers can use it. By submitting your work you agree to license it under the Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons license (some useful FAQ’s about that license here) so that it is as open as possible and can be shared with as many people as possible.


I’m a Excelebrity, get me out of here!

Yes, I actually did it. excelebrity

Twas the night before Year 10 IT class and all through the house,
All the teachers* were starting to whine and to grouse.
“It’s spreadsheets”, I grumbled – I taught them with care
But the knowledge and recall, it just isn’t there!
The students were nestled all snug in their beds,
While functions and spreadsheets danced round in my head.

I’d been on to Twitter and I’d had a good natter,
So I started to realise just what was the matter -
The students were bored with just adding up cash!
So booting up Windows, I flew like a flash!
I got up so early, twas barely a nap,
I’d had an idea – they all watch this (programme)!
Making my tasks, ideas started to flow,
Using “I’m a Celebrity” all’d want to know!
I thought my old tasks were so thoughtful and clear,
But the Bushtucker trials made them swallow the fear.

Complete the green boxes and you’ll get a star,
They all got so focused they got really far.
More rapid than eagles the answers they came,
And they all used the functions, and called them by name:
“Now, AVERAGE()! now, ROUNDUP() ! now LOOKUP() and MIN()!
On, IF(), MAX(), RANK(), COUNTIF()” They wouldn’t give in!

Some looking at helpsheets, some winning with stealth,
And I couldn’t help smiling, in spite of myself;
For a class that had started off saying they’re beat
I just couldn’t stop them all trying to compete.

I put them in pairs and they went straight to work,
They filled all the cells, then they turned with a jerk,
As the bell then went off for the end of the lesson,
They all wanted to know just which team was the best one;
For my box of mint Matchmakers they were all yearning,
But the best prize of all was the fantastic learning.
And I heard them exclaim, as they walked out of sight—
“Excel’s not that bad”   “Yeah,  I think it’s alright.

(Here are the Bushtucker tasks: Help Cards / Intro / Bushtucker Trial 1 / Bushtucker Trial 2 / Bushtucker Trial 3 / Bushtucker Trial 4 / Bushtucker Trial 5)

Happy Christmas!

* Technically that’s just me.

Who’s teaching our kids to code?

So I just saw this article tweeted by @ukiekim and written by @calflyn. Admittedly having been written in October 2012 it’s a little bit old but still relevant. The first picture caption I spotted was:

Computer programming: It has fallen to the industry itself to step into the breach, and provide support for those keen to qualify for a career in IT.

Ok. Great. That sentence basically says to all Computing teachers in the UK “hey, you’re so crap at your job that we can replace you with someone else on a voluntary basis for a few hours a week”.

Is this really a good thing to say? Is it even true?

1. Some schools are already teaching programming and doing a damn good job
Yes, it’s true. News articles mysteriously fail to notice the vast amounts of good teachers and good schools already offering GCSE or A-Level Computing. According to the Guardian’s data, 3809 students sat A-Level Computing in 2012 – and considering classes are not usually very big, that’s a fair amount of schools. There was no data on GCSE Computing as it’s a new qualification but I would estimate many thousands of students will sit that examination this year. We’re here, we’re doing it. Some of us even have Computer Science degrees.

2. Running a club is not teaching
So us teachers are doing such a poor job that an IT pro has to come in after school once a week to do the real work to teach the kids in the UK who are being left behind and held back by their dreadful teachers. I hate to break it to you – this isn’t teaching. This is cherry picking students who are motivated and interested and showing them how to do something they want to do. If all of teaching was like this, everyone would want to be a teacher. It’s like the grandparent version of teaching – you take the kids for a short time, hype them up, feed them sugar, bend the boring parents rules and then hand them back when it’s time for the nappy changing and all the other not so nice stuff. There are no targets to meet, no curriculum objectives to follow, no reports to write, no sanctions to apply.

Don’t get me wrong – I *really* approve of initiatives such as Code Club and Apps for Good – they are great! Lots of kids enjoy them, lots of teachers learn from them and the professionals are generous in giving up their time – a win all round. I just don’t like the way the media portrays after school clubs as the saviours of Computing in the UK, whilst the helpless teachers are presumably languishing in the store cupboard drinking piña coladas.

3. What’s going to happen when the pros are bored?
Picture this – it is some years from now. Lots of initiatives have been set up to provide supplementary coding education in after school clubs, and are working. The subject of Computing is largely dead because it is being covered outside the curriculum and therefore valuable curriculum time is taken over by other subjects. No teachers are training to teach Computing because there are no jobs available, and besides who wants to do a job where everyone knows someone doing it in their spare time is better than you? Helping kids code is no longer de rigueur, so the devs have stopped doing it. Who’s going to pick up the pieces?

So what should happen instead?
It’s true that not all IT and Computing teachers in the UK at the moment have the right skills. (It’s also true that this isn’t their fault!) Instead of barging in and taking over with all sorts of shiny initiatives, it would be much more valuable to teachers who don’t have a Computer Science background if IT professionals would support them – both publicly and practically. Teachers really don’t need other people ‘taking over’ their job because they are inept – obviously this isn’t actually happening, but the way it is portrayed in the media, this is what it looks like. They need to be able to say “I worked with Dave from Company X and we drew up a scheme of work using my expertise in teaching and his expertise in programming. We’ll run it together next year and the year after I hope I’ll be able to run it on my own.” Now that would be really valuable.

If companies genuinely want to make a difference and find a long term solution rather than just getting some warm and fuzzy PR, how about asking “who’s teaching our teachers to code” instead?

The most valuable resource of all

So we all know that at the moment there’s a problem with a lack of availability of qualified Computing teachers. There is a huge push going on to train people up to take on this role and improve their skills, and this training is in large part coming from teachers who already know what they are doing. We also know that the Government is trying to introduce performance related pay for teachers. You might be thinking “what does this have to do with you, you work in an independent school?”. It’s going to have severe consequences for the most valuable resource of all.

It appears that in the age of social media and pervasive technology, we have developed something unheard of even a few years ago – the concept of the ‘rockstar teacher’. This is someone who considers that they know what they are doing in the classroom AND goes out of their way online to promote themself, blog, put up resources, cultivate twitter following, is probably invited to speak at a lot of events and has lots of people kissing their butt and telling them how wonderful they are. (Sorry, I said it. It’s true.) Speaking in the field of Computing, there are certainly a few rockstars and a few who are trying to set themselves up as such. No one, not even me, is immune. I like it when people appreciate my resources or say nice things about me – who doesn’t?

Most of these rockstars seem (from my limited knowledge of them) excellent teachers and do indeed do very good work – that’s not my gripe. For a while, I did think it was pretty much a good thing – let’s all share our stuff and raise the profile of Computing and if we all work together we can make this subject a real success. But this model doesn’t really work, and it’s being further perpetuated by the government’s policy – in the words of John Tomsett:

Whilst the rhetoric from Michael Gove is collaborate, collaborate, collaborate, DfE policy-making encourages competition at every level.

As a teacher with a CS degree who already knows the subject, for me it has become increasingly stressful to have to keep up with all of the extra ‘things’ I feel I have to do to set myself apart as a competent teacher of Computing – writing articles, running courses, creating resources, speaking, running workshops, having my own ‘thing’ that people know me for. It does annoy me that a lot of being invited to do high profile things is on the basis of who you know and how easy it is for lazy media researchers to find you online and is not based on what you do on a day to day basis in the classroom. (Or, in other words, boo hoo, they didn’t invite me ;) )

I’m really tired of trying to prove myself to other people.

It’s exhausting, and is it really that productive? Shouldn’t I just be content to know for myself that I did a good lesson today? We’re in danger of good Computing teachers becoming so pre-occupied with setting themselves up for newspaper articles and speaking gigs and making a name for themselves that they forget what we’re trying to do here – provide quality lessons.

To my mind the most valuable resource of all is time. If we’re going to succeed with our revolution, time is most efficiently spent working together. Giving your time to help a colleague. Working on projects together, rather than fragmenting and each trying to make a name for ourselves. Working together to build a strong workforce of quality teachers. who are all good at their jobs and who can all do our students and our subject proud rather than hoarding up our spare time trying to be better than the next guy.

I don’t want to do this any more.

(But I might have to.)



Four ways to kick start zombie coders

So… you’ve gone through if statements, for loops, recursion or whatever else you happen to be covering and everyone has completed the exercises, written the notes and smiled and nodded in all the right places. “Great!” you think, “I’ll set a programming task involving the thing I’ve just taught to consolidate this work”. You hand out the task sheets and everyone goes to their computer and opens the code editor.

A student turns to you, code editor open with nothing in it and says “Miss, I don’t know what to do”. “Try something” you reply, knowing that the way you learnt to code was by trying many times and making a lot of mistakes. The student types something. “Is this right?” the student asks? “Why don’t you run it and see” you reply. The student runs the code, an error appears. The student does not read the error, but instead turns and stares blankly at you waiting to be given the next morsel of guidance. “What did the error say?” you ask. The student doesn’t even look at the error, picks a random line and indents it. “Is that right, Miss?”. Except…there are lots of students, all facing you staring blankly, waiting… <snip before this turns into a zombie novel>

Ever had this situation? Quintin Cutts describes our current teaching methods as like the Generation Game – a complex skill being explained briefly with a demonstration, and then the contestant is left to have a go on their own, often with hilarious results. It’s a hole I’ve fallen into many times – it’s really hard to remember what it’s like when you don’t understand how to program. (Aside: This could be a massive plus point in the forthcoming CPD challenge of training teachers for Computing – people who have just learnt the skill themselves will be more able to relate to beginner coders.)

How on earth do you get your students to get into the mindset of a coder? I was reading this article on the seven traits of effective programmers which somebody posted on the CAS forums. Some of these skills are highly relevant to students learning programming in school, for example being able to think and plan your code, knowing how to research for answers, and being proactive about learning new things. I also read Alfred Thompson’s post on “When a Scaffold becomes a Crutch” which talks about students becoming dependent on your help and unable to break away and start thinking and writing their own algorithms. I often argue to my classes that Computing is actually mostly about thinking rather than about computers. I’ve made all of these mistakes and had lots of zombie lessons. However here are my tips for getting reluctant programmers thinking:

1. Provide automated tests

I wanted my students to write a series of functions that we were going to use for a hangman game in Python. I knew that if I just said “off you go and write these functions” they’d do that zombie thing above. So, I provided them with the skeleton of the functions and a set of tests I had written in order to test the functions. They could write their code and then run the program, and the tests would tell them whether they’d done it right or not. For example here is one function (Python 2.7) and its associated tests:

# Write your function to decide if letter (char) is in word (str)
# Should return True or False
def inWord(letter,word):

# --------------------------------------------
# Automated testing
# --------------------------------------------

# inWord function
print "Testing inWord function"
print "Letter a in word cat should be True--> ",
print inWord("a", "cat")

print "Letter b in word cat should be False--> ",
print inWord("b","cat")

Where’s the win? This avoids you feeling like a human compiler when students continually ask you “is this right?”. They can test if it’s right by running the program and seeing what the test output is. This is massively useful in getting them to actually type something in and run it, which is often half the battle.

2. Practice restrictive pseudo code

I hate pseudo code. I hate it because it’s designed to make it easy to describe an algorithm, and it ends up being the bane of my life because students just don’t get it. They don’t get what they are allowed to do – its OK to put something like:

if name has been entered

it’s not OK to put something like:

if all of the details are correct

Arrrgghh. I hear in Scotland they are trying to make an “official pseudo code” called Haggis – this might be good! I practice simple tasks using restrictive pseudo code – I give them a list of phrases they can use and ask them to make an algorithm which does a certain thing ONLY using these phrases. You could also print them out, laminate them and cut them out, letting students put the parts in the correct place and perhaps writing values or variable names on them in white board pen. I wrote something about this and put up a worksheet on my “Teaching students to think” post.

Where’s the win? Students are provided with the programming equivalent of a pile of lego bricks that they have to make into an aeroplane. They stop worrying about what bricks they might have, or whether that’s a proper brick or whether this brick has 2 nobbles or 4, and just start putting them together.

3. Build up gradually

A lot of students feel like they are given a short explanation which they are happy with and understand and then told “off you go” and sent off to a blank code editor where they have no idea how to start. Help them by building up to what you are going to create. Ideas include:

  • Give them a comment skeleton where you’ve written ideas for what they might need to do
  • When they are more confident, encourage them to write their own comment skeleton before they program
  • Initialise some variables for them so they know what they are starting with
  • Have them plan out the code first (try using tip #2)
  • Pair programming can work well as it divides the responsibility and the risk of “being wrong”
  • Give them part of a program pre written and let them finish it
  • Give them a program written wrongly and let them find the mistakes
  • Give them a lot of smaller exercises and gradually remove more and more of the scaffolding until they’re thinking by themself

Where’s the win? For some, it’s a massive risk to make a mistake in a lesson and at the first sign of compiler red text they crumple and give up, branding themself a failure. If you can encourage them on in tiny steps of things they can accomplish rather than watching them do one step and then asking them to run a marathon, they will be much more motivated.

4. Challenge, don’t instruct

A lot of worksheets and textbooks give step by step walkthrough instructions about how to accomplish a task. Tutorial books are all well and good for people who want to accomplish a particular task, except…accomplishing a task isn’t what we’re here to do – we’re here to learn how to program. As in the article referenced by Alfred Thompson, we don’t want to practice the Sat Nav method of teaching students to program – a Sat Nav gets the job done but you’ve no idea how you got there or how to do it again. Good tasks will provide the student with a thinking challenge that is just a tiny bit more difficult than the last exercise, so that the carrot is so close they want to reach it.

Where’s the win? In many addictive games, you just want to get one more step closer. Make programming addictive – that is to say sufficiently challenging to make them want to achieve the next part but not so challenging that they perceive it as beyond their knowledge, and you’ve got to be on to a winner. You could even throw in some open badges for good measure.