I was delighted last November to be asked to write a report for the Irish National Council for Curriculum & Assessment on Computational Thinking. I couldn’t do it on my own, so invited a team of friends to help – Nina Bresnihan, who had been conducting literature review on this for her PhD, Dermot Walsh who had been looking at professional development in his PhD as well as an innovative primary practitioner and Joy Hooper, formerly working to advise both New Zealand and the UK on technology enhanced learning and also an experienced primary practitioner. We were advised by friends Stephen Powell and Glenn Strong and also consulted with Jane Waite, Dave Smith and Amanda Jackson – key players in the UK’s efforts to bring computing to the Primary level. I felt pleased to have such an experienced, knowledgeable and willing bunch to call on.
The result is now out and can be found on the NCCA’s web site. Some of the ideas have moved on in the short six months since we began, but that is inevitable in such a vibrant space – you can see some of the material updated in this blog.
And finally on Tuesday – I helped screen a preview of the excellent film ‘Sink’, viewing and discussing with friends in the local Labour Party and in the company of the film’s writer and director, Mark Gillis.
Set in London’s East End, the film portrays Micky, a working class man who attempts to keep his family – himself, his aged father and troubled son – afloat in the context of a punishing welfare & jobs regime. In the film, metaphorically and literally, the banking crisis of 2007 looms on the London skyline, but I found myself taking issue with others in our discussion after the film. It was suggested that the current ‘system’ was an inevitable response to that banking crisis. Although I would be just as judgemental about the bankers, I felt that the system is in fact a deliberate design by the Conservative government that used austerity (I like to call it arseterity) as a cure for notional overspending by the previous Labour government. It has proven to be a wicked and cruel policy that has impoverished the weak and enriched the already wealthy.
The film portrayed Micky as helpless, as he sinks within that system until in the end he decides to transcend it, introducing a moral complexity that got us talking.
So what else could be done? First we must recognise that the system is no accident and that it can be changed. My friends in Ireland who had canvassed in so many neighbourhoods, Joan Baez singing Joe Hill and my own systems thinking inspire this recognition in me!
As an enthusiastic member of the Institute for Educational Cybernetics a few years ago, I became clearer about the value of a systems thinking approach to addressing social challenges – specifically, in my case, the design of education. Cybernetics was famously applied in the context of central government (a word that is fundamental to the field) in the case of Cybersin and Allende in early seventies Chile.
But such centralised thinking must be matched by consideration of each individual’s need to think, value, and act accordingly, to make any system function well. We can suffer as victims of a system or we can choose to become effective ‘ants’ and through principled action, change it or make it serve our collective needs!
For me, this is why I chair the local Labour Party and seek to encourage members to work together, respecting their diversity and humanity.
In the wonderful world of Twitter, I serendipitously came across Lankelly Chase. I won’t address all of their work here, but I do recommend their account of their vision, mission and values, which focus on the systems which surround those who suffer severe disadvantage.
I think their model of systems behaviour, although intended to help improve matters for the likes of Micky, could also be applied more widely, but with one proviso – it should address the system and the individual.
The system behaviours Lankelly Chase identify in this regard are about perspective, power and participation and relate to ‘everyone’ and their understanding of the system – I have added my notes to these and to their assumptions.
What do you think?
Lankelly Chase’s words
My notes of advice to the individual
1. People view themselves as part of an interconnected whole
Everyone working towards positive change understands that their actions form part of a web of activity made up of the contribution of many others. Everyone wants the system as a whole to work, and knows they cannot control it.
Make acts transparent at every level, cross refer and give credit to others.
2. People are viewed as resourceful and bringing strengths
Everyone is viewed as bringing both strengths and weaknesses as part of a resourceful network of people who are continually growing and learning from each other.
Praise the strengths; recognise and forgive the weaknesses; offer ‘unconditional positive regard’.
3. People share a vision
People appreciate each other’s perspectives and seek common purpose and understanding.
Allow for diversity; tolerate alternatives.
4. Power is shared, and equality of voice actively promoted
All people are able to play their fullest role in building an effective system. Unequal distribution of power, including structural inequality, is continually addressed.
Exercise positive discrimination e.g. use all-women short lists, or more fun: insist that men make and serve the tea & coffee.
5. Decision-making is devolved
Those people closest to a complex situation are free to engage with its uniqueness and context and to use their initiative to respond to it.
Act freely within a framework of responsibility to values and integrity rather than unquestioning loyalty to leaders.
6. Accountability is mutual
System improvements are driven by accountability to the people being served. The people being served are supported to take responsibility for their own change.
Offer meaningful redress when something goes wrong.
People feel safe to ask the difficult questions, voice disagreement and deal with the conflict and uncomfortable emotions that surface.
Ideally, be a friend who listens and cares!
8. Leadership is collaborative and promoted at every level
Leadership is identified and valued as much in the person experiencing interlocking disadvantages and the frontline worker, as in the CEO or commissioner.
Lead by offering a service to frontline workers, rather than accepting a privilege.
9. Feedback and collective learning drive adaptation
People can see a learning loop between the actions they take and their understanding of the problem they are trying to solve, so that each is being continually adapted and refined.
Seek to reflect in and on action. This is cybernetics and is an aspect of my PhD!
Systems are complex and often messy webs that are constantly shifting. They consist of tangible things like people and organisations, connected by intangible things like history, worldviews, context and culture.
Recognise that systems are multi-layered, and performance at one level cannot be simply explained by characteristics at another.
Everyone who is part of a system holds a different perspective on its nature, purpose and boundaries. No one person holds the whole truth (including us).
Make these perspectives clear, through listening and dialogue.
Everything and everyone exists in relationships, and these involve emotions.
Recognise emotions, impulses from bodily reactions and also feelings, constructs formed in the mind, sometimes through faulty or incomplete logic and evidence.
Change emerges from the way the whole system behaves not from the actions of any one project or organisation. We therefore need to help build the fitness of the system to generate positive change.
Embrace those we dislike or find uncomfortable.
The complexity of systems means we can’t fully plan how to achieve the changes we seek, but we can identify several conditions that enable positive change and the actions that are likely to move us toward our goal.
Gather evidence, review and plan again for an iterative, action inquiry approach.
Nevertheless, I was disquieted by the notion of ‘levels’ being applied to the original four categories – it seemed to me, that like Bloom’s taxonomy, it made too much of some kind of progression or value. But the reason for this, is that evaluation is conceived as the employer’s business to decide whether the training was any good, so the later ‘levels’, such as Behaviour and Results are considered of higher value than Reaction and Learning. Kirkpatrick’s insight was to see that many evaluations stopped at Reaction and failed to see the need for further work. I feel that Learning, Behaviour and Results naturally occur later, so I have made this diagram which places them as moments along a time continuum. This then guides the researcher to know when to look at which kind of impact the learning episode had, and I make a few suggestions for the kind of methods that might be employed, but these are not exclusive.
Phillips came along and reinforced the employer’s perspective by adding Return on Investment, making it clear that we should recognise that training costs money, and that the benefits ought to be contrasted with this cost.
I have no quarrel with Phillips, but feel that the educational researcher may not be so driven by such single perspective stances as ‘benefit to the firm’, but also by the other aspects the learner may feel: of fulfilment and stimulus, and even having a moment to reflect. Without leaving the paymaster, we can still include such ideas as Confirming (that you are competent), Predisposition (towards further learning), Networking (to build a personal learning network), and even Inspiration, thus building a kind of learning capital in your workers! These are my additions to this common sense and useful framework and you can download a printable poster here.
Having learnt all about the amazing Microbit at CESI•CS meetings and in particular their capacity to inter-communicate using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) after being shown by the indefatigable Keith Quille, I wondered “how many Microbits could be broadcasting at once?” and “could I put together a voting system where the audience have Microbits and the speaker has a wearable with Microbit that listens for their votes and displays the outcome?”
I had been asked by the Computers in Education Society of Ireland (CESI) to present a keynote speech with my good friend and colleague Elizabeth Oldham at the CESI conference on 10th March 2018 at Dublin City University. I told Elizabeth about my idea and suggested we dramatise disagreement from time to time in the speech and then ask the audience to settle our dispute. She agreed!
Keith Quille also thought I wasn’t mad, but I’m not confident he is the best judge 🙂
So, Keith started me off with a first go at a program for each Microbit. Then I tried at our CESI•CS meetings to get participants to try and solve the problem – they all came up trumps within only an hour or so, some with no experience at all – amazing!
In Cork, a group with primary and secondary teachers quickly made a solution:
In Donegal, Sharon, Pauric and Claire collaborated to make their solution:
In Athlone, Elizabeth and Maeve made a plan, using a Design Thinking process by treating me as their client and empathising, before writing down their ideas and then programming:
In each case, we discussed design processes, collaboration and the project work proposals in the Leaving Certificate for Computer Science. There were good discussions about foundations, progression and continuity, since all the CESI•CS meetings included primary and post-primary teachers.
So, having established feasibility, I set about making something Elizabeth would be prepared to wear, so cut up an old shirt and got stitching and glueing according to this fabric flower design.
And the result (from a distance it looked OK!):
Behind her flower (and with no adornment on my wearable) was a Kitronix Zip Halo fixed to a Microbit, and with a safety pin provided by Adrienne Webb (thanks!) Elizabeth pinned it to her cardigan, and I mine to my shirt.
The final task was to complete the programming. With Keith’s inspiration and the many design conversations and prototypes made by CESI•CS participants, I finally completed the code with two hours to spare – I only had time to test with three audience voting Microbits, so there was no certainty it would work. Once in the room and with minutes to spare, we set about downloading the audience program to a pile of Microbits generously lent to me by Stephen Howell of Microsoft. It couldn’t be done without the generous help of Stephen Howell, Keith Quille, Tony Riley and John Hegarty. We think we had over fifty voting in the room!
There were three programs – a program for the audience ‘microbit-audience’, a program for my wearable to control the voting process & display votes for ‘A’ positions ‘microbit-A-speaker’, and a program for Elizabeth’s wearable to display votes for ‘B’ positions ‘microbit-A-speaker’:
I leave it to the reader to puzzle out how it all worked and will welcome suggestions for improvement!
I do not think this is the same thing as modelling phenomena in mathematics or in computer programs – such simulation models are expressions in external languages, unlike mental models, which are mostly private to our minds: interconnected, fluid, faulty and ultimately unknowable. When we create and communicate external expressions in natural or formal language, this leads to the possibility of proof, execution and formal reasoning in a shared world of knowledge. But these external expressions aren’t mental models: they are in a linguistic form that can be interpreted by others and in formal cases, by machines.
Nevertheless I believe the unknowable internal mental model remains a useful notion when we think about designing effective learning. I apply the notion here to the design thinking needed for effective courses, materials, pedagogy, software, assessment to teach programming.
This mental model allows the learner to reason about the problem itself – it may develop as the learner combines problem solving and design to make a solution. Sometimes prior knowledge can help; for example, Papert would argue that children enjoy, are competent and have mental models about the way their body can move in the physical world. If a problem is aligned to such competence, they can more effectively debug their program (body syntonic) and feel engaged with the challenge (ego syntonic).
This mental model is about the parts of the language – the distinctions between different linguistic components and their connection to create programs. Scratch supports this mental model by categorising statements and thus offers recognition rather than recall. It also reinforces appropriate syntactical combinations, so that the focus is on their meaning, in isolation and in combination.
The notional machine is a mental model concerned with the variables, computer memory (for data and program), ‘program counter’ – a hidden variable that determines which statement is executed next and thus flow of control. It is much more complex with Scratch than in the past, since multiple parallel process are readily designed using sprites. The design of solutions in this way can be quite different from that made with single process thread programming, but makes the mental model challenging. My favourite example of this was the solution I developed using Scratch with three sprites to draw lines to fill in a shape, hoping to use it with TurtleStitch to make embroidery. Then I discovered that TurtleStitch (a Snap derivative) had only one sprite – my solution was useless due to a mismatch of my mental model of notional machine for Turtlestich and Scratch.
Microworld / Domain
The microworld is the concept of a limited ‘space’, designed to suit a particular class of problems and usually with an ‘object to think with’. The turtle geometry microworld is the most famous, but not the first in Logo. Before that came sentence construction using lists of words to manufacture amusing nonsense! Making a mental model of a microworld’s affordances allows the learner to map solutions to problems and to relate to the notional machine and the programming language, within a limited but meaningful domain.
Interactive Development Environment
The mental model here is of a complex user interface to understand and write programs, manage program files, debug programs and produce results. Sometimes it spans several computer applications, such as an editor, file manager and version control, and sometimes it csn be combined in one place, as with Scratch. It is the interactive development environment (IDE) which can help or hinders the user in forming the mental models of programming language, notional machine and microworld through visualisation and interactivity.
Connections between mental models
The greatest challenge to the learning programmer is in the connections and overlaps between each of the mental models. I believe the educational designer (especially the designer of the IDE) must pay attention to each of these and the questions in the diagram are to help the designer think about that.
I have been re-working this diagram for some time, but recently discovered the simplicity of using the metaphor of head, hand and heart to remember it, thanks to colleague Joy Hooper. On searching I find many different angles on this: for example Julia Singleton, and by J.D. Meir, but I feel I am not abusing their ideas too much to find my own meaning, expressed in this diagram.
My purpose is to guide the design of education, in this case by framing learning outcomes and acting as a structured and holistic check-list. It is intended to be simpler, more holistic and interdependent than the rich framework designed by committee under the direction of Bloom and his colleagues. I also wish to avoid the notion of hierarchy of difficulty which Bloom’s taxonomy implies and which then becomes an inappropriate guide to progression.
In my version, the overall learning outcome is that the learner is competent – effective in using their capacities to achieve. Such competence is a combination of knowledge, craft and character.
For example, to produce a group story about a butterfly’s life-cycle, one might be involved in explaining the scientific phenomenon through making a poster to form a narrative and collaborating with others. Each of these performances are combined seamlessly in life and interact as the work proceeds:
To explain the story one must learn the facts of the butterfly’s life-cycle and construct a mental model of how transformation from egg to butterfly takes place in dynamic sequence.
To make the poster, one must learn skills through practice using tools and media.
To collaborate one must master emotions and manage attitudes towards others.
So, my intent is that when designing and educational resource or activity, that one considers as many of these factors as possible or at least can say why they are not relevant to the task in hand.
These are the slides for a talk I gave at the University of Hyderabad back in January 2017, after an invitation as Visiting Professor there to discuss the design of a new Education Department and Masters Programme. They were particularly keen to solve problems relating to the legacy of the caste system and how it affects education. I offered my PhD theses, and spent time elaborating them, including this one offering an analytical framework for educational design which took a learner-centred view to inform the process.
Educational design is often, quite naturally, made to fit the organisational needs of the institutions and society providing education. The analysis presented here is intended to support the designer in taking a learner-centred approach, echoing the work of Donald Norman in user centred design. By posing eight questions that we imagine a learner may need to answer in order to have a complete educational process, the design challenge can be broken down in order to identify where an educational design is at fault, which in turn acts a focus for creativity and development. This talk describes this analysis and outlines each question’s detail.
One of my leisure activities is to screen films in the context of university outreach and a community film club. This blog is about an issue which has come up in that context.
Subtitles or captions are increasingly commonly available on films, particularly those distributed on DVD or Bluray disc. They can be switched on simply to display what is spoken, or they can be descriptive of the sounds generated by action in the film – audio description. This can help viewers who are hard of hearing, profoundly deaf or where the film’s spoken language is not the viewer’s mother tongue. But it is not only these viewers who benefit as this BBC article argued over ten years ago. Others express humorous, but strongly felt views about showing subtitles.
In my current practice, we show subtitles for foreign language films, since predominantly the viewers’ mother tongue is English – their need is only to understand the words spoken, since most can hear and interpret other sounds.
Of course this is a compromise – the subtitles interfere with the picture, distract us from the action and demand eye movement and concentration when the visual aspect of the film is arguably more important. Nevertheless, we make that compromise in order to comprehend the film.
When we screen English language films, we only show subtitles if they are available and if we think there might be some difficulty in understanding the spoken word. This may be due to actors’ pronunciation, because it is poorly recorded or if there is significant interference from music or sound effects . A good example occurred when screening The Angels’ Share, in which the actors speak with broad Scottish accents. So we try to make that judgement in advance of the screening on a case-by-case basis.
Recently, there was a call to show subtitles on English language films in order to welcome deaf and hard of hearing members to screenings. There are over eleven million hearing impaired in the UK (one in six) and this is even more prevalent amongst an elderly population, where more than 40% of over 50 year olds suffer from hearing loss. This proposal met with resistance, with some arguing that it spoilt enjoyment of the film and was not what viewers expected.
So what is the right thing to do?
As well as showing subtitles, there are other technical solutions that might help and there is good advice available from a range of sources, for example this from Cinema for All.
In brief, one can install sound-loop systems which amplify specific sounds, feeding them directly to a hearing aid. These cost money to install in the fabric of the building and are most useful to hard of hearing or deaf viewers when there is interference from other sounds. Infra-red transmission to headphones can also achieve this outcome, without the expense of building modifications.
For viewers with English as a second language, who do not need amplification but translation, subtitles can be viewed on a smartphone with specialist equipment to transmit this data. Clearly this means moving the eyes even further away from the action.
Each of these alternatives involve investment and do not cover all viewers’ need, but offer a different compromise. Simply amplifying the film’s sound is not adequate to address the diversity of hearing needs as one blogger points out. The advantage of switching on subtitles on the screen is that it costs nothing – an important issue for amateur organisations, and certainly the best option in the first place.
Mainstream cinema policies
Mainstream cinemas do try to support those who would benefit from subtitles, but arguably by supporting access rather than inclusion. They schedule screenings where subtitles are shown for specific times and these are rarely convenient for those working and don’t make it easy to join in a social event with friends and family. See for example the Odeon’s policy.
It is also quite difficult to search for such screenings, so going to the cinema becomes a planned activity rather than a spontaneous pleasure.
Finding a subtitled screening
To tackle this problem, the website Your Local Cinema is dedicated to identifying when cinemas are showing subtitled and audio description films for the hearing or sight impaired. It explains the case for screening films with technical support of all kinds to create an inclusive cinema for all. It exhorts cinemas to provide an equal service so that a diverse public can enjoy the cinema experience with family & friends, and it is supported by the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund, UK film distributors (via the FDA) and the British Film Institute.
Through a competition inviting messages about subtitles they have created a list which is worth reading through to get a flavour of the range of experiences and wishes. This is a selection from that site:
“I know quite a few people who, like me, have become disabled in the prime of their lives. I served in Iraq, came home last year with permanent damage to my hearing. I can still enjoy music, it’s just not as clear as it used to be. I find I now read a lot of song lyrics! Never really bothered before. Same with films. I can still enjoy them with a little ‘assistance’. In this case, subtitles. I only go to the cinema now if the film is subtitled. Thankfully most are these days.”
“[my mother] has stopped going to see English language films as, even with hearing aids, she can’t really hear them properly (Also because sound levels fluctuate so much in movies that she has to keep on fiddling with aids). Waiting till something comes out in DVD is really not the same.”
“I think subtitled cinema is great, When i lost my hearing i thought my social life was over but subtitled cinema has proved me wrong!”
“I can honestly say that subtitled cinema has been a dream come true. It’s given me & my mum the chance to share quality time together. She’s profoundly deaf since she was aged four, preventing her from enjoying the cinema (whooping cough took her hearing away).”
“After I saw Inception (with subtitles, of course which I’m very grateful, cheers) I bumped into a friend who was working there at the time told me there was a hearing woman (who went to the same screening as me) made a complaint that there was subtitles on the screen! This totally annoyed me over the fact she did once not think of how lucky she is, that she can come to a cinema to watch any film at any time of any day whereas the rest of us with hearing difficulties has one or two subtitled film per week, sometimes none if those listed films aren’t our cup of tea. (And also why she came to see the subtitled film in the first place anyway, oh deary me!)”
“For years, as a teenager, all my friends would always want to go the cinema, so I’d go along, pretend to know what happened, and laugh when everyone else laughed at something funny.
But now subtitled movies allow me to enjoy watching films with my family and friends. I can talk about what happened in the movie and laugh along with the jokes – not because everyone else laughed! Best invention ever!!”
“”I’m hard of hearing. Subtitles are a godsend when visiting the Cinema, or watching a DVD at home. As a person of a certain age I only wish we had them back in the forties and fifties, when Brando and other Method actors were mumbling their way through various movies!”
“My wife is deaf and finds the high sound levels are useless to her, as is the loop system. I have only praise for the companies involved in producing subtitled facilities – they make the world of difference.”
“Hard of hearing folks without a hearing aid rely heavily on subtitling. Being able to go to the cinema and see a subtitled film really reduces the isolation they live with.”
“I have a friend whom English is her second language so reading the words as they’re said helps teach her the language.”
This issue is problematic and any solution involves compromise. My view is that the compromise of always showing subtitles is worth making in order to be inclusive and reduce social isolation in a small town with no cinema and an ageing population. I have become convinced that this is the best way to welcome the deaf, hard of hearing and those with English as a second language to watch and discuss films with their friends and families.
What do you think? Please feel free to express your views by adding a comment to this article or emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The workshops introduced our ideas about using a version of paired programming to give confidence to novices in programming. We had developed these ideas, together with colleagues Mags Amond and Lisa Hegarty, also from Trinity College Dublin, through the CTwins project funded by Google’s CS4HS – Computer Science for High School.
The workshop slides for ATEE 2017 also included ‘Art’ in the title, since it was my notion that developing an art project would be personally fulfilling.
You can see how I have been a little pre-occupied with the relationship between art, craft and programming through my recent blogs:
In a happy co-incidence, I today found myself in a useful conversation about the design of the programming tool, Scratch, that we used in the project and the workshop. In the conversation, we rightly focussed on the design of Scratch, which has become so wildly popular that a heavy weight of responsibility lies on the development team to get it right. I tried to explain why Scratch is important in this blog post:
Nevertheless, I feel that as well as considering the tool design, we must also shift attention to the activity and mental models that I believe learners symbiotically develop alongside their use of the Scratch tool. The Logo programming language developed in 1967 and its turtle geometry microworld is one of the most potent developments to recognise such activity and mental modelling – although I believe not the earliest (I believe sentence generation using lists preceded it?).
“In a microworld, the central technical actors are computational objects. The choice of such objects and the ways in which relationships between them are represented within the medium, are critical. Each object is a conceptual building block instantiated on the screen, which students may construct and reconstruct […]. To be effective, they must evoke something worthwhile in the learner, some rationale for wanting to explore with them, play with them, learn with them. they should evoke intuitions, current understandings and personal images – even preferences and pleasures. The primary difficulty facing learners in engaging directly with static formal systems concerns the gap between interaction within such systems and their existing experience: it is simply too great. That is why computational objects are an important intermediary in microworlds, precisely because the interaction with them stands a chance of connecting with existing knowledge and simultaneously points beyond it.”
In the turtle geometry microworld, the computational object is a robot turtle on a stage, equipped with a pen to trace out lines as it moves according to program steps.
Scratch starts with a different microworld sporting a cat rather than a turtle and is a particular kind of computer game with interacting sprites. It leaves in the jigsaw blocks for a turtle geometry microworld but they are somewhat spoiled by the sideways view of a stage rather than the top down view of the space that the turtle inhabits.
In the conference workshops we asked completely novice learners (adults using Scratch and ScratchJr) to program knock-knock jokes, with two sprites and message passing to synchronise the joke-telling activity.
Firstly, together with colleagues, we performed this joke (thanks to Pamela Cowan for such an excellent idea, performance and preparation):
Ghost: Knock knock!
Cat: Who’s there?
Cat: Boo who?
Ghost: No need to cry!
Secondly, we asked the adults to humanly perform their own jokes working in pairs, so that one adult would be the first actor in the joke and the other the second. I was building on the concept of ‘body syntonic’ which is so powerful in the turtle geometry microworld, but in this case, it is the act of interactive joke telling that forms the mental model of the problem, to be then expressed formally in programming and debugged.
In the Scratch turtle geometry microworld, the pen jigsaw blocks are the foundations of formally expressing the acts of an imagined turtle with its pen. Children (and adults) can ‘be’ the turtle and act out the actions either bodily or in their heads, exercising their mental model of the turtle, which may then help them debug their formal expressions in code (jigsaw blocks).
In the case of our knock-knock microworld, we presented on the projector screen a subset of jigsaw blocks to start with:
In one instance of the workshop, to my delight, one learner added other blocks, using repetition to tell a more complex joke.
So perhaps the set of immediately available jigsaw blocks should reflect the microworld the learner’s imagination and mental models are anticipated to inhabit? I would go further and propose microworld-appropriate stages (and stage views, as we have in Turtlestitch and Beetleblocks), sprites and costumes. In Turtlestitch I would propose a spider sprite/costume and indeed rename it Spiderart or some-such. Perhaps there should be a choice of microworld, “I’m doing turtle geometry today” which leads one to the set of jigsaw blocks most appropriate to that microworld? I emphatically do not mean that this means restricting access to the wider set of jigsaw blocks, simply that it provides the best recommendations from the menu for the kind of restaurant you want / are ready to eat in.
To extend an already overworked metaphor, after the learner has been eating at diverse restaurants, each founded in the same underlying elements of heat, ingredients and combination, perhaps they would begin to strengthen their knowledge of the invariates which inform the mental models that underly their understanding of notional machine and programming language?
Then I went to Seymour Papert’s commemoration in Boston in January 2016 and met Susan Ettenheim from New York. Susan had joined forces with Andrea to explore Turtlestitch and was on a learning journey with Susan’s student Jennifer Lin. Jennifer was struggling with a problem – how to fill in space with an embroidery machine using Turtlestitch. The task she was attempting was to fill in a petal shape. Artemis Papert had made a good solution, which tackled the problem using variables and trigonometry. In this program, the petals have become leafs:
Susan told me that Jennifer struggled at first to understand such sophisticated mathematics. Never one to ignore a challenge, I designed an alternate solution which stuck to ‘body syntonic’ principles – essentially, exploiting a learner’s prior knowledge of moving their own body to make and debug a computer program. My solution involved three ‘sprites’ – one to run around one side of the petal, one to run round the other and finally another to run between them, filling in the space. One can imagine children actually acting this out for real, collaboratively, as a precursor to programming a solution in code, in the same way that turtle geometry allows them to solve geometric problems by imagining they themselves are moving and turning. It is salutary to note that my solution involves synchronising concurrent processes – a topic I would have considered above my pay grade, let alone appropriate for learners as young as 5! (Later I found out that ScratchJr, designed for younger learners, also included this kind of notional machine!).
After this, I was hooked, and at Scratch 2017 in Bordeaux I met Andrea, Susan and Jennifer together with Michael Aschaeur, who had programmed Turtlestitch, and had the opportunity to talk about my ideas and learn how they planned to go forward. As a result, I resolved to buy an embroidery machine!
I am absolutely delighted to announce that Trinity College Dublin’s Visual Arts and Performance scheme have agreed to fund a course and exhibition based on this, following a successful Wearable Electronics Workshop last year – look out for the advert in the New Year!
Included was the picture above, which I painted in school in 1971 following an algorithm given to me by my art teacher. I remember being satisfied with the process and the outcome, and the pleasure never went away. This was what the teacher asked me to do:
Draw a steep zig-zag line to make a mountain range
Draw a less steep zig-zag line to make a range of foothills
Draw a smoother zig-zag line to make rolling countryside
Extend the lines thinly to divide the space into geometric sections
Paint the sections using sky, mountain, hill and field colours
I have since written a computer program in Snap to do this automatically.
Mags demonstrated to the teachers how simple electrical circuits work, and later we encouraged them to ‘pimp their badge’ with LEDs, coin batteries and decorations.
Other examples I showed included the use of Snap by young children to program lights on the front of a four floor building at the Scratch Conference in Bordeaux this year, the use of light emitting diodes with micro-controllers to make wearable electronics and programming an embroidery machine to make patterns:
Our proposition to the art teachers, was that computational thinking and computing might be something they have the aptitude for, confirmed by Keith Gregg’s MSc dissertation.
We also proposed that STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) might better be written ASTEM, putting the art first, and themselves taking a lead in developing computing in their schools.
This is a diary of my Eclipse road trip in August 2017 from Las Vegas to Idaho and back to Las Vegas via many canyons, an eclipse and a visit to my friend Derek in Sedona, Arizona.
I arrived in Las Vegas on Thursday 17th, with plenty of time for the long drive north to Idaho to find a good spot for the eclipse on Monday the 21st. After that, I planned to drive to Sedona to meet Derek and then back to Las Vegas and home.
Thursday 17th – Manchester to Las Vegas to North Rim
I flew to Las Vegas from Manchester at 9:15am, partly to get a good price and also to have the chance the night before to enjoy the company of friends Stephen, Joy & Lily and dine with them and niece & nephew-in-law Sineád & Adam, recently moved to Manchester.
I turned up at a reasonable hour, but neglected to plan accommodation in the US, intending to sleep in the back of the SUV I hired. I was surprised that the check-in desk wanted to know where I was staying in the US, but quickly located a motel and told them that – nobody cared whether it was the truth! I was flying with Thomas Cook on a budget and didn’t expect a meal, but they did serve two and ‘tap water’. You could buy drinks.
As we flew over Canada and the northern mid western states and finally Wyoming and Utah, I could just about work out where we were using Galileo and its offline maps. I had downloaded them earlier in England to help me navigate when I feared that out in the midst of the American West I’d be without a network to access Google maps. The last part of the flight, coming in over Utah, Arizona and into Nevada was really beautiful, although looked scarily desertified and hot – we landed around midday Pacific Time.
Las Vegas McCarran airport has a shuttle bus to the hire car centre, some blocks away, and I hired my SUV and set off to a nearby Walmart to shop for cooking gear and food, water, beer and ice. I got the cheapest sleeping bag for $15 and a foam mattress cover to sleep on for $2 instead of the inflatable bed I’d planned. Other camping purchases include a saucepan, frying pan and propane stove. I got two gallons of water in plastic containers.
I headed out of La Vegas via the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard and drove north on the interstate freeway I15, passing through the awesome Virgin River Canyon and paused in St George as evening descended, the first of many stops at Walmarts along the way to benefit from their free Wi-fi.
I drove on before finally stopping around 10:30pm along the state highway 89A, just before Jacob’s Lake. I was so tired, I could only drink a beer for supper.
I slept until 2:30am and woke to see the moon rise. With the clock in my head disrupted and feeling wakeful, I decided to drive on to North Rim to see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. I had to refuel at Jacob Lake around 3am and arrived at the North Rim visitors’ centre around 4am in the black before dawn. I walked the path to Bright Angel Point in the dark and waited alone to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon.
Walking back, I realised how precipitous Bright Angel Point was, with sheer cliffs either side of the path and at one point a narrow bridge. Take a look at the link above and move the mouse around to shift your view! I suffer a little from fear of heights, and felt a little dizzy and out of breath on return to the car – later I learnt that it was most likely contributed to by the altitude, around 6,000 ft.
I drove back up the beautiful road, seeing wild bison, and then turned off to the East Rim overlook to cook breakfast in the forest. After eating, I took a short walk to see the East Rim view over the Grand Canyon: behind me, a delightful alpine scene of forest, meadow, deer and antelope; before me, a flat desert plain scarred by the Colorado River’s canyon cut-in deep, dark and devilish looking.
Friday 18th – North Rim to Ogden
Rested and well fed, I started the drive back through Jacob Lake and then Fredonia, Kanab and to visit Bryce Canyon.
Unlike the North Rim, Bryce Canyon was heaving with tourists and I parked and took the shuttle bus around to the viewpoints, again feeling the thinness of the air at around 8,000ft.
It was a most dramatic scene, demanding many photographs.
The road back from Bryce Canyon went through Red Canyon, remarkable by the standards of any other place, but overshadowed here:
Then north through Panguitch and across for the I15 to Salt Lake City and Ogden, reached in the dark, where I stopped, exhausted. I found a quiet place next to the freeway on an old main road at junction 341 on the I15 with West 31st Street and slept as long as I could.
Saturday 19th – Ogden to Forest Road 142, Mackay, Idaho
Waking again to the moon rise, now a slim crescent, I drove on.
Short of Pocatello, I took a turn to look for a breakfast spot and found myself in the South Mink Creek and stopped in the Slate Mountain trailhead car park to make breakfast and read a book for an hour.
Back on to the I15 and through Pocatello, I visited the Shoshone-Bannocks tribes’ museum at Fort Hall, notable for the abstract patterns on the Native American art:
Through Blackfoot, where I turned north west on the US26, I crossed the Snake River plain and passed Atomic City. This small village was built to house the scientists operating the many nuclear research establishments scattered widely over this desert plain as part of the Idaho National Laboratory. I visited the EBR-1 nuclear reactor museum near Arco which was the first Uraniam breeder reactor to generate electricity.
Filled up with petrol in Arco, I drove up past Mackay and its reservoir, an area I had scouted out on Google street view, but it was already pretty busy, so I drove on and turned off towards the hills on the west side of the valley. After seeing Ospreys with fish in their talons by the side of the road, I discovered a track and stopped to ask two men in camouflage clothing where it went. They turned out to be hunting with bow and arrow and advised me it would lead to the top and that there would be good camping spots there.
They were absolutely right – I drove up and found an excellent camp site in the shade of some pine trees and set about eating dinner. I had established my eclipse camping spot a day earlier than I had left time for, so felt really pleased to get some good rest and enjoyed the sunset illuminating the Lost River mountain range to the east across the valley, which included Borah Peak, the highest mountain in Idaho at 12,661 ft.
Sunday 20th – day of rest
After a good sleep, I still woke up early and watched the moon rise – so thin now as it neared the sun that it was almost invisible.
After breakfast, I walked along the road and then sat down to read Analogue Mountain, a gift from friend Doireann for Derek, but here I was with nothing to read and a day to fill!
For some reason a little later I discovered that the car wouldn’t start – the battery had run down. I blamed the sidelights.
After much worrying and thinking – I was a good way off the road and from the nearest habitation – I decided to make a sign to invite help. Every hour or so, a vehicle might pass on its way further in to the forest – there may have been as many as 12 people camping within a mile or two of me by the time of the eclipse.
The first encounter was with two quad bikers who couldn’t help, but promised to pass on the message.
Then a Mercedes van stopped and Dan Stempien got out, full of good cheer and had the jumper leads needed to start the car. Phew.
He travelled, lived and conducted his work in the summer months from his converted van. He was pleased to have found a mobile signal, with the help of an extra arial on the roof, which meant that he decided to camp next to me – welcome company.
A generous soul, he also gave me a spare pair of eclipse spectacles to watch with the next day.
Later, four other friendly eclipse watchers from Salt Lake City came along to say hi to us as their ‘neighbours’ and we enjoyed a discussion of stars and constellations over a drink.
Monday 21st – eclipse day
I was up early to watch the sun rise – no sign of the moon!
After breakfast, Dan and I watched the eclipse together and agreed it was both fantastic and emotional. The reduction in light and warmth as we watched the sun being ‘eaten’ was remarkable, perhaps exaggerated by the mountain top location. At totality, I was surprised that I could see the photosphere (atmosphere) of the sun with its coronal flares so comfortably and so brilliantly. The moment of the ‘diamond ring’ was phenomenal, a genuine jolt of adrenaline and cheers and whoops where audible from our neighbours, who were at least a mile away on another hilltop.
I set off for Sedona shortly later, finding modest queues as I exited the valley to Arco. Traffic was light until arriving in Blackfoot, where I mistook the northbound I15 slip road to Idaho Falls for the entrance to Walmart, so wasted time finding the next exit back to Blackfoot and to Walmart to pause and connect to the internet. Traffic on the I15 south was so bad that getting out of Blackfoot proved very slow and so I drove on side roads to avoid the masses. Eventually it picked up and I drove until nightfall to the same spot in Ogden, just North of Salt Lake City, that I had slept in on the way north.
I didn’t sleep long and woke in the night,deciding to drive on. This was premature, and I had to stop again just south of Salt Lake City to sleep some more.
Tuesday 22nd Salt Lake City to Sedona
I woke early and drove on, stopping to breakfast just off the I15 outside Fillmore, and then visited the statehouse museum in the city (town).
The museum had interesting original artefacts and explanations of the history of Mormon settlement and Native American relations in the early days. Particularly miserable to hear of the slave trading undertaken by a local chief, and his burial, which entailed the slaughteringof his two wives and his favourite horses to lie in his burial site with him. Also the staking of a young Indian child to district wolves from desecrating the grave. Shocking.
I then drove on a bit and stopped to visit the Kolob Canyons – remarkable rocks.
Next to Jacob Lake again and more petrol before descending the East Rim of the Grand Canyon and visiting Marble Canyon and the Navajo bridge as the sun was going down.
Then a long drive to Flagstaff, passing mile after mile after mile of Vermillion Cliffs and seeing many Native American homes and villages. In Flagstaff, I paused to connect with the Airbnb host for the place where I was to stay in Sedona, and tell Derek I was an hour away, before driving down to Sedona. Derek met me outside the house I rented and we eat takeaway and locally brewed beer and had a good talk before a much needed sleep.
Wednesday 23rd – Sedona
Derek came round in the morning and we went to buy a pass to visit sites in Sedona and breakfast in a nice cafe with traditional Mexican food.
We visit the ruined Sinagua dwellings in the Palatki Heritage Site and a grotto with cave paintings and a house built by a more recent settler who planted fruit trees in the canyon. We returned to drink in a lovely cafe and talk about micro worlds.
Later we visited Derek’s mum, talked butterflies and then went to sit on a rocky platform near Chimney Rock, not far from where I was staying, and enjoyed the sun set, talked about Derek’s condition and made a video for the Italian teachers in Urbino, who we were missing.
Finally, we enjoyed a delightful meal at the Mariposa (butterfly). A real pleasure to have such quality time with Derek.
Set off at 6:20 to drive to Las Vegas, with a brief visit to the Hoover Dam. Cool and rainy for the first time, flight home uneventful.
In 2015, I was introduced to the idea of ‘pimping your badge’ at a conference by friend Mags Amond.
It involved adding a watch battery and an LED (light emitting diode) to my conference badge to make it light up – my first wearable electronics!
Mags was later to get involved in the workshop to introduce some basic ideas about circuits.
That Christmas, at my annual birthday party, I gave similar treatment to a bow tie, and it was well received.
The following summer (2016) I found myself in St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin, having my heart checked out when experiencing a rare irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). The time in the hospital was short, since I proved to be in robust health, but enough to stimulate an idea for another wearable electronic – something driven by my own pulse:
The experience stimulated the following design, ‘LED by the heart’, which pleased me, so I resolved to try and make something wearable with it.
Feeling a little worried that it might be hard work, I sought friends and advice. My good friend at Trinity College Dublin, Doireann Wallace, offered support and interest, and later helped me to invite all my party guests in Christmas 2016 to complete and wear a glowy wearable. Doireann kindly prepared for this by cutting felt into Christmas shapes and stitching battery pockets for the partygoers to assemble.
On a hunt for new components and advice, I visited the MAKESHOP by Science Gallery here in Dublin. There, I got into a conversation with Jessica Stanley, who runs electronics workshops for them, and as luck would have it, had a background in wearable electronics. She had wanted to offer a course on this for some time, so I promised to help by finding some other participants.
Then I came across the Trinity College Dublin Visual Arts and Performance Fund. I made an application, and the committee were kind enough to sponsor our course. So in March 2017, we recruited participants to join us: some had craft experience, others programming and design knowledge – all were keen to know more.
Working together, with Jessica’s supportive and knowledgeable leadership, we each made artefacts to be proud of. Over six weeks of Wednesday evenings in the MAKESHOP we learnt to sew conductive thread, programme micro-controllers and solder circuits, as well as make sense of the exciting electronic components we could combine with interesting fabrics in our designs
Finally we demonstrated our work in an exhibition in the Science Gallery on April 26th 2017:
Doireann’s glove instrument
I am now wondering how far this can go.
The initial premise was for me to find a course to fulfil my own creative aspiration. I now think that it may be a route to learning about programming and technology, starting with our desire to be crafty and creative, building from where we are already comfortable in making things, to add a desirable electronic aesthetic dimension. Having broken the ice with this encounter, perhaps participants will find a better relationship with programming and technology, or at least a greater clarity about how such things work.
It is often argued that we need clarity about the nature of Computational Thinking and how it relates to the more established mathematics and problems solving worlds. This diagram is an attempt to set out some of the key elements of computational thinking content and their interrelationships, particularly with respect to computer science.
Using my notion of competence, the content analysis in the diagram focusses on those aspects of knowledge: facts,concepts and mental models, but does not describe knowledge strategies, craft skills and dispositions of character that might be needed for a full description of Computational Thinking.
It is my contention that much of the content of Computational Thinking is to be found outside the subject of Computer Science, in other subject disciplines and in the everyday world. Computing offers the chance to make such ideas programmable and thus transform sometimes abstract ideas into more concrete, executable form – making their learning all the more amenable to the loop of expression and evaluation described in my view of Expressive Constructivism as set out in my PhD.
lies in the centre of the diagram to remind us of the importance of data structures in a time when algorithms are the fashion. It is my thought that computational thinking is better defined as: combining problem solving and design to create useful solutions, informed by the possibilities that Computing offers.
In the university at which I am currently employed, Trinity College Dublin, some enterprising staff have organised a free course titled ‘Women in Film’. Over ten weeks or so, academic enthusiasts present a film each week which they feel illuminates that theme. I proposed two, hoping that one might be chosen, but both were accepted and then found myself filling in a gap for an indisposed colleague to make it three – this blog is derived from my notes and presentation to the audiences.
I saw the first two of these three films in the same weekend just before Christmas 2015 by complete chance:
‘Woman in Gold’ at the Little Baddow film club in Essex, England – I went to meet and help my friends with the event;
‘Camille Redouble’ at the French Town Twinning Association in Brentwood Essex – I was their technician!
In each case, I had no part in the choice nor any knowledge beforehand of what I was to see, but I felt they both had interesting concerns about being a woman, addressing lifetime change and exploring the contradictions between past potential and present condition.
The third ‘Trois Couleurs: Bleu’ is perhaps the film I most enjoy of all films, having first seen it perhaps twenty years ago – the chance to show it at short notice was willingly seized.
Woman in Gold
Screened 28th January 2016
In ‘Woman in Gold’, Helen Mirren plays a strong older woman lead, telling the story of someone who has lived through some of the most wicked acts of the 20th century – the Kristallnacht and consequent theft of Jewish assets, and the flight of Jews from Nazi persecution and death.
The film has mixed reviews.
My reaction was a certain sense of misguided moral compass – what is the meaning of ownership of great works of art and is it properly answered by this film?
Did this film pass the Bechdel test? – “at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man”? The test is claimed to be an indicator for the active presence of women in films and other fiction, and to call attention to gender inequality in fiction due to sexism. I didn’t spot it, despite the film featuring at least three strong women.
Finally, is it enough for a film to be carried by a first class actor, offering a compelling and exciting characterisation?
Screened 11th February 2016
‘Camille Redouble’, directed and starring Noémie Lvovsky, follows a familiar plot device of time transport back to teenage years and reappraisal of life based on the re-confrontation with earlier life decisions and events.
‘Peggy Sue Got Married ‘, ‘Big’ and 200 other films, according to Wikipedia, feature time loops or travel, so this is a well-worn path.
But, typical of french film, the story is told more naturally, humorously but not forced and ends in a more interesting and realistic manner. I felt it relevant to the Women in Film series because it didn’t portray women in the way Hollywood so often does.
Does this film pass the Bechdel test? It did, but it also certainly passed the ‘Millwood test’ for a good film – ‘did I like any character and begin to care about them’ – I liked them all.
“…what Kieslowski had achieved in these films marked a cross-fertilization of the two great postwar European cinemas that could never be surpassed. He had composed the hymn to Europe…”.
But Kieslowski’s purpose is not to pursue politics, instead it is to explore the interleaving of human lives, coincidences, and the individual challenges faced in overcoming great tragedy. In this sense, ‘Bleu’ has a lot in common with both ‘Woman in Gold’ and ‘Camille Redouble’
It begins with a car crash, setting an unbearable challenge to Julie (Juliette Binoche) as she encounters a disastrous form of liberté, shaped by one question : how to continue living when all ties are broken.
Filmed with remarkable cinematography, thrilling music and a delightful, sparse intensity, the story addresses some of the accommodations women must confront due to significant loss, discovered adultery, maternity, sexual promiscuity, a fractured relationship, Alzheimers and a musical Matilda Effect (the systematic repression and denial of the contribution of woman scientists in research, whose work is often attributed to their male colleagues). As Julie navigates these issues, her growing generosity and engagement with creativity and life is uplifting, and the ending is deeply moving with its vital optimism and hymn to enduring love.
A theme which is explored throughout Kieslowski’s trilogy, is the reunification of Europe. The connection between Poland and France, at that time perhaps the leading nations in art cinema, is personified by Juliette Binoche herself who has Polish origins. I find it hard to recall just how things were in the early ’90s, when such countries were only recently reconnected after being on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain for forty years or so, but I did feel excitement. In ‘Bleu’ the choral music is an anthem to the unified European ideal, which was so vitalising and influential at the time of the film’s making in 1993. In a parallel with the negotiation involved in making a new Europe, the process of composition to complete the music takes place in the film itself.
All this is sadly apposite in the current circumstances of ‘Brexit’ inspired by Little Englanders in my own home country of England. For me, as a committed European, the unutterable loss that Julie endures, and overcomes, is perhaps a metaphor for my own prospective loss with an impending referendum on leaving the EU, all thanks to that other car crash known as Cameron and his Conservative cronies.
What about Juliette Binoche? It is hard for me to guess how others, men and women, react to her, but for me she is without compare, not for her sexuality, but for her powerful sense of moral compass and serene beauty. Her own discussion about involvement in the making of the film touches on a central concern for women actors – how is the film to portray women’s position? Binoche, in her discussion about the possibility of gratuitous nudity, says: “You feel like an object. You no longer feel like a subject”, explaining how the media so often misinterpret her acting as a result. And yet she is generally content to see her body used as a vehicle for communicating the director’s intent. With “Bleu” she describes a happy and relaxed relationship with Kieslowski, who seems to be concerned that she does not suffer indignities, even reportedly flying into a rage when Binoche proposes to cut her knuckles for one rather harrowing scene.
Just two nights before showing ‘Bleu’, by chance, I watched Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Demolition’ as part of the Dublin International Film Festival. ‘Demolition’ arguably parallels much in ‘Bleu’, starting with a car crash which kills Gyllenhaal’s partner, but with a quite different sensibility and rather less ambition. Indeed ‘Demolition’ might well fit into a ‘Men in Film’ course: the camera lingers on Gyllenhaal’s face and body for much of the time, but I suspect the media will see it as great acting rather than exploitation of his undoubtedly handsome face and body!
In both films, in truth, I didn’t once doubt the director’s intent – to make the best possible use of the sophisticated collaboration between actors, crew and director, and their profound artistry.
I recommend all these (films, directors, actors and crew) to you without reservation and thank the organisers of the Women in Film series for the opportunity to indulge myself. The opportunities and coincidences that lead to this particular set coming together would have had Kieslowski smiling.
David Garland was without doubt the most accomplished professional I have ever had the honour to work with. I first met him when interviewing candidates for the headship of Holly Trees Infants in May 1997. He didn’t interview as well as some – his charming self-deprecation didn’t show off his strengths, but luckily we saw through that, picked him and never looked back.
He worked hard to create the most effective education for local children by organising the merger of the infants and junior schools to create the current Holly Trees Primary School. Not content with that, he organised the building of the current premises, moving from one of the worst buildings in Essex to one of the best. He did all of this whilst maintaining a hands-on, compassionate and high-standards job running the school (both schools for a short while) and did this through effective delegation, systems and support for colleagues. He earned their respect through his willingness to muck in and teach classes when needed and showed everyone what clear vision can do and how to go about making it work. When he was obliged to apply for the Primary headship, every member of staff wrote to me offering their support for his application.
All this I learnt through my professional relationship with him, but on a personal front he also welcomed my own son as a pupil, diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, with open arms. He built trust and friendship for my son from the whole community at Holly Trees to nurture his strengths and manage his weaknesses. Subsequently, my son went on to Cambridge, gained a Masters at Guildhall and is now studying for his Doctorate. I believe the teachers, assistants and pupil community at Holly Trees together made this possible, but David was at the heart of this community. My gratitude to him and all the team knows no bounds. I feel nothing but love for this man and deeply regret the lack of opportunity to show it and return the kindness and service he made possible with his vision and his heart. To his family, I can only say how sorry I am that he is gone and offer my thanks to them for their support for him, a man who I feel shaped so many lives for the better. He will never be forgotten.
I had the privilege of attending the funeral for Bianca Ní Ghrógáin on Thursday 11th June in Clondalkin, Dublin.
Here she is, relaxed at a meeting last year, where we were discussing technology and learning. She has a half smile playing on her lips, a familiar look of sceptical inquiry as I pompously drone on, and a sense of sassy clarity as I introduce her to the audience. She was someone who had a lot to tell about making learning meaningful, delightful and successful.
Her untimely passing – she was 32 – leaves a legacy of powerful educational ideas, but more importantly action. She benefited from technical confidence, educational inspiration and powerful moral purpose. The students and children she taught were challenged to question everything, fired-up to take meaningful action and reminded to be both sceptical and open-minded.
Today, at the Computer Education Society of Ireland meeting, I was reminded of her version of the flipped classroom. Normally this means flipping the content, otherwise presented by the teacher during a lesson, so that information is accessed beforehand. The time released is then given over to activity rather than passive listening – mutual exploration, problem solving and discussion. In her case there was a further flip – the learner taking the front-seat, managing their inquiry, pursuing a problem and acting-up to the status of adult with responsibility for their learning. She found that her 9 and 10 year olds were hungry to be the teacher – the highest reward she could offer for good work or behaviour.
Lessons with Bianca tackled problems normally thought suitable for much older learners, but she found no difficulty in balancing their immaturity and lack of experience with a young person’s ambition.
Her humility would mean that she rarely bragged about these success – I think she thought them to be vital and obvious as ways for her learners to ‘become’, paying attention explicitly to adult dispositions in development.
Naturally, this attitude spilled over into her work with adults. I am proud to have worked with her (and best friend and collaborator Susan Nic Réamoinn) in workshops at the CESI conference, learning about the Makey-makey kit for turning programming into real-world, tactile problem solving and design. She understood the value of making working prototypes as a way of understanding complex abstractions and was a supporter of the Maker movement and involved in running MakerMeets to bring like-minded makers together.
It wasn’t until today, listening to Mags Amond, another of Bianca’s best friends and collaborators, that I realised that Bianca’s ultimate “MakerMeet” was on Thursday 🙂
Searching through an old computer back up recently, I found this foreword I wrote for a colleague’s book over ten years ago, back in 2004. I found that I still felt I agreed with these earlier views, and that it might be useful to others:
There is a relationship between the human mind, the modern computer and mathematics which is often misunderstood. Indeed over centuries, humankind has used the developing concept of the computer as a metaphor for the mind, and the growing knowledge of the human mind as a metaphor for the computer, and it is now unclear which was the chicken or the egg. This interchange of conceptions suggests a central place for the computer in our culture, that the often heard, but rather dismissive remark, “it’s just a tool”, can underestimate.
It can be persuasively argued that tools and technology have been at the heart of intellectual endeavour since the stone age, and that the sciences and mathematics owe a debt to tools, rather than the reverse, as a source of intellectual development in our culture.
Since mathematical concepts and logic lie at the heart of the computer’s function, it comes as no surprise that the study of mathematics and the use of ICT may be profitably intermingled. The concepts of algorithm, function, operation and set all have concrete manifestation in the world of computers to parallel their abstraction in mathematics. One consequence is that the computer, through the spreadsheet, database, LOGO programming and modelling & simulation environments, has the delightful capacity to make concrete of the otherwise abstract ideas of relationship and process. For example the mathematical variable in algebra is often a mysterious object: “Please miss, tell me how much x is?”. The same (but subtly different) X on a computer, although capable of varying, can always be known as a value at any given time. A spreadsheet cell containing a function always shows an answer, for the moment. Suddenly, elusive mathematical ideas become tangible and may be played with, bringing dead algebra to a ‘what if?’ life.
So far so good – it seems that there is already an impressive case for doing mathematics, practically, with a computer.
But in fact, there is even greater scope, because the computer has added to this capacity for logic and computation a unique facility to integrate and generate visual and dynamic material – multimedia – and to portray the most aesthetically pleasing visual and musical outputs based on mathematical data. Using LOGO and other software to discover geometry empowers us to pin down elusive abstractions with concrete experiences. LOGO also encourages us to benefit from our kinaesthetic, body-centred capacities when solving problems by acting ‘turtles’ ourselves.
In all of these ways, mathematics and the computer can combine to appeal to our multiple intelligences and raise the stakes for capability in learning mathematics.
But sadly, the potential identified here is often missing – why? – perhaps in part because such experiences have not been lived by many of today’s teachers. Hence the purpose of this book: to begin to unlock the genie in the bottle and promote creativity in mathematics teaching and learning through practical advice and relevant detail.
Such advice is legion in this book, with valuable commentary to reassure the inexperienced teacher so that they may tackle both statutory and unspoken expectations, from the National Curriculum and the Numeracy and Literacy Strategies, with carefully explained and justified lesson ideas.
Pupils will also benefit from the appropriate deployment of ICT in Mathematics advocated here: the handling of data and creation of graph & chart which may come from speedy ICT tools and the teacher’s knowledge, enhanced by this book’s exposition, coupled with the generation of their own data and purposes conspire to make the exploration of mathematical concepts both meaningful and relevant. Genuine ‘what if?’ questions may be asked and answered, alternatives judged and genuine inquiry fostered – the ‘quantitative’ improvement in the speed of production brought about by ICT begins to change the ‘qualitative’ nature of engagement with mathematics.
With the confidence that this book will inspire, the truth and beauty that excites successful mathematicians may begin to be appreciated by a much wider audience of teachers and learners, and the symbiotic relationship between our society and its most powerful tools may be continued, to all humankind’s benefit.
Reader, Ultralab, Anglia Polytechnic University
This text was the foreword to: ICT and Primary Mathematics: A Teacher’s Guide
Nick Easingwood and John Williams
Published by Routledge 5 Aug, 2004
“They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. At last I can admit that, yes, I do have a mental health problem. I don’t know what it is about me but, without my daily dose of antidepressants, I stop being the man I should be. There is a chemical inbalance in my brain that needs this but I have stopped wondering why: I just accept it. I have depression and, like my asthma, it’s something I have to learn to live with.”
I rewrote it in my own words as though speaking for society rather than as an individual:
“They say the first step to improvement is admitting there is a problem. At last society can admit that, yes, it does have more people experiencing mental health problems. We don’t know what it is about society but, without daily doses of antidepressants, people stop being as functional as they should be. There is a chemical inbalance in their brains that needs this but we do not need to wonder why: we just accept it. They have depression and, like asthma, it’s something they have to learn to live with.”
I find this rewrite unnacceptable!
It is not good enough for society to be satisfied with recognition of illness: we must challenge the root cause. In this case, the currently accepted model, that there is a chemical imbalance in brain, is not supported by the scientific evidence, as most psychiatrists will now agree ( see http://joannamoncrieff.com ).
An obvious alternative explanation for society to consider is that ill-health may be caused by the increased complexity and demand placed on teachers, especially if they are child-centred in their approach and subject to ever increasing inspection, parental demands and concerns about risk. I experienced a little of this stress recently as a school governor (my teaching days were in the seventies): we were expected to take responsibility for and annually review over twenty school policies, all with the threat of imagined risks if we were to put a foot wrong – and we weren’t even doing the day-to-day job!
My view is that we, society, needs to take this seriously: that we are placing too high a demand on teachers. When this is combined with teachers’ dedication to every individual child, management by targets & competition and a media habit of blaming teachers for problems in education, it can surely explain the kind of breakdown you report. It is in my view society’s responsibility to find solutions through better organisation of education. Sadly, it is simpler to blame the individual’s biochemistry and hand out unproven chemical ‘cures’ to paper over the cracks. It remains to be seen if it is cheaper or more sustainable.
I hope you do not take my words as suggesting that you were not up to the challenge of modern society and that if only you could “pull your socks up” you’d be able to overcome your condition – I am anxious here to show that the argument that we should “man-up” as individuals to modern problems is ignorant and inadequate. My purpose in writing this is to say we, society, have created the conditions for people to suffer and we should take our collective responsibility seriously. I suggest that for every person like you, there will be many more who aren’t able to recognise a mental health problem, but who are quietly self-medicating with alcohol.
With unconditional positive regard and the greatest respect to all those suffering,
These are widely used to introduce programming for the following reasons:
such languages tap in to a pre-literate capacity to help learners make sense of things without depending on technical reading and writing literacies;
learners appreciate the tactile and kinaesthetic sensibilities involved in producing a visually pleasing artefact, the program, regardless of what it does;
such languages clarify the logic of the program through the display of visual, diagrammatic shapes that make it easy to determine the relationship and scope of program elements;
it is impossible to make syntax errors such as incorrect spelling, conjunction or punctuation;
they provide a visual menu of programming elements so that opportunities for expression are clear and the learner’s memory is not overtaxed.
All this I can understand and I am very much a fan, but I am unclear why there is considered to be a desirable progression from these languages to the traditional text-based languages?
In some cases features are missing from the visual programming languages. For example Scratch doesn’t do functions and local variables.
It may be thought that a complex program would be visually unwieldy, but I find that true of any reasonably sized textual program.
Then there is the historical/cultural/custom-and-practice concerns of experienced programmers – I can hear them saying “surely there is something important, expressive and pure about traditional programming languages?”.
I maintain an open mind about this and can even imagine jigsaw programming becoming the method of choice for serious programming in the workplace. If I am right, there are some interesting challenges:
What are the criteria for judging the effectiveness / efficiency / legibility of a program made using jigsaw programming?
What are the examples of programming problems that cannot be solved using jigsaw programming?
How do we benefit from the version control and sharing that matter for collaborative development?
How do they effectively encapsulate and hide libraries of service functions and procedures?
Can we add styling control so that we can tailor the visual appearance to suit the person and the task, or simply provide an alternative view?
How can they reveal and make editable the variables and data they manipulate? (Scratch does this well with lists).
How can they animate the program’s diagram to illustrate its execution, single step, interrupt and thus help us debug?
Some of these challenges may already be tackled – I’d be pleased to hear about where to find developments!