Concepts in Computing – a taxonomy under review

This concept map is derived from a list first developed as a spreadsheet in 2016 by Miles Berry, in the context of Project Quantum. That project produced a mass of multiple choice questions for computing, and to make them searchable, they were tagged with a unique topic code (hence the numbers on each). The project’s output was delivered as part of Diagnostic Questions by the company EEDI, which I worked for in 2019.

On reviewing new computer science questions made by teachers, I found many topics that were not covered by the taxonomy. The outcome of my work wouldn’t be so clear in a spreadsheet, so I constructed the concept map above using Cmap, and my additions are shown in red.

I was a little surprised at the omissions, but it isn’t an easy task to get right. I had the great good fortune to be critiquing it through a form of practice – the development of tests by teachers.

But, since then I have often wondered about this categorisation, and in particular, question its completeness and its hierarchy.


I am particularly surprised at the relegation of sub-program (in all its forms) under a heading of ‘modularity’.

Seymour Papert held a different view of the sub-program.

In MicroWorlds, Papert held that:

“The idea of programming is introduced through the metaphor of teaching the Turtle a new word.”

(Papert, 1980, p. 12)

Papert’s idea suggests the sub-program a more dominant concept than selection and iteration, which with sequence, are held to be the three key algorithmic ideas in the English and Irish curricula, which have little mention of the sub-program as an algorithmic idea.


In a similar way, there is no sign of parallelism – the concept that two or more sequences of instructions may be executed at the same time. This is surprising since this is a major feature of beginning programming languages such as Scratch (and all its derivatives) and MakeCode. Parallelism features strongly because of the way it can simplify the programming of complex behaviours, such as those found in games with multiple independent graphics, that children love to make. Parallelism can bring its own problems of coordination too, but these are rarely noticed at this level.

Much is made of the challenges children face when moving from jigsaw languages like Scratch to text languages like Python, but the focus of concern is on the change of environment and the need to be accurate with syntax and grammar, rather than functionality. The loss of functionality that children suffer when they don’t find it easy to program games in Python as they could in Scratch, can so often lead to a return to Scratch programming – for its greater sophistication! This challenge is identified in the work of the Pytch project lead by my Trinity College Dublin colleague Glenn Strong.

Some of the problem is the way in which technology is a moving target. Scratch appeared in 2007, and although parallelism was in many programming languages around before that, it was not considered a beginner’s topic.

So it probably is a good idea to review the concept map regularly, and I intend to do so at conferences in China, Spain and New York – if my proposals are accepted – in the coming months.

Morse Code MakeCode

Before Christmas, I was working with four schools in County Mayo, Ireland, and challenging the students to use MakeCode to make a Microbit lighthouse showing the actual sequence of flashing lights that the lighthouses round Mayo use.

Tomorrow all four schools are gathering in Atlantic Technological University in Castlebar, county town of Mayo, to show off their work with artist Bryan Duffy and their digital skills combined.

My rôle will be to extend those digital skills, and I intend to do that by introducing Morse code:

  • You are on a small boat out to sea
  • Your engines have failed and the waves are getting bigger all the time
  • You can see the lighthouses and you want to send a message using the only technology you have left – a powerful torch
  • How do you say ‘help’?

We are working in four groups of students in rotation, mixed from each school.

I will start by introducing Morse code and asking them to simulate the torch just by raising and lowering their hand – can they send messages? can they read them?

Then we will move to coding the Microbit in MakeCode, imagining it to be the torch and automate the sending of a distress signal.

Finally we will write our own message to be sent from the Microbit and challenge the other groups of students to decode afterwards.

Here are the two sheets that will support the workshop:

The sheet to explain Morse Code and propose an activity to make it real
The sheet to ‘copycode’ the program to automate an SOS signal from the MicroBit

I’ll update this blog after the workshop and tell you how it went!


Well it was a great day.

I left the house in Essex at 5am to fly to Knock West of Ireland from Stansted and collect a hybrid hire car from the redoubtable Pauline on my way to Castlebar.

We set up in a lovely hall in Atlantic Technological University, with ample space to spread out for our four group workshop rotation day.

The Morse code MakeCode workshop went well, despite the difficulty of talking in a noisy space – ironic given the topic of using morse code to communicate!

Students were inventive and quick with sorting out how Morse code worked, planning messages and then sending them across the hall with arm movements for dots and dashes in the absence of torches.

Explaining Morse Code and how to signal with your hands

Having acquainted themselves clearly with the concept of Morse code, the students then went on to use laptops, programming in Makecode to automate the sending of an SOS distress signal.

It gave me a chance to introduce them to sub-programs in Makecode as a way of structuring the work. Some were too enthusiastic to read my notes and coded it in a linear way, with a long ‘tower’ of jigsaw pieces. They quickly saw how much tidier and easy to adapt it was by using functions, which they readily understood.

Explaining the functions used in the program to transmit morse code from a Microbit

As the day progressed, the tower of decorated cubes, one made by each student in the four schools, was assembled on stage, directed by artist Bryan Duffy.

Artist Bryan Duffy masterminds the construction of a lighhouse tower of cubes

We placed one microbit at the top of the lighthouse tower, broadcasting a secret message to everyone:

Microbit broadcasting morse code message

One teacher and three students managed to work out what it was broadcasting – can you?

The four schools stood for a group photo with the tower on stage.

All-in-all a very satisfying day as we re-assembled the tower in the Mayo Education Centre next door, where the staff happily decoded the message, with some coaching!

Many thanks to the four principals – Adrian Ormsby at the Clogher School, Dermot Walsh at Cornanool School, Farnan Harte at Ardagh School, Kevin Munnelly at the Quay School – for trusting me with their students. A pleasure working with Bryan Duffy – a powerhouse. Most of all, a privilege to be working with the almost 100 students who worked tirelessly, noisily, enthusiastically, politely and generously.

Desperately seeking sunshine

A photograph of Gariwerd / Grampian National Park in Victoria, Australia with boulders and bush in the foreground and distant sawtooth mountains and a brilliant setting sun
Sunset around 9pm, from Reed’s lookout in Gariwerd / Grampian National Park, Victoria, Australia


A month in Australia at Christmas 2022. I flew to see my first grandson in Sydney, Australia, spent Christmas with family, visited Canberra, met old friends in Newcastle and Melbourne, made a pilgrimage to Gariwerd and learnt about Country and First Nations.

A map of south eastern Australia with places marked that I had visited
South eastern Australia: places that I visited

REWIND: Tuesday 2 August 2022 – Elias May Perrywood is born, my first son Patrick’s first son.

A newborn baby, Elias, in his mother Andrea's arms looking up at her obscured face
Elias May Perrywood, age zero

Elias – Patrick & Andrea’s choice;
May – my mother Elizabeth’s maiden name – she had passed away aged 93 on 30 June;
Perrywood – a synthesis of Andrea’s Perry and Patrick’s Millwood, and the new surname for all the family.

I celebrated in London with Mags at the Proms, listening to Beethoven’s Fifth played from memory by the Aurora Orchestra.

Ever since that moment, I started planning my visit to Sydney, Australia to meet my new grandson. Happily, I was able to go at Christmas, and could get away for a month. I found a low cost Business Class ticket leaving from Dublin to Melbourne on 20 December which would allow me to be there in time.

And so it began.

Tuesday 20 December – party in Brentwood, party in Dublin and fly business class to Abu Dhabi

After my birthday party on Sunday 18 in Brentwood with friends & family, and another in Dublin on Monday 19 with real friends & colleagues, I am ready and well prepared to leave on the 08:45 to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 20.

From an aircraft business class seat, a glass of Campari, nut, a tv controller and a sign indicating seat settings including massage
Business class, including massage!

Lie down seats, a free night’s stay in Abu Dhabi, and the use of the Etihad business lounge allowed me to do most of the jet-lag adjustment in the journey. I was surprised how business class made all the queuing non-existent and the transitions short, and this made the whole experience relaxed & effective. Not to mention many nice meals, kicking off with a Campari, roasted nuts and a massage!

Wednesday 21 December – over the Indian Ocean

I slept most of the second leg from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne, as this closely matched Eastern Australian night time.

From an aircraft business class seat, lying down, the reading light and beyond the ceiling light is a scattering of pin-prick lights made to look like stars against a blue background
Lying down

The lighting, of white stars on a blue background was delightful, but distracting, as no recognisable constellation could be identified!

Thursday 22 December – arrive in Melbourne, then Sydney to meet Elias

I landed in Melbourne at 6am, got off the plane quickly, collected my bags and was through immigration with hardly a pause. I persuaded Jetstar to let me on the 7:05am flight, so barely had time for a coffee before I was heading on to Sydney.

I was met by Patrick at the airport, who took me on the short drive to his home in Newtown, an urban inner city district rather like Brixton or Camden Town is in London.

And there he was – the gorgeous Eli!

Thus began two weeks of a wonderful, sunny respite, made up of Christmas and New Year with Patrick, Andrea & Eli together with Andrea’s parents John & Jenny and sister Elise.
Although for me it was the surreal height of summer, I felt happily indulged in the season’s pleasures of eating, drinking, walking, sleeping, reading books and excellent company.

But I also saw some sights.

Friday 23 December – Sydney and the Opera House

I took the train to central Sydney with Patrick, saw the Queen Victoria Building, bought some summer clothes in Myers, visited Dymocks book shop and then we walked on to the Opera House.

There were many childhood ambitions to fulfil in travelling to Australia for the first time, and a big one, seeing the Sydney Opera House, did not disappoint. The competition to design it was launched in the year of my birth and its completion in 1973 was also in my first year as an undergraduate at King’s College London. Modern architecture was a thing for me in school and remains so. Throughout my undergraduate years I marvelled at the new National Theatre being constructed across the River Thames from the university.

I found the Opera House exceeded my expectations as an architectural spectacle, with its vaulting interlocking beauty but also the geometrical detail and engineering. I filled my phone with images at all angles and marvelled at the ceramic ’skin’ and glass curtains.

A side view of one of the buildings of the Sydney Opera House, emphasising its geometric beauty as a sector of a circle
Sydney Opera House detail

Saturday 24 December – a walk in the park

In the morning I went for a walk to Sydney Park, south of Newtown. A pleasurable stroll through the suburban streets but a hot day, so keeping myself in the shade of trees wherever I could through Erskineville and returning up King Street through to Newtown.

When I stopped for a ‘Good Root’ drink at the Sydney Park Kiosk, I sent this message to Patrick:

A text message exchange between me and son Patrick. I say "I'm at the Sydney Park Kiosk having a 'Good Root'"
Patrick says "Not something you would normally say to others… Andrea can fill you in on the reason why"
Text message exchange with Patrick

Little did I know that the name of the drink was Australian slang for sexual intercourse, as well as a lovely combination of beetroot, ginger, carrot and celery.

In the evening, John and Jenny came over to collect Elise, Andrea’s sister, from the airport and join us for a Christmas Eve meal.

Sunday 25 December – Christmas Day with the family

Christmas Day (and night) we gathered at John and Jenny’s house in Northbridge, enjoying lovely sea food and an amazing Pavlova.

In the foreground table clutter but centrally a beautiful Pavlova decorated with strawberries, passion fruit and blueberries, offered by cook Elise with her other  arm around Jenny her mother with father John in the background.
Pavlova cooks Jenny and Elise

We exchanged gifts – I got lovely Australian cooking ingredients, sweets, books and drinks from all the family slightly to my embarrassment (but immense pleasure) as I had thought that the Secret Santa was the thing – I’ll know better next time. My Secret Santa was chosen by Jenny – ‘Songlines: The Power and Promise’ by Margo Neale & Lynne Kelly. Patrick gave me ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe – more about both books later.

Monday 26 December – Boxing Day and a walk around Northbridge

A quiet day, as ever, eating delicious leftovers and taking it easy.

Before lunch, we went for a walk through the woods near Northbridge to nearby Tunk’s Park boat ramp, spotting bush Turkeys and Kookaburras on the way and Pelicans in the water.

A peaceful tree lined sea inlet with three pelicans swimming against a view of expensive houses on the distant wooded bank.
Pelicans at Tunk’s Park boat ramp, Northbridge, Sydney

We made our way made our way back through Tunk’s Park and Flat Rock Creek, but without Jenny who sadly hurt her knee on the descent to the boat ramp and got a lift home from Andrea acting as an ambulance driver!

Tuesday 27 December – walking, reading, debating and drinking in Newtown

Back at Patrick and Andrea’s in Newtown, in the morning I went for a walk with Patrick and Elias to a local park, but then started reading. Jenny, on giving me the Songlines book, encouraged me to start by reading a book that Patrick and Andrea had on their shelf: ’Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia’ by Marcia Langton.

I began reading it and realised that my new real interest (after being with family) in coming to Australia was discovering First Nations people, culture and history, not the rather comfy middle-class interest in colourful indigenous art I had planned, although that enthusiasm persisted and was well-served. Politics had replaced art in my mind, although as I discovered there were close links.

‘Welcome to Country’ carefully and neutrally offered a fascinating description of Australia’s First Nations and then continued, state-by-state to propose the experiences to be found in each to engage with them.

I didn’t finish it at one sitting, but it was only the offer of drink which stopped me!
That evening Patrick invited me for a drink in the ‘Courty‘ – Courthouse Pub and we enjoyed a Newtown IPA and discussed the state of socialist jargon at length!

The grand pillared Courthouse building in Newtown Sydney catching the setting sun's orange light with Patrick standing in the foreground.
The actual Courthouse in Newtown, Sydney, (not the Courty round the corner!)

On the way back we stopped in King Street to have a drink in ‘Odd Culture’ – I had a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon – Brash Higgins CBSV Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, South Australia – which was rich and delicious.

I had travelled to Australia to meet grandson Elias, but as much happiness was obtained in spending such relaxed time with son Patrick and also getting to know Andrea and her family better.

Wednesday 28 December – Northbridge to relax and swim

I finished the ‘Welcome to Country’ book on a lazy day, when mostly, Elias went swimming in John and Jenny’s pool!

Thursday 29 December – Royal Botanic Garden, First Nations guided tour and Yiribana gallery at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

I started reading the ‘Songlines’ book in the morning.

With Patrick, Andrea & Eli, I visited the Royal Botanic Garden so that I could enjoy a guided First Nations tour which vividly described the encounter with the First Fleet, which consisted of eleven ships bringing the first settlers from Europe and Africa. There were two female guides, both of Aboriginal heritage. The first was strict with a would be photographer, assertive but humorous in tone!

Afterwards I rejoined Patrick, Andrea and Eli to walk through the gardens, revisiting the scene of Patrick & Andrea’s Covid-delayed wedding in October 2021.

Finally we visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I only managed to enjoy the Yiribana Gallery, one of the world’s largest collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, before we left for home, but that was because it was so enthralling and deserved all the time I had.

This one example introduced me to something that really excited me, but I discovered was not uncommon in First Nations art: a collaborative work that was painted for real purpose: to argue for land title.

The caption said:

“Men at Tjuntjuntjara, Western Australia, began creating collaborative paintings in 1997 as part of a native title documentation process, with the works being formally included in the preamble to the successful Spinifex native title claim of November 2000. “

A vast canvas painted in Australian Aboriginal style mostly consisting of red black and white.

This work depicts the tjukurpa [dreaming] of the Wati Kutjara as it relates to Spinifex Country. Wati Kutjara are two men, the first beings, whose actions shaped and continue to inform connections to Country.
Artists: Fred Grant, b1943, Ned Grant, b1941, Simon Hogan, born c1930, Lawrence Pennington, b1934, Patju Presley, b1945, Wati Kutjara 2019 all of Pitjantjatjara, Southern Desert region, Australia.

Friday 30 December – Museum of Sydney and Thai dinner

In the foreground the Aboriginal flag and sign for the Museum of Sydney, behind the hi-rise buildings of the Sydney Central Business District.
The Museum of Sydney

I went alone to visit the Museum of Sydney with its huge Australian Aboriginal flag, and had a wander through the centre. The Museum wasn’t huge, but had a very informative display with models of all eleven boats in the First Fleet, with explanations of which one carried what.

I also sat and watched a ‘First Australians’ film which explained the local Gadigal people’s encounter with the First Fleet and the story of Englishman, Governor Phillip, and the kidnapped warrior Bennelong.

I then found the General Post Office on Martin Place and wrote postcards to send to family and friends before setting off back to Newtown to join the others for a lovely meal at the Thai Pothong Restaurant in King Street, Newtown.

Saturday 31 December – New Year’s Eve in Northbridge

We met up again in Northbridge at John & Jenny’s house to celebrate New Year’s Eve and stayed the night. I enjoyed watching the fireworks on TV!

A day for continuing to read the Songlines book.

Sunday 1 January – New Year’s Day and a walk around Northbridge

More reading, and a walk with John to see the surroundings of Northbridge, some bush and sea inlets, some urban streets and a chance to compare house architectures. Excellent company.

John standing and smiling at the camera as we are overlooking a tree line inlet of the sea with a sandy shore and boats at mooring in the middle distance, and in the far distance, expensive houses across a larger inlet.
John Perry overlooking Willoughby Bay

Monday 2 January – Fish & Chips in Kirribili

Another day for reading, but an appointment with all the family for fish & chips under the harbour bridge on the north side allows me to take a train and then the ferry to Kirribili.

Andrea holds Elias and stands next to her sister Elise under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Andrea, Elias and sister Elise under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

As we sit eating, Patrick sets up his camera to capture a time-lapse of the departure of the cruise liner ‘Celebrity Eclipse’.

Tuesday 3 January – Reading and DIY

A quiet day for more reading.

Patrick invites my help to erect a triangular sail to give shade in his backyard, so we make a trip to Bunnings, the Australian B&Q.

A video screen with four images from four security cameras in a hardware store. Patrick and me feature different angles in each image.
Bunnings sell security cameras, so Patrick and I had to play.

Wednesday 4 January – the Blue Mountains on a road trip to Canberra

Patrick kindly takes me on a trip to Canberra, and we start early to catch the morning light in the Blue Mountains.

An old-fashioned camera and Patrick stand on a lookout platform, behind the rail is a view over a valley in the Blue Mountains.
Patrick taking photographs with his Tachihara 5×4 camera at the Wentworth falls lookout.

Our first stop was at the Wentworth Falls lookout to take photos using Patrick’s Tachihara Field Stand 4×5 (or 5×4 in English tradition!), before breakfast at the Mountain-Ama Cafe and hat buying in The Hattery in Katoomba. We then visited the Echo Point lookout to see the Three Sisters rocks and the Anvil Rock lookout overlooking the Grose Wilderness before setting off to Canberra.

It’s a long drive, and I am surprised by the lack of garages or shops on the road, which is mostly through farming country – where does anyone get petrol?!

We see a Wedge Tailed Eagle across a field and later a Kangaroo beside Lake George.

Into Canberra, we had a Japanese meal and were a little surprised by the parade of hot-rods that had gathered in town.

Thursday 5 January – Canberra

A tasty breakfast at the Local Press Café, Kingston before then visiting the the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. We walked through the Prime Minister’s suite of offices and watched a video of recent prime ministers talking about each other. We sat in the House of Representatives chamber before looking through the Democracy DNA exhibition.

I loved the way that small, but persistent protest was shown to be important for change to happen.

I was impressed with the paintings forming the ‘Statement: Jack Green’s Paintings‘, a series which made clear the impact of the mining industry on his Country, culture and community, which was recognised by a committee of inquiry into land title.

I was also moved by the exhibition on Equal Rights, and particularly the speech in parliament by Tim Wilson in December 2017 in the run up to legalising same sex marriage. At the end he proposed to his boyfriend, listening in the gallery.

We then had a look in the National Portrait Gallery before the National Gallery of Australia, which was generally excellent, but particularly remarkable for the Aboriginal Memorial, 200 decorated hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land – stunning.

An array of tall decorated vertical pipes painted with ochre, black and white, exhibited with a black background.
The Aboriginal Memorial in the National Gallery of Australia.

We then went for lunch at the National Museum. I noticed a tour, so went to buy a ticket, and found I was the only person on it.

Jake was my guide, a friendly student at the Australian National University studying international relations. He enthusiastically lead me round the exhibits, particularly in their depiction of the First Nations people and their terrible treatment by colonialists. Notably he showed me the braille messages secretly applied to the outside of the building by the architect, and showed me where they read “sorry” and “forgive us our genocide”.

Me and guide Jake standing outside a museum building, Jake pointing at the marks on the building behind.
Jake, my First Nations exhibition guide, pointing at the overpainted Braille ‘sorry’.

This apparently enraged Prime Minister Howard at the time of opening. Howard had refused to apologise to Aboriginal people for the ’Stolen Generations’, an act of extraordinary cruelty which separated children from their families.

Jake also told me about the building design of the First Nations section of the museum, which was claimed by the architect, Raggatt, to be a ‘quotation’ of the design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Liebeskind, causing some controversy through its implication of a link to the Jewish holocaust.

Before leaving Canberra, Patrick drove us up to Mount Ainslie lookout to have the view over the city.

Friday 6 January – reading

I finished Songlines – a fabulous book, and although I found some of its propositions difficult, the overall effect is that it explains a ‘Theatre of Memory’ model of knowledge in Aboriginal minds, that links country & fable with practical matters of food & water sources. (In 1990, when just started with Ultralab, I had helped produce a multimedia CD-ROM on this topic by Graham Howard’s Art of Memory company as part of the Apple funded Renaissance Project.)

It was a rich and enjoyable read, even if it occasionally overstepped a credibility mark.

So I started to read ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe that Patrick had given me. This book quotes from the unexpurgated accounts of Aboriginal life, that early colonisers’ wrote at the time, in order to to counter the primitive ‘hunter gatherer’ classification of Aboriginal people. The idea that Australia was ‘Terra nullius’, and thus no robbery took place, relies on a view that Aboriginal people were not sedentary, thus never in one place so they could make a claim to owning the land.

The accounts quoted contradicted this view, providing evidence of houses, cultivation, seed banks, fishing management and many other indicators of a more settled and ‘civilised’ people. Pascoe claims that land management by aboriginal people had been largely passive conservation, which might mean moving from location to location in order to preserve productivity, in contrast to the exploitative and damaging imposition of European high-productivity farming whilst ‘static’ on land you owned.

Most of all it challenged the mindset forming the European view of what civilisation is and of land ownership, with its diminished sense of common land (since the enclosures?). Country owns us, rather than we own country.

Saturday 7 January – completing the toy

I decided to try and complete the toy I was making for Elias for Christmas (which year?), which I had started making in September! The toy was to be a spider, with hollow legs that when squeezed or chewed would react with sounds or lights.

The skeleton of a toy spider, showing the rubber tube legs and the connections to a single thread web of variable conductivity rubber. The legs are joined inside a circular clear plastic container.
The legs are joined to a pressure detector switch in the plastic container which will be covered with padding and furry skin. The head with the Micro:bit is also squeezable and connected to another pressure switch.

In addition, it would hang on a thread of a rubber band which has the property of varying resistance as it is stretched, so could be programmed to make sounds varying in pitch. The legs needed to poke through a black furry fabric skin, so I needed eyelets, which I had found at the shop All Buttons Great and Small in King Street, Newtown .

Sunday 8 January – Parramatta to Manly by ferry

I started early, aiming for a final lunch date with all the family at Manly beach.

Newtown to Parramatta by train, Parammatta to Manly by ferry, return with Andrea in the car!

My journey began with a train to Parramatta in the western suburbs of Sydney (the opposite direction to Manly), where a wharf on the Parramatta River was the start of a watery adventure. I caught the first ferry of the day, which after leaving the river, speeded up as it zig-zagged to ferry landings on the north and south sides of Sydney Harbour. I stopped for breakfast on Cockatoo Island – a former penal island, quarry and shipbuilding dock, but now mostly a tourist attraction and camping ground.

The next ferry took me on to Circular Quay to catch my final ferry to Manly, located at the outermost edge of Port Jackson, AKA Sydney Harbour.

The wake of a speeding boat. IN the distance the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House under a sunny blue sky with white clouds.

Manly is a resort, a little like Bondi Beach .

When I arrived there, it really felt like I was on my holidays.

The night before, Patrick and Andrea had shown me an episode of Bondi Rescue which warned that the beach was somewhere to be thoughtful about risks – from rip tides to sharks. So I sat down to watch the world go by and see the surfers, newly aware of the dangers, but still surprised to see a group of lifeguards carrying a prone body up from the waves. It turned out to be an exercise, nevertheless, the risks are real – “During the first official bathing season in 1903, 17 people drowned on Manly Beach.”

To add to my ‘education’, after about half an hour, a woman accosted me, clipboard in hand, to ask me about government measures to allay fears about sharks! I learnt a lot from that interview about the different ways they were doing that.

I suggested they put warnings into the Sydney Transport app, which already warns me about delays due to sports events based on my journey planning etc., but could help me be informed about the shark risk if headed to the beach! My argument was that it would be ‘just in time, and place’ information.

I had a lovely ‘goodbye’ meal together in the Pantry with Patrick, Andrea, Eli, John, Jenny and Elise, before setting off home for a quiet evening and more work on the spider.

Monday 9 January – the spider

I wanted to be sure the interactivity would work reliably, and decided to solder the wires to the Micro:bit controller. My soldering iron wouldn’t work, so had to use the bit heated on the gas cooker to do the job. I soldered to the back of the edge connectors to look neat, and nothing worked. Who knew that the back plates on the edge connector were unconnected internally!?

Some black and red material lie on a table with scissors and three paper patterns for cutting shapes.
Materials and patterns for the outer body of the Spider.

Andrea did me the kindness of using her overlocker to sew together the parts of the body and the head, and I hand sewed a clear plastic protective plate to the head to cover the Micro:bit, with a hole for the two buttons A & B. I had modelled it on a red-backed spider.

Symbolically, the Micro:bit’s LED lights would become the spiders’ eyes, normally 2 to 8 in number in real spiders, but in this case 25! I had used another plastic tub as a receptacle for the legs and wires to be protected. I made the holes necessary for the legs and wires to pass through and finalised the design to incorporate the USB cable. This would allow the Micro:bit to be powered from a cheap rechargeable battery pack and re-programmed, despite the Micro:bot itself being buried inside the head.

Work continues, but I had to acknowledge I wouldn’t be finishing Elias’ toy on this trip!

Tuesday 10 January – Art Gallery of New South Wales and Amadeus at the Sydney Opera House

My last day in Sydney! So going out with a bang, I spent the afternoon revisiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales and viewing all that I missed on the first visit. It is an exceptional place, with rich & stimulating collections that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing. I was impressed with the technology used to fill walls with dynamic and exciting art, some very modern – an aesthetic treat for the eye.

Afterwards, I met Patrick for dinner at Matteo Downtown in Bond Street – a delightful meal as a prelude to watching ‘Amadeus’ at the Sydney Opera House, in itself a double whammy as the play was good, but the interior of the building also delighted.

The modern vaulted interior made of concrete in beautiful curves and geometries.
Interior of Sydney Opera House

All in all, I was completely fulfilled as a parent, to have the shared time, the conversations, the collaborations and the care with Patrick.

Patrick and me standing inside the Opera House with the setting sun and Sydney Central Business District through the window.
Patrick and me gazing in wonder at the interior of the Opera House.

Wednesday 11 January – train to Newcastle

I said my goodbyes and set off, armed with Tim-Tams supplied by Andrea ( she is very thoughtful, and organised!), on the train to Newcastle to meet old acquaintance Peter Twining, Professor of Education (Innovation in Schooling & Educational Technology) at the University of Newcastle.

Peter moved to Australia in 2019 after working at the Open University and in Teacher Education. We had first met in 1990 at an ITTE (Information Technology in Teacher Education) conference in Bangor, North Wales and kept in and out of touch over subsequent years.

Peter met me at Cardiff station on the outskirts of Newcastle, after a very pleasant train journey through wooded valleys and inlets from the sea, especially the part between Hornsby and Gosford.

Peter’s home was on Stockton Beach with an outstanding view over the beach and the Pacific Ocean in a seemingly peaceful and secluded setting on the north side of the Hunter River – a ferry could take you into the town centre on the south side, but otherwise it was a longish drive around to get there.

A panoramic view of a sandy beachfront with trees to either side and breaking waves in the centre under a clear blue sky.
Stockton beach – the view in front of Peter’s house.

Having been out of touch and feeling the peace & seclusion in Peter’s beachfront house obscured three unexpected (to me) matters:

  1. Peter’s wife Hilary had passed away earlier in 2022 and Peter was in the midst of preparing to drive round Australia in a camper van with lovely new partner Cathy – he was going through a real life-changing hiatus.
  2. Stockton Beach was eroding, threatening the road and houses, including Peter’s house, which he has luckily sold.
  3. The erosion was caused by the change in tidal / wave behaviour brought about by the breakwaters for the entrance to the largest coal exporting harbour in the world.

A long catch up with Peter that evening helped me to understand all about the first matter, as we shared our recent histories, but awareness of the other two grew on me over the next days.

Thursday 12 January – book editing, van testing and beer tasting

The day started with me waking before dawn, and deciding to get out on the beach to see th sun rise over the Pacific – needless to say it was beautiful.

Peter had invited me to help with house clearing, which he was in the middle of, but more interestingly he also asked if I would help him by reading the book he was writing with Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith on changing your pedagogical beliefs in the context of technology in education.

I spent most of the morning happily sitting in the living room overlooking the ocean and reading through the draft and adding my reactions. It was very much my interest, and a pleasure to then debate some of the issues with Peter.

Later we went to look at the camper van they were buying to check that it was in good order (there was a saga about that).

Me Peter Twining and Cathy sitting round a table with small glasses of beer for tasting.
Me, Peter Twining and Cathy.

We had dinner at Meriwether Modus in Newcastle – a brewery / bar / restaurant.

I had a lovely vegan tempura burger with chips and shared spicy mushroom wings. We tried two tasting paddles’ of all their beers, but the ‘fruity’ ones were much too sour for my taste. Despite being a bit of traditionalist, I still like an innovative IPA and in general I found the Australian IPAs as good as in any microbrewery in the UK. They had no vegan ice cream so we set off for Derby Street but were frustrated and ended up visiting the supermarket to cater for our pudding lust – something Peter has been noted for!

I really enjoyed eating vegan all the time I stayed with Peter and grateful for the opportunity to give it a go.

Friday 13 January – surf boats, coal, and a flight to Melbourne and Little River

Another early walk and paddle, and even before the sun was up, I saw a small group of early-rising ‘boaties’ rowing out in a surf boat, I assume for exercise and to practice their skills.

There is a long history of life-saving activities from the 1860s when the ‘Stockton Rocket Brigade’ were formed. The sea around the harbour entrance is treacherous with sandbanks and many shipwrecks needed people to be rescued in the early years. As I saw later, the coal ships coming in were guided by three tugs to prevent further shipwrecks.

I was beginning to really get Newcastle’s status as a coal exporting port, as I watched the queue of ships from Peter’s balcony lookout, coming to collect the coal piled up in Newcastle by trains from the mines of the Hunter Valley inland, destined for places like Japan. They moved silently, belying their deadly cargo in relation to global warming.

A large boat is entering a harbour in the distance, in the middle distance are waves breaking on a beach and nearer are barriers to keep cars safe from an eroding road.
A coal boat enters Newcastle harbour. In the foreground barriers prevent cars from being caught up in the erosion.

Only last summer (August 2022) I was on holiday and stumbled on Hambach in the countryside west of Köln, which turned out to be Germany’s largest open-cast brown coal mine. Greta Thunburg has only recently been visiting another nearby mine, were a protest to stop its expansion is underway. Ironic that I should stumble on both Hambach and Newcastle, since my voyage to Germany in particular was partly to prove my electric car could do such a road-trip without too much trouble. It seems I’m fated to visit some of the most dangerous places for our planet’s future.

Later, Peter took me to the airport to catch a flight to Melbourne, hire a hybrid car and drive to meet Gina in her lovely house in Little River, which I found in the dark. Although Gina was an early sleeper, she got up, as we had to spend some time picking up on the fifteen years or so since we last met!

Saturday 14 January – the Koorie Heritage Centre and Victoria Gallery in Melbourne

Gina was busy organising a birthday treat for her friend Leanne, but her group of friends generously welcomed me to their birthday breakfast. I learnt that Leanne had just registered for PhD and wanted to look at Computational Thinking in primary education.

Like many such students, there is no support group outside of her supervisory arrangements. I hope she will join the group I and Mags have formed, and which has been so useful to its members (and me).

I took the train into Melbourne to visit the Koorie Heritage Trust and the National Gallery of Victoria. There was a tour in progress within the Koorie, but the young guide had no problem letting me listen in, as he talked about his Aboriginal heritage and explained some of the artefacts in their collection. Their shop was filled with gifts made by First Nations people, with the promise of the profits being returned to them, so I got a couple of presents there. I later visited the National Gallery of Victoria down the road and had a look round their modern art collections.

I had missed that their Indigenous art collection was in the Ian Potter Centre, a building next door to the Koorie Heritage centre, but luckily I had time to walk back there before closing – well worth it, it was tremendous.

In the foreground is a large horizontal canvas, and hanging on the wall two rows of six indigenous paintings are juxtaposed.
Indigenous paintings, horizontal and vertical, in the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria

Sunday 15 January – Bunjil in the You Yangs

Gina and I rose early to drive into Melbourne and pick up our friend and ex-Ultralab-colleague Ali Gee who was house / dog sitting there.

Since we last saw each other back in around 2008, Ali had been an active Voluntary Service Overseas volunteer, busy in The Gambia and in Papua New Guinea applying her expertise in education & technology. It was a real pleasure to be reunited, and we spent the day walking and talking in the You Yangs Regional Park.

First we took Gina’s dog Leo for a walk, encountering a mob of Kangaroos at the entrance to the park. Gina led us to a geoglyph (an arrangement of rocks) about the size of a football field, which Gina challenged us to guess what. My best guess was it might be a figure of an animal (after wondering if it was for corralling animals).

Later, after another scrumptious breakfast, we went without Leo to climb Flinders Peak, the central mountain in the You Yangs. Only just a mountain, at 1034 feet, it was an easy ascent on well made paths.

Part way up, we stopped to view the geoglyph below, which turned out to be the outline of a giant Wedge-tailed Eagle, the form taken by the local Dreamtime creator deity named Bunjil. The massive granite boulders that surrounded the path, the smiling & friendly climbers we met and the views from the top were fantastic, but the best part was the company, and our conversations on the way up and down!

Three people standing on a beach under blue sunny skies between three wooden totems decorated to look like four women.
Ali Gee, Gina Cathro and me on Geelong beach between broadwalk Bollards

After the You Yangs, we drove to Geelong to enjoy an ice cream and a stroll around the foreshore viewing Jan Mitchell‘s broadwalk bollards, before returning to Little River to have an enjoyable meal in the local pub. It really felt like an authentic Australian family venue.

Monday 16 January – Brambuk in Gariwerd

I set off from Little River in the hired car heading for Gariwerd, AKA the Grampians National Park – there has been controversy about its naming. The mountains are quite unlike the Scottish Grampians!.

On leaving, I paused again in the You Yangs to take the short walk to the Big Rock which was a significant aboriginal site, and that’s how it felt. I was lucky to see a male ‘superb fairywren’, a well deserved name, chasing after several females between the massive granite rocks. The male superb fairywren is known to pluck yellow petals and display them to females in courtship display!

I continued towards Ballarat, at first on dirt roads, stopping briefly in Buninyong to shop for lunch. On the way, at Anakie, I saw signs for ‘Koala Country’, and the wooded road through Steiglitz looked good for Koala spotting but I didn’t get lucky.

Steiglitz is an old gold mining settlement in the Brisbane Ranges National Park (not anywhere near Brisbane), whose population at the height of its success was 2000, dropping to 8 at one point.

Finally I arrived at Halls Gap and the Eco YHA Hostel (YHA stands for Youth Hostel Association). What do you mean I am not a youth!?!?

I had booked a quiet double bed in a private room and enjoyed the lovely communal atmosphere in the shared kitchen and living areas. It was just the same as the YHA experience I had when travelling in Vienna with my youngest son Sasha on a music-culture break in 2009.

I stopped by the visitor centre, which had just closed for the day, but the guide on her way to her car told me I could walk around the centre and have a look at the wetlands behind, so I did and was immediately rewarded by grazing kangaroos and also a good look at the Brambuk cultural centre which had sadly closed the year before. It was owned and managed by Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung people from five Aboriginal communities with historic links to the Gariwerd-Grampians ranges and the surrounding plains. I suspect it is a hiatus, as a refurbishment is promised and a re-opening later in 2023. I could see it was set up to offer Aboriginal experiences to tourists. The design of the roof of the building was modelled on a Cockatoo (a local totem, named Brambuk) with outstretched wings, also intended to echo the surrounding mountains. Cockatoos were in abundance, the equivalent of pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

A girl sits at a picnic bench feeding a small flock of Cockatoos.
Cockatoos in Halls Gap

I asked the youth hostel manager where could I see the sunset best, and he directed me to Reed’s lookout a short, windy drive out of Halls Gap.

Sensational. See the photo at the start of this blog.

At one point, after the sun had set (and most tourists had left!), Venus and Saturn, Jupiter and Mars were hanging over a pristine-looking Gariwerd, with its immense expanse of unspoilt bush and saw-tooth peaks piercing a velvety cyan sky.

Tuesday 17 January – rock painting in Gariwerd

I was slow to start this day, but got down to the visitor centre to ask for advice on visiting rock paintings, one of the strengths of the area is that some 90% of Victoria’s rock art is here. There are five curated spots in Gariwerd, but to visit them all in a day was just too much. I chose to drive to the more remote two in the south and west of the park and the visitor centre suggested a route, which they assured me was on good roads. In fact they were all dirt roads through the middle of nowhere, luckily not so rough as to demand a four-wheel drive, just slow work. I saw no-one else all day, neither on the road nor at the rock painting sites, although I was blessed with sightings of Emus and an Echidna on the way.

At the Manja shelter I had a twenty-minute walk along a well made path, brushing through ferns and wonderful wild flowers at times and across a boggy patch on a board walk, but not overly strenuous. The anticipation was raised by huge rocky outcrops, acting like sentinels on the way, and at the site a sprawling, huge and colourful beast of a rock below which was the shelter, fenced in to prevent defacement. The paintings were faint and took time to discern, but the knowledge of their age combined with the drama of the overhanging rock was compelling and moving. I walked back feeling I had been somewhere significant.

At the Billimina shelter all this was amplified. A shorter, steeper climb, although entirely manageable, went past a small waterfall and through flower-laden bush ending up at a gargantuan overhanging rock – even the widest lens on my phone could not capture how it felt to be standing under it. Here the paintings were more prominent and numerous, and there was a real sense of being in a place where people had been for tens of thousands of years – profoundly amazing.

A massive overhanging rock, at the foot a fenced off area behind which is Aboriginal rock art.
Billimina shelter

I returned to Halls Gap in the dusk & dark on the main roads going around the park. The sheer number of kangaroos springing up everywhere surprised me, and I found myself braking sharply to avoid one careless jaywalker (jayjumper?).

Wednesday 18 January – Tower Hill and the Great Ocean Drive

I left Gariwerd and headed south to the Tower Hill reserve, where I had booked a guided tour. Tower Hill is a former volcano – a circular caldera with a central island contained by a lake. With a chequered past of colonial abuse as a site, it is now restored to a beautiful natural reserve and its cultural centre tells us about First Nations people – their life and culture.

Until now I had been ticking off my mental bingo card of Australian things to see, and so far had not seen a Koala or a Black Swan (except at a long distance). So imagine my delight as I pulled up at the visitor centre and in the tree in front of me was a nonchalant Koala! Later I saw Black Swans on the lake.

We soon started the tour, about fifteen folk, adults & children, sat in the cultural centre and invited to sing songs and hear stories of Aboriginal life. Brett, our cool and funny guide showed us wooden tools and told us stories, some harrowing, about his family and his people’s experiences, but all with a gentle and forgiving voice.

Brett Clarke, dressed in a colourful wooly hat and me with a kangaroo skin hat and blue jacket.
Brett Clarke and me in my new kangaroo skin hat

We then went for a walk round the park, encouraged by Brett to taste several tasty plants and we continued a friendly dialogue with Brett as we walked.

He also told us about his continuing practice as an artist and musician and told us about his exhibition in the gallery in Warrnambool, a nearby town. Warrnambool happened to be on my way for the next leg of my journey, back East along the Great Ocean Road to return to Gina’s house in Little River. I stopped by the gallery and really enjoyed seeing and hearing Brett’s work.

The Great Ocean Road seemed to me in three parts, at least starting from Warrnambool.

First, relatively flat and without great views except for the stops at lookouts for the Bay of Islands, the Twelve Apostles. I stopped for lunch at Port Campbell.

Second, I enjoyed the tall stands of trees in the forests of the Great Otway National Park and seeing the vistas occasionally opening up (for example at Johanna Beach) before stopping at the resort in Apollo Bay for an ice cream.

Third, the stretch along to Geelong which for the most part hugs the beach and then rises to round headlands and repeat. Delightful and a proper ocean drive!

I returned in time to chat again with Gina briefly, discovering more about her current work as a learning designer.

Thursday 19 January

A pleasant conversation with Gina’s friend Margaret over breakfast, before setting off to catch the flight home.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the landscape visible from the plane as we flew over central Australia – it reminded me of many of the paintings I’d seen, in both colour and form.

Land seen from a plan flying at 30,000 feet or so consisting of long streaks of trees over a red ochre ground.
Central Australia from the air


I returned to Dublin early on 20 January in time to do a little work with Louise, my colleague on the OurKidCode project before joining Nina and Glenn and Mags for our postponed Christmas lunch.

Mags and I then spent a little time preparing for her viva the following week (did I mention Dr Margaret Mary Amond got her PhD?) before setting off home for Brentwood arriving at 3am after a delayed flight and a hike through East London.

I didn’t surface for two days – exhausted but supremely happy.

I had been delighted on so many fronts – happy times with family, excellent catch-ups with friends and never-ending intellectual, political & aesthetic stimulation.

I can’t wait to go back.

Lighthouse coding

A lighthouse lit up at night time on an isolated rock in a rough sea.
Blackrock Island photo by Helen Geraghty Munnelly

This November, I have had the pleasure of working with colleagues Dermot Walsh, Farnan Harte, Kevin Munelly and Adrian Ormsby. They are the principals at Cornanool, Ardagh, Quay and Clogher primary schools respectively in Co. Mayo, Ireland. They formed a Digital Creative Cluster project to combine digital technology in an art work made collaboratively across the schools.

In truth the privilege was the chance to work with their energetic, imaginative and polite students.

Student at Ardagh school designing an art work of a light bulb incorporating an LED
Student at Ardagh school designing an art work of a light bulb incorporating an LED

My goal was to establish the competence to use Microbit and LED technology to include in a work of art to be developed.

Over two sessions, we:

Given a free rein, the art produced included many spaceships, cars, light bulbs and signet rings, as well as a couple of lighthouses.

Artwork of colourful lighthouse with LED from Ardagh School
Artwork of colourful lighthouse with LED from Ardagh School

This inspired discussion with the principals and raised the idea to focus on the flashing lighthouse, with its symbolism of identity and function of communication, as an exercise to make a dynamic Microbit project.

Could students code the Microbit to simulate a lighthouse?

We explored the LEDs on the Microbit and discussed the pause function in Makecode and decided we could, but after some introduction, it was left as an exercise for students to complete after I left.

So last night, I slept restlessly with troubling thoughts of unfinished business. I’ve learnt to get up and do something when this happens, rather than lose sleep in fitful discomfort!

So this is fruit of my feverish night mind – a simple Microbit program that I could have offered as a solution.

The challenge to you, is to run my program and study its output, before you inspect the code, while imagining you are:

  • Out to sea on a clear Christmas night off the western Irish Coast.
  • The battery is flat on the GPS.
  • All you can do is spot stars and lighthouses.
  • Where are you and which direction are you heading?
  • What has this to do with Christmas?

You can find out by downloading my program, unzip it and drag the hex file into a new project in Makecode, run it there with the emulator or download it to a Microbit and then imagine you are seeing the lights on the Microbit as objects in the landscape before you.

If you want, you can print my poster for this challenge on card, cut out the window to see the microbit display having fixed it to the back, and mount it on the wall in class for students to look at and attempt to work it out. Email me with their answer to the challenge and I’ll send the fully commented code.

Can you answer the questions, before you read the code?

Can you answer them after inspecting the code?

Merry Christmas to all the learners (including principals and me) in the four schools and all my colleagues, friends and family!

Hints to help:

UPDATE: Here is the fully commented code which explains everything I hope!

Computers in Education Society of Ireland Webinar: Knowledge Creation

I joined this panel on knowledge creation, responding to the Irish Department of Education and Skills report ‘Digital Learning 2020: Reporting on practice in Early Learning and Care, Primary and Post-Primary Contexts’.

I was asked to respond the following eight questions, and here are my prepared answers:

1. Who or what triggered your interest in the educational use of technology?

My first contact with educational technology was the arrival of microcomputers in 1978/9 – the secondary school where I taught Mathematics and Computer Studies took receipt of a Research Machines 380Z computer, and I took it home every weekend to learn how to use it and how to exploit it. To upskill myself I wrote a computer program in BASIC to make a snooker ball bounce around the screen – when I showed it to children, I was surprised at their enthusiasm to engage with it , even running to the cupboard to find a protractor to hold against the screen to estimate the angle they should fire the ball! The rest is history.

2. What is your primary motivation behind your educational use of technology?

To make the abstract concrete!

3. Describe in your experience effective educational use of technology in formal education.

To enhance the expressive and evaluative power of learners.

4. Describe in your experience effective learning outcomes from the educational use of technology in formal education.

Deeper and broader insight into knowledge coupled with useful skills and the character to persist with learning using technology as an augmentation of learning capacity – competence.

5. What is your philosophy of education?

To recognise the ‘engine’ of learning that every child has, but which is sometimes diminished by a lack of opportunity to exercise free choice and effective action! In other words, I am learner centred.

6. In your experience how is knowledge transferred?

Through expression (a kind of performance of competence) and evaluation (a check on the validity of that performance). Expression of competence may be in many modalities and media, but primarily internal thinking, natural language and formal (computer executable) code. Evaluation (of expressions) (internal check, natural social interaction and formal computer outcomes)

7. What pedagogy best supports the educational use of technology and why?

One that recognises the particular support that technology offers in such a learning model.

8. Formal education in the 21st century should look like….. because….

Something which has designed democratic responses to all the needs a learner has. Because I think that learners must increasingly take charge of their learning.

[ Updated for spelling and minor enhancements, 19/12/2020 ]

What influences teachers’ uptake of research informed practice?

This poster has been fermenting for some time, and I recently wheeled it out in the context of the Network for Educational Action Research in Ireland (NEARI). Then, today, Monday 15th April 2019, Tom Sherrington published a blog with the title ‘From research to the classroom:  roadblocks, resistance and blind faith‘, and I had to get on with it!

My take is that teachers are hemmed in by influences, rather like the wall in Pink Floyd’s song (I bought the laser disc!) and we should not be surprised that engagement is problematic. Tom Sherrington makes this much less abstract in his analysis, imagining the responses that teachers might make.

I was provoked to think about these ideas for the Computing at School Research group back in November 2015 and at the same meeting I presented the following analysis of stereotypes of teachers engagement with research in education:

Levels of engagement by teachers in research

I feel that we should be very tolerant of teachers’ varied and varying engagement – apart from the profession itself being time-poor, people have their lives to live!

Programming Oracy, or how do we speak a computer program?

  1. Try speaking the computer program above out loud to a friend and ask them to write down the words you say.
  2. Predict what output the program will make.
  3. Try making it in Scratch and see if it does what you predicted.

In speaking it, how did you make clear that the ‘say my variable’ piece was outside the ‘repeat until my variable greater than nine’ piece?

Questions like this can be revealing when students are asked to speak their programs out loud – Felienne Hermans has been blogging and writing a paper about this.

I find her work inspiring, as it draws attention to pedagogy from another field – reading – and applies it to our thinking about learning programming.

Some of the most useful research isn’t evidence of one method being slightly better than an another, but offers professional teachers an idea that can be used to inspire their creative take on pedagogy. In Felienne’s paper it is the “idea that in teaching attention should be devoted to how to read source code aloud.” Not only is this a good trigger for designing lessons, but the experiment, to invite learners to read out code and examine how they read it, is almost certainly a learning experience in its own right.

Computational Thinking in Primary

@AttyMassNS "At the recent [CESI] Conference, we mentioned our plans to explore decomposition and patterns/generalisations through Damhsa/Irish dancing. Integrates with/comhthathú le Seachtain na Gaeilge" March 2018
@AttyMassNS     “At the recent [CESI] Conference, we mentioned our plans to explore decomposition and patterns/generalisations through Damhsa/Irish dancing. Integrates with/comhthathú le Seachtain na Gaeilge”     March 2018
I was delighted last November to be asked to write this  Research Paper on Computational Thinking for the Irish National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and now it is out.

I couldn’t do it on my own, so I invited a team of colleagues and friends in the Computational Thinking for Life group at Trinity College Dublin 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 being 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 and colleagues 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.

As well as benefiting from their collective wisdom, the result is a chance to exercise ideas I have been developing since completing my PhD in 2013, but material from the PhD also gets an airing. I hope it is helpful.

The system and the individual

It’s been a week!

Tá badge
Tá badge

First, Friday last –I hear about the success of the ‘Tá’ (Yes) in the Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment to their constitution that forbade abortion – no more.

Joan Baez photo
By Jtgphoto [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Then Monday – I have the moving pleasure of hearing a concert by the 77-years-young Joan Baez, singing with power at the Albert Hall.

Sink film still
Sink film still

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?

PERSPECTIVE 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.
7. Open, trusting relationships enable effective dialogue 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.

Evaluating the impact of learning – Kirkpatrick

Kirkpatrick - a framework for evaluating learning
Kirkpatrick – a framework for evaluating learning

Ever since I came across Kirkpatrick’s  framework for evaluating training, I felt it was good common sense – nothing as practical as a good framework! Indeed, such good common sense that there are others who should be given some of the credit.

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.

Keynote voting wearables at CESI conference

Richard Millwood and Elizabeth Oldham presenting at CESI conference 2018 with voting wearables
Richard Millwood and Elizabeth Oldham presenting at CESI conference 2018 with voting wearables [Photo: Stephen Howell]

I had a mad idea.

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:

Richard Millwood, Sean Manning, Dawn O'Sullivan, Dominick Donnelly, Kathleen Touhy & Liam OCallanain in Cork
Richard Millwood, Sean Manning, Dawn O’Sullivan, Dominick Donnelly, Kathleen Touhy & Liam OCallanain in Cork

In Donegal, Sharon, Pauric and Claire collaborated to make their solution:

Richard Millwood, Sharon Lee & Pauric O'Donnell in Donegal
Richard Millwood, Sharon Lee & Pauric O’Donnell in Donegal

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:

The Barbie design think process - Elizabeth Mullan & Maeve Cormican
The Barbie design think process – Elizabeth Mullan & Maeve Cormican

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.

Making Elizabeth's wearable
Making Elizabeth’s wearable

And the result (from a distance it looked OK!):

Elizabeth's wearable
Elizabeth’s wearable

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!

Three voters and a speaker in testing
Three voters and a speaker in testing

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-B-speaker’:

Program for 'microbit-audience'
Program for ‘microbit-audience’

Program for 'microbit-A-speaker'
Program for ‘microbit-A-speaker’

Program for 'microbit-B-speaker'
Program for ‘microbit-B-speaker’

I leave it to the reader to puzzle out how it all worked and will welcome suggestions for improvement!

Mental models to support competence in computer programming

Mental models

These are the mind’s ‘mechanisms’ for explaining and predicting phenomena. I have written more in my PhD, and you can find good expansions of the idea in Michael Simmons’ post or in the Wikipedia article on Mental Model The idea originated with Craik in World War II and elaborated by Johnson-Laird amongst others, all of whose work made me interested in developing computational models(!) of mental models – a subject of interest to me in the late eighties when I was a member of the London Mental Models group.

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.

Mental models in Computer Programming

This is my second draft diagram which represents four five key mental models that a learner must develop (and continue to develop) as they increase competence in programming. It has been much improved after listening (and reacting) to Jane Waite talk about abstraction in programming. I have now made a poster – Mental models to support competence in computer programming – for the London Computing Education Research Symposium on June 11th 2018.

Programming - five areas of mental model
Programming – five areas of mental model

Problem Comprehension

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).

Programming Language

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.

Notional Machine

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.

Competence = knowledge + craft + character

Competency = knowledge + craft + character

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.

The Learner at the Centre of Educational Design

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.

Here is a printable poster of the analysis: The Learner at the Centre of educational design


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.

The problem

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?

Alternative solutions

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

Knock knock! – an interpretation of ‘body syntonic’

I recently worked with colleagues to offer similar workshops at two conferences – SCoTENS 2017 in Dundalk (with Pamela Cowan from Queens University Belfast and Elizabeth Oldham from Trinity College Dublin), Ireland and ATEE 2017 in Dubrovnik, Croatia (with Nina Bresnihan, Glenn Strong and Elizabeth Oldham, all from Trinity College Dublin).

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?).

A microworld is a slippery concept, but Richard Noss and Celia Hoyles neatly sum up its importance in their book ‘Windows on Mathematical Meanings: Learning Cultures and Computers‘:

“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?
Ghost: Boo!
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?

Turtlestitching – programming embroidery

Automated Landscape as an embroidery
Automated Landscape as an embroidery

My first introduction to programming an embroidery machine came at the Scratch 2015 conference in Amsterdam, when Andrea Mayr-Stalder from Vienna presented the Turtlestitch programming environment based on Snap. I didn’t take that much notice, however lovely the designs and the possibilities were.

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:

Artemis Papert's petal
Artemis Papert’s petal

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. [UPDATE March 2023 – here is a video we made in 2019 to illustrate!] 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 purchased a Brother Innov-is F440E embroidery machine in September 2017 from SOSBrother in Bray, I resolved to create an opportunity to play with colleagues and friends using Turtlestich to explore programming and embroidery, and thus was born the Turtlestitching workshop held today, Thursday 19th October as part of EU Code Week.

The introduction that Susan from SOSBrother gave me in to the machine’s operation was invaluable and I tried to pass on all I could remember to my collaborators.

Mags created designs seeded by our date of birth:

Mary Jo followed the brilliant Turtlestitch cards to create some lovely interlocking circles:

Mary Jo's simple but effective design
Mary Jo’s simple but effective design

Jake was like a duck to water, his work here modelled by Mags:

Jake's pattern
Jake’s pattern modelled by Mags

John’s design started black and white, but became really beautiful when using the multi-coloured thread:

John's design
John’s design

Glenn inspected, analysed and modified an existing pattern to fit the Brother’s 18 by 13 cm space:

Glenn's pattern
Glenn’s pattern

And after they all went away, I made my own Automated Landscape (the illustration at the start of this blog) into an embroidery, using the wonderful multi-coloured thread.

The workshop taught us several things:

  • “move 10 steps” produced a 2mm stitch, which was a ‘good’ size stitch;
  • going over patterns twice or even three times could make stronger designs;
  • multicoloured thread could make spectacular embroideries;
  • more time was spent discussing computational issues than embroidery issues;
  • it was hard fun!

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!

Computational Thinking and Art

Automated Landscape - Richard Millwood (1971)
Automated Landscape – Richard Millwood (1971)

I recently made a presentation with Mags Amond at the Art Teachers Association of Ireland‘s 2017 Annual Conference in the National Gallery of Ireland. I spoke a little about technology and learning, technology and art and then gave some examples of our own experiences and thoughts. You can read our presentation ‘LED by the heart’ here.

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:

  1. Draw a steep zig-zag line to make a mountain range
  2. Draw a less steep zig-zag line to make a range of foothills
  3. Draw a smoother zig-zag line to make rolling countryside
  4. Extend the lines thinly to divide the space into geometric sections
  5. 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.

pimping their badges
pimping their badges

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:

butterfly class embroidery
butterfly class embroidery

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.

Eclipse road trip 2017

Great Basin View from I15 near Fillmore, Utah
Great Basin View from I15 near Fillmore, Utah

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.

Las Vegas Strip reflected in my sunglasses
Las Vegas Strip reflected in my sunglasses

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.

Las Vegas to North Rim
Las Vegas to North Rim

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.

Sun rise at Grand Canyon
Sun rise at Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon lit by sunrise
Grand Canyon lit by sunrise

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.

East Rim Overlook
East Rim Overlook

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.

North Rim to Ogden
North Rim to Ogden

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.

Bryce Canyon from Inspiration Point
Bryce Canyon from Inspiration Point


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:

Red Canyon panorama
Red Canyon panorama

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.

Ogden to Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho
Ogden to Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho

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:

Shoshone-Bannocks museum example of Porcupine Quillwork
Shoshone-Bannocks museum example of Porcupine Quillwork

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.

Four famous light bulbs lit on Dec 20 1951 proving the potential for nuclear power
Four famous light bulbs lit on Dec 20 1951 proving the potential for nuclear power

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.

Lost River mountain range sunset
Lost River mountain range sunset

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.

Flat battery sign
Flat battery sign

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.

Me and Dan waiting for the eclipse
Me and Dan waiting for the eclipse

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.

Me trying to photograph totality
Me trying to photograph totality

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.

Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho to Sedona
Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho to Sedona

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).

Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum in Fillmore
Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum in Fillmore

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 slaughtering  of 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.

Marble Canyon
Marble Canyon

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.

Derek and the sunset
Derek and the sunset

Finally, we enjoyed a delightful meal at the Mariposa (butterfly). A real pleasure to have such quality time with Derek.

Thursday 24th

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.

I drove 2,332 miles all told.

An Unwinnable Constituency Perspective

One of the students on the Masters in Technology and Learning that I direct at Trinity College Dublin works as an assistant to a senator in Ireland’s parliament. She found out that I chaired the Brentwood and Ongar Constituency Labour Party and mentioned it to colleagues in Leinster House. This led to an invitation to speak there on my view of the Corbyn phenomenon. 

I explained that I wasn’t a Corbyn insider, but that nevertheless, I would love to tell them what I did know from the perspective of Brentwood and Ongar constituency.

I titled the presentation ‘An Unwinnable Constituency Perspective’ and gave it on 13 July 2017 to an interested audience of advisors and members of the Irish Labour Party who had interesting questions!

Although their curiosity was driven by the huge rise in membership around Corbyn’s leadership, I was more interested in explaining that there was value in our effort in Brentwood, even when you have little chance of winning, characterised by these seven aims:

  1. Fulfil a need for like-minded people to discuss politics
  2. Provide political education
  3. Develop campaigning skills, and apply in marginals
  4. Maintain local and parish council representation
  5. Encourage and support young people
  6. Apply professional and personal experience to the development of local and national policy
  7. Offer voters the chance to support Labour