Curtains for Sashiko

I was pleased to remix the Turtlestitch project which I had previously used to fix my shirt and jersey to repair a torn curtain.

Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery technique to decoratively repair and strengthen old clothes. I had written a Turtlestitch program to stitch a spider’s web to hold fabric together.

A torn curtain with embroidery stabilising material and ruler.
I started by measuring some stabilising material to slip inside the curtain.

Torn curtain material with a few hand stitches to hold it together in preparation for repair.
The torn curtain material with stabilising material inserted and held in place with a few hand stitches.

Torn curtain material with a few hand stitches and sellotape to hold it together in preparation for repair.
Sellotape added to help the embroidery machine frame hold the curtain material as I tried to make the embroidery reach the edge.

Torn curtain material with hand stitches and sellotape now clamped into an embroidery frame.
Now clamped into an embroidery frame.

Material in an embroidery machine frame being stitched with three lines of thread.
Begin stitching the spider’s web.

Material in an embroidery machine frame being stitched with nine lines of thread.
Halfway through the radial threads.

Material in an embroidery machine frame being stitched with lines of thread radiating from a point and cross-connecting lines to look like a spider's web.
Almost completed the ‘rungs’.

Material finished being stitched with lines of thread radiating from a point and cross-connecting lines to look like a spider's web.

Material finished being stitched with lines of thread radiating from a point and cross-connecting lines to look like a spider's web hanging in a window.
Hanging in the window.

From beginning to end around an hour’s work one morning – having had the code already written and just adapted it to make a 180 degree web rather than a full circle.

Now I can relax, knowing I am unlikely to make that tear worse!

One World – Multiple Realities

Your reality and my reality naturally differ through our lived experience and cultural heritage. This doesn’t mean we don’t share realities – the sun also rises. The imperative is get to know others’ perspectives and to build shared realities, specifically where they practically matter to improve our lives.

I said that.

“I’ll let you be in my dreams, if I can be in yours”

Bob Dylan said that.

An upside down image of the planet earth surrounded by handholding cartoon characters representing different cultural heritage with in the middle, approximately where the Gaza strip is, a small Christmas tree with a Jewish star of David at the top and baubles coloured like Palestinian flags.

So this became the theme for my birthday party, held on 17 December 2023, in the Essex Arms pub in Brentwood, in part inspired by events in the Middle East and in part by the rejuvenating conversations at Congregation and my blog entry which is the admission criteria.

I wanted to celebrate the positive idea of ‘one world – multiple realities’ against a backdrop of war and killing, trying to deal with the misery, by tackling it straight on with appeals for understanding, recognition and peace. And a little love.

My friend Derek Kortlandt devised a fiendish quiz to help break the ice, which was ‘open book’ in the sense of encouraging internet search and collaboration. I will update this post to give the answers on New Years Day 2024.

My 40 or so guests were mostly living in Brentwood, Essex, with a few online from France, Ireland and Basildon(!), but the big surprise was the range of 26 cultural heritages represented amongst those invited: Australia, Canada, China, Czechia, Denmark, El Salvador, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguy, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, The Solomon Islands, Thailand, USA, Venezuala, Wales, Zimbabwe.

I asked my guests to read a poem, sing a song or tell a story on that theme. Here is a selection of them, not necessarily in the order they were performed!

Heidi, assisted by Sue and Keiko, invited us, in groups, to sing a simple canon in German often sung at birthdays. Here are the English words.

It takes little to be happy

It takes little to be happy,
and he who is happy is a king!

August Mühling

Eric, as well as entertaining us on the saxophone, read the following poem, saying afterwards:

“Delivering the poem made me feel good in the sense that I was doing something (a very small something) in the way of putting a wrong to right.”

White comedy

I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded by a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.

People called me white jack
Some hailed me as a white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off the white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts
I waz condemned to a white mass,
Don’t worry,
I shall be writing to de Black House.

Benjamin Zepheniah

Razia read this, written by a famous Bengali polymath and Nobel prize winner.

Where The Mind Is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore

I read a pair of poems, one by a Palestinian poet who was killed only recently in the Gaza strip and another by an Israeli poet which satisfied me as a Mathematician, despite its topic.

If I must die

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze–
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself–
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love

If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale

Refaat Alareer

The diameter of the bomb

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimetres
and the diameter of its effective range about seven metres,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometres,
enlarges the circle considerably
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

Yehuda Amichai

Katherine sang us the Venezuelan national anthem, after thanking the UK for accepting her and her family here.

Gloria al Bravo Pueblo

Glory to the brave people
who shook off the yoke,
The law respecting,
virtue and honour.

“Down with chains!”
Shouted the Lord;
And the poor man in his hovel
For Freedom implored.
Upon this holy name
Trembled in great dread
The vile selfishness
That had once prevailed.
Upon this holy name
Trembled in great dread
The vile selfishness
That had once prevailed.


Let’s scream out aloud:
“Death to oppression!”
Oh, loyal countrymen:
Strength is unity;
And from the Empyrean
The Supreme Author
A sublime spirit
To the people blew;
And from the Empyrean
The Supreme Author
A sublime spirit
To the people blew.


United by bonds
That Heaven has formed,
The entire America
Exists as a Nation;
And if ever despotism
Raises again its voice,
Then follow the example
That Caracas gave;
And if ever despotism
Raises again its voice,
Then follow the example
That Caracas gave.

Vicente Salias

Fran explained to me that she would usually read poetry to herself, all alone, but out-loud, and that it was cathartic for her.

Amazing Peace

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

Dr Maya Angelou

I tried to raise the mood with this recently discovered ancient work, on my favourite theme.

The Caveman’s Lament

me think about her when sun rises
me think about her when sun sets
me say to her how much me love her
she tell me love invent not yet

me make cave all warm and cosy
me lie bearskin on cave floor
me play song of love on bone flute
she choose cave of Tim next door

me no more go out hunt mammoth
me throw spear too short or long
me sit in cave me paint her picture
she say me got perspective wrong

me cook meal to show me love her –
diplodocus with fried beans –
she say food anachronistic
me not know what this means

stone age mighty hard for lovers
yet rub two flints look what you get
small sparks lead to big inferno
but she say love invent not yet

homo unrequitus

Brian Bilston

Alissa, with roots in the Solomon Islands, improvised a generous and delightful birthday greeting, speaking in both Thai and English.

S?uk?hs??nt? w?n keid khu? Richard khu? p?n khn c?k??ng c?bu?

Happy birthday Mr. Richard, you are a generous and charitable person.

N? k?r deinth?ng k?hxng ch?wit k?hx h??? khu? d?? r?b khw?m s?uk?h thuk mum th?? khu? d?? dein

In your journey of life, may you receive happiness in every corner you walk.

K?hx h??? bu? th?? khu? bric?kh p? kl?b m? r?xy ph?n thè?

May the merit you donate be returned a hundred thousand fold.

Tom read this well known prose-poem, well worth listening to again.

Desiderata – Words for Life

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann

Mary from County Cork, Ireland, but soon to be in New York for Christmas, told me in discussion later: “one needs to abandon anchors altogether and embrace the drift of the world because anchors are only an illusion. I know it seems like terror and loss, but in my reading of [the poem] (maybe wrongly!) the terror and loss are also part of the illusion and a normal part of life, since we can’t help but get attached to things in this constantly-drifting sea of life.”

The World

I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.

William Bronk

I brought our readings to a close with this slightly more hopeful, albeit fanciful, poem by my favourite author (well, one of them…).

Torn Map

Once, by mistake,
she tore a map in half.
She taped it back, but crookedly.
Now all the roads ended in water.
There were mountains
right next to her hometown.
Wouldn’t it be nice
if that were true?
I’d tear a map
and be right next to you.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Wishing all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

A stamp of an image of the world with the text 'One World - Multiple Realities' arranged around as a circle


At the party I mentioned my admiration for Hannah Arendt’s simple prophylactic advice to reverse the tide of totalitarianism, as told by Lyndsey Stonebridge:

“participatory democracy as small as it gets”.

In 2024, I hope to persuade my friends (local and online) to watch together the ‘Hannah Arendt‘ film biography by von Trotta and to then read & discuss the new book ‘We Are Free to Change the World‘ by Lyndsey Stonebridge in our local Labour Party Socialist Book club – perhaps back in the Essex Arms?

Who’s with me?

Speaking to my boiler

My boiler clock stopped working.

A somewhat stereotypical seasonal response to the dropping temperatures and clock changing back last night!

I do hope the central heating engineers out there are raking it in right now, but I am sorry to say, not from me.

Like my late father, I am perhaps too careful with my money despite being able to afford a call out. But for me, it is an opportunity and incentive to experiment with home automation.

I looked at the price of smart controls and blanched. Maybe instead I could replace the aged thermostat with a smart plug? I had to do some considered thinking about how that would work, and paused for a couple of days to do a little online research and devise a solution before deciding I could go for it.

The smart speakers I have are Echo Dot 5s, which can measure room temperature. I planned to write Alexa ‘routines’ to respond to changes (up or down) and do the timing too, so that it is not on overnight. A simple kind of programming, but interesting to think about as it means setting up a feedback-loop to operate at certain times only.

All I needed to do is understand how the thermostat was wired, and instead of the temperature alone switching the boiler heating on, I could perhaps replace it with essentially a home made programmable relay to do the work of thermostat and timer?

The inner workings of the thermostat are simple enough, but I had to think out loud all the connections and label them up before I went further (John Davitt would be proud).

Of course I had already turned off the boiler in the consumer unit and at it’s fused spur outlet for double safety.

The trick was to take the ‘switched’ wire, which needed to be live when the new ‘thermostat/timer’ called for heating, and wire it into an ordinary plug which then is inserted into the smart socket, which can switch it on and off.

Here is the final wiring. Note that the plug needs no neutral connection(!), hence the earth sleeving to indicate that the blue wire was used for earth (for safety) in the lamp flex I used:

And after screwing it all together and plugging it in where the thermostat used to be:

I was pleased to be able to recycle an old plug and especially an old switched socket from my store in the garage, so if anything goes wrong with the smart socket, I can take it out of the equation, plug in the plug and still control the heating manually with the switch on the old socket.

Finally I had to write two routines for Alexa to respond to temperature change and, for now, notify me it has done so, to check it is working. These are simple to make in the Alexa app on my iPhone. Ziggy is the name for my bedroom Echo Dot 5, which I decided to use to monitor my small flat’s temperature. In the living room, I have an Eco Flex, currently on sale at less than £5 on Amazon, which is an amazing bargain! Sadly it has no thermometer function, but it does play music on my hifi and let me control the lights and the rest of the house.

Here are the two routines:

  • first, ‘Turn on heating’ to turn on the smart socket when the temperature is below 17C, within a specified time period;
  • second ‘Turn off heating’ to turn off the smart socket when it is above 18C – at any time. By saying ‘Alexa disable turn on heating’ as I leave the house, I can ensure I am not wasting energy when away.

Total outlay, £7.50 for the smart socket.


No, this not a term of endearment for my son Sasha, not another Russian diminutive of the name Alexander – here are those:

  • Alexander– used at work, in official circumstances, or by people he doesn’t know
  • Sasha – used by his friends and family. An alternative diminutive is Shura
  • Sashenka – used as a form of affection by members of his family
  • Sashulya – used very affectionately, probably by his girlfriend
  • Sashka – used very informally by family and friends, but is impolite if used by a stranger

No, this is Sashiko, a four hundred year old Japanese cultural concept, of a craft that revives old clothes or makes them stronger and warmer.

A man with a holey shirt repaired using a Sashiko technique of embroidery designed to look like a spider's web.

I have this old cotton shirt. The fabric is thin and worn and torn slightly near the breast pocket. I wanted to repair it based on the values and ideas of the Japanese craft of Sashiko.

I made a digital embroidery design, rather like a spider’s web, by writing a program using Turtlestitch, hoping it would strengthen the fabric and prevent the tear from spreading. So far so good – you can see the results in the photograph above – the hole was made bigger by the process, but I think more secure – we’ll see!

I also have a knitted cotton jersey, which I had torn lying down in a plane and catching it in the seat frame, doh!

The fabric is much stretchier, and with the experience of the first repair enlarging the hole, I thought I would try to stabilise the fabric on both sides with washable backing.

To further improve the stability, I chose to make some flour and water glue (with again the intent to wash it away afterwards) and stuck the jersey to the backing before mounting it in the embroidery frame:

The flour and water glue placed on the jersey
Now with the washable backing
Ready to go!

I had to wait overnight for the glue to fully dry and then the fun began:

Stitching the web
The end result before removal and washing
After washing away the backing and glue.

The result should stop the jersey from unravelling, but either way I am pleased with the process and the outcome!

I was unsettled by the amount of trigonometry and list processing I had to use in my first spider web solution, so spent some time while waiting for the glue to dry making a simpler program for the jersey spider’s web, that relied on Turtle Geometry only.

This confinement to Turtle Geometry – move and turn commands from the perspective of an imaginary turtle-like robot – means that when trying to fix or improve the program, one has recourse to bodily movement (imagined or real) to figure out what the program is doing. Seymour Papert, one of the inventors of Logo, on which Turtlestitch is based, called this ‘body-syntonic’.

This has been a focus for my inquiry over several years and I have blogged before about it:

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!

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!

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, where 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!

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 – going home

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?