How Semantic Tours can help us Teach Coding during Lockdown!

Teaching can be a pretty much hit and miss affair. When a teacher is dealing with a class of thirty or so individuals, even the most carefully thought out lessons may miss the mark with many of the students. Very often teachers can see where a lesson is falling short by reading the room. They can see where a student has become disengaged, is staring out the window, or is covertly trying to go on their phone under the desk. Puzzled faces may indicate that a concept has not yet been grasped, or a sea of hands may indicate the majority of the class has got it! Teaching under lockdown, with muted mics and video switched off to avoid using too much data, has certainly been a challenge. It has thrown into sharp relief the problem of trying to track every individual’s progress. Gauging the effectiveness of teaching from assessing students’ written work may take too long, and question and answer feedback may give a general sense, but may leave occluded some very real shortfalls.

Computing is frequently viewed as a very difficult subject to teach. Students find it abstract and hard (Guzdial, 2020). How to make it more concrete, or simple for students to learn is therefore especially important. Difficult, abstract concepts need to be grounded in students’ own experiences to be effectively understood, but students also need to learn how to take their everyday understandings and re-pack them into the kinds of academic knowledge that we require. Karl Maton (2014) has given us tools for analysing and discussing this movement in his notion of Semantic Waves. Karl describes the dimension of semantics in terms of two polarities.

Firstly there is Semantic Gravity, which refers to how abstract or how concrete or contextualised something is. Abstract ideas can be generalised across different contexts. For example the term algorithm can be used in many different contexts both within and outside computer education. A particular algorithm, however, is heavily contextualized. You cannot use an algorithm for making a cup of tea when designing a program for a self-driving car, but both activities can be conceptualized as an algorithm. Teachers will frequently explain what an algorithm is by getting students to describe the steps used when making a cup of tea. This helps contextualize the concept, make it more concrete and accessible to students. But students will need to be able to generalize that understanding into other concepts, becoming more aware of what an algorithm is as they do so. Student understanding thus describes a wave from abstract to concrete and back again. Karl describes what is abstract as having weak semantic gravity (SG-), and what is heavily context-bound as having strong semantic gravity (SG+).

But beyond issues of how abstract or concrete something is, is the idea of how simple or complex something is. This describes the level of condensation – how much is packed into an idea. Karl describes this as Semantic Density. What is complex has strong semantic density (SD+), while simple concepts have weak semantic density (SD-). For example the idea of incrementing an amount by a certain amount is fairly simple. Every week a student gets a certain amount of pocket money. But the idea of incrementing by a variable amount that follows an algorithmic progression is more complex, there is greater semantic density. The idea of incrementation is made more complex, and more dense, by including the idea of progressive increase.

There has been an increased awareness of the usefulness of semantic waves in computer education (Waite et al, 2019). The image below shows how the concept of an algorithm has been unpacked and repacked by the teacher and students using a magic trick (Curzon et al, 2020). The semantic wave here describes a movement between abstract, harder to understand concepts, and concrete, easier to understand ideas, ie. semantic gravity. By consciously linking the magic trick to the steps necessary for the trick to work every time, students’ understanding of algorithms is developed.

Semantic waves are crucial in understanding how knowledge is unpacked and repacked. But waves are useful in describing contexts in which the abstraction/context dependence of something – semantic gravity – moves in unison with the complexity or condensation of ideas – semantic density. The two frequently track together, but not always. Sometimes there might be an increase in the level of complexity, but not of abstraction, or in abstraction, but not complexity. In this case it is useful to track these movements separately.

The idea of Semantic Tours helps us to understand those occasions when the movement over time of semantic gravity and density diverge. A tour represents movement from one place to another, and in different directions. Tours can take different routes and be in one direction or describe a return trip.

This past year I have been teaching coding to grade 8 students using block code for the BBC micro:bit chip on an online interface. Because of the pandemic, I had to use a flexible synchronous/asynchronous flipped learning style solution. The nature of remote learning made it particularly difficult to follow students as they created algorithms or coded their applications. Normally I can lean over a computer screen and see what a student is doing. I can get students to create their algorithms on the board or in groups and can intervene or invite comment from other students on the steps being taken. But in an online environment there is far less visibility and far less interactivity possible. Students shared screenshots with me and I was able to discuss approaches and ideas one on one, but each interaction was so time consuming that the level of engagement overall was limited.

In this context I found that it was relatively more important for me to be able to quickly identify where students were with their progress, so as to be able to make useful feedback. Semantic Tours to the rescue!

Let us look at some examples of student code. In all the examples, students were programming a robot to move in a square. All the examples were using block code for a BBC micro:bit chip. The students were high school grade 8s taking an introductory coding & robotics module. Some had experience of coding or robotics classes in junior school or as extra-murals, others had no experience of coding at all. Maton (2014) describes four distinct codes based on the relative strength of abstraction/contextual-dependence (semantic gravity) and condensation/complexity (semantic density). In the figure below (Maton, 2014) we can see the semantic plane which describes four “codes”.

The Prosaic Code (SG+, SD-)

Concrete & Simple

In this example the student has selected blocks which would get the robot to move in a square (depending upon the speeds being accurate). The code is heavily contextualised (SG+) and relatively simple (SD-). There is no condensation of ideas and no abstraction out of the particular context. In many ways it reflects the most simple and direct approach to solving the problem (SG+, SD-).

While the task reflects a correct response to the challenge, it does not evidence much growth in the student’s grasp of programming concepts.

It is important to note that there is nothing wrong with the prosaic code. Sometimes one needs to be simple and direct – often that represents the best solution. But as a teacher one wants to give one’s students the tools to be able to approach a problem on multiple levels and find the best solution.

The Rarefied Code (SG-, SD-)

Abstract & Simple

In the next example we can see that a student has used a function call. The code itself is simple (SD-), a series of forward movements and turns to create a square, but by being used inside a function, the code can be called up across multiple contexts (SG-). The function therefore represents a weakening of semantic gravity. The function call also represents a strengthening of semantic density when that call is used, but principally remains at a simple level despite the increased level of abstraction (SG-,SD-).

Other examples of strengthened abstraction would include global variables used across a program, or conditional statements which are defined in one part of the program and actioned when and if logical conditions are met.

The Worldly Code (SG+, SD+)

Concrete & Complex

In the next example, the student has used a repeat loop to condense meaning (SD+). Instead of writing out a forward motion and turn four times, the loop considerably shortens the code required – the condensation is quite visual. The code is still heavily contextualized though (SG+). Variables or function calls have not been used to allow the code to be used in different contexts. If another square is to be created the code would have to be re-written.

In order to reach this level of condensation, students appear to need to think through what is involved in drawing a square. Before realising that forward movement and a turn can be repeated four times, it is necessary to understand what forward movements and turns are required.

Other examples of condensation would include the use of attributes, while and for loops and variables that store the results of calculations or formulae.

The Rhizomatic Code (SG-, SD+)

Abstract & Complex

Some students combined both greater levels of abstraction (SG-) and increased complexity (SD+), using what they had learned about function calls and repeat loops at the same time.

The Codes described here do not represent value judgements. There is nothing necessarily superior about one code or another. However, it is true that students do need to be able to move between one code and another according to what is appropriate within a given context. It would appear to be movement that describes progress in learning. This movement between codes is expressed in the idea of the Tour. In the task we have been discussing, the code in the final example represents the most elegant solution, although all are technically correct solutions. It shows the most understanding of programming skills which have been taught.

Equally though, it is clear that students need to move through different codes as their understanding and mastery develops. In the graphic below we can see that the plurality of students used both abstraction and complexity (48%). A quarter, however, tackled the task in the most simple and direct manner (25%). Fewer students added either complexity (15%) or abstraction (12%), but not both together. A slight majority of students, thus, did not use both increased abstraction and condensation at the same time.

The chart above shows how all the students in the class tackled one particular task and gave me as a teacher a snapshot of where each student was sitting relative to the rest of the class. Given that the aim of the progression of tasks was to move students towards greater condensation and abstraction by learning how to use functions, an understanding that my students were taking semantic tours allowed me to target individual feedback to help them explore greater condensation or abstraction. It also clearly showed that students tend to take different routes. Knowing this is a great help in quickly identifying where students are and how to help them along the way.

Looking at the course as a whole, which consisted of 18 tasks, it is also possible to identify the paths taken by individual students in greater detail and compare this to the instructional input given. This is a useful reflective and research tool. Quite impossible in the ebb and flow of a lesson, of course. But I found it very useful as a teacher/researcher.

By drawing up maps of the tours made by individual students it was clear that different students took different paths. In the chart below we can see that Student A spent most of their time in the prosaic code with relatively short tours into other codes, although 33% of the time was spent in the worldly code.

Student B, on the other hand spent more time in both the rarefied and rhizomatic codes, and moved into the worldly code sooner than student A.

This suggests that the paths students take while learning coding skills can be somewhat idiosyncratic, and that there is often a lag between a teacher making a move along a particular path, and individual students being ready or able to follow. The zone of proximal development acts as a very real constraint.

My gut feeling, and I have not been able to adequately reflect on what this analysis tells me, is that it suggests that teachers need to be able to chart broad paths describing particular semantic tours appropriate to the content being studied, but also need to be able to circle back and find ways of picking up the stragglers. Teachers also need to be aware that some students will take alternate routes, and need to be able to signpost and scaffold those who stray. I have adapted my online lessons so that I treat quite consciously with moves to strengthen or weaken abstraction and density within each lesson segment. I do this on the principle that students will probably pick up on what they need to hear, and ignore what might be too much for them at that moment.


Curzon, P., Waite, J., Maton, K., & Donohue, J. (2020). Using semantic waves to analyse the effectiveness of unplugged computing activities. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, October.

Guzdial, M. (2020). Defining CS Ed out of existence: Have we made CS too hard to learn and teach? Computing Education Research Blog.

Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education. Routledge.

Waite, J., Curzon, P., Maton, K., & Tuttiett, L. (2019). Unplugged Computing and Semantic Waves: Analysing Crazy Characters. United Kingdom and Ireland Computing Education Research.


EduTech Africa 2020 Day 2

At most conferences the keynotes will give you a sense of the trends and direction the conference will take, what trends and issues are being given importance. This year’s conference has a preponderance of panels, and panels allow for diverse ideas to be thrown around, but this format also tends to dilute strong ideas. Nevertheless the theme of Day 1 appears to me to have been innovation and diversity and inclusion. Past conferences have foregrounded technology, pedagogy, and the teacher, but the curriculum itself appears to be getting greater attention. Who is teaching, what we teach, how we teach and how we teach with technology appears in sharper focus than previously when one or other of these concerns dominated the conversation. I interpret this as a greater realism. The events of the last year have shown us that teachers are vital, that they are able to adapt their pedagogy in an agile way, and that the curriculum itself is vital. Some students were able to gain access to that curriculum online, others were not. We cannot just dismiss knowledge with a simplistic call for skills above content. Students gain access to agency and empowerment through the acquisition of knowledge. To argue otherwise is to entrench privilege in our society.

Day 2 dawned bright and early with a discussion on global trends in tertiary education. What frightens me about this discussion is the sense that teachers can be done away with and the curriculum can be broken up into byte-sized chunks for easy consumption. A few master teachers teaching anywhere anytime, and a pick n mix Khan Academy approach to the curriculum does not appear very promising to me. Robert Paddock then addressed the issue of access for all and what measures might be taken to make a difference in our failing education system. A key problem is that great teachers tend not to be where they are really needed to improve the system in a scalable way. Paddock suggests an answer is the iBodi model which sets up an online platform which uses a mix of master teachers providing both synchronous and asynchronous teaching online together with dedicated mentors providing pastoral care to the students who meet in a physical space ( a micro school). Paddock argues that this model would allow more students to be reached and receive quality education.

This is an interesting model which seeks to avoid the pitfalls of master teachers dumping content online without adequate contact with students to mediate and scaffold this content. My immediate reaction is that while this model has great promise, I am not convinced that a mentor in the bricks and mortar micro-school alone is sufficient. To my mind high school students require greater content mediation. If this can be provided by teachers online or in the physical space, the model will work, but if this scaffolding and support is not enough I fear it will not work. The devil really is in the detail. I am wondering if onsite tutors may not be more workable.

I then watched a discussion with Syson Kunda, Cleo Karrim and Thomas Kaye on digital innovation in the classroom. Kunda identified a lack of teacher skills and under-resourced schools as major barriers to any solution allowing new technologies to overcome past inequalities. This is a Catch-22 situation. Digital technologies may be able to deliver greater equity in education, but the same barriers that created the problem hamper the solution. Low-tech solutions may offer a way to chip away at the digital divide and teachers as change agents are crucial in this process. Karrim spoke to the question of teacher training. Teachers are not being trained to act as digital innovators. Pre-service and in-service training needs to be done urgently and private and public partnerships need to be forged to facilitate this. Kaye stressed the need for teaching training to go beyond how to operate devices, but how to teach using the technology.

I was then involved in a panel discussion with Michael Vorster and Nneka Chukwulobe. The main takeaway from this discussion for me was how amazing other teachers’ work always seems! Both my fellow panelists are doing amazing work. I have been blessed in my career to work alongside amazingly creative and gifted colleagues, and having an opportunity to hear what other teachers are doing is always fantastic. Sharing best practice is perhaps the best way for teachers to learn how to make the kinds of innovations in their teaching that the conference has been foregrounding. In similar vein, it was great to hear from young robotics entrepreneur, Viresh Soogrem, and hear his story.

Delia Kench and Frank McCoy then discussed the implementation of a STEM curriculum at their school. There is a paradox in inter-disciplinary studies, namely how do you do inter-disciplinary work if you don’t have a discipline? At St Benedicts the emphasis has been on forging a new discipline rather than creating a hodge-podge of inter-meshing subjects. I hope that they write this case study up at some stage.

The day ended with a panel discussion on robotics and coding which I participated in with Karen Walstra, Delia Kench, Dylan Langheim and St Benedicts student Tashil Mistry. Again the emphasis was on teachers’ and students’ perspectives on the role of coding and robotics in the curriculum. With a new department of education curriculum in the process of being rolled out this discussion was most informative. Where does coding and computational thinking sit in the curriculum? How should it be taught? What threshold concepts and skills are important? How can girls be engaged? What core competencies and thinking skills are central? The discussion could have gone on all night, but I have to say that after an exhausting day I was glad when the session came to an end – Zoom is so exhausting, isn’t it?

Of course the main ideas one gets out of a conference largely depends on which streams and sessions one follows, but the strong sense I got last year and this was that the time for computing as a fully fledged discipline, a senior subject, core to the curriculum, has arrived. Exactly what this looks like is not yet fully worked out, but the days in which very few students, especially girls, have access to any kind of computer education are behind us. Going forward the big question is how to provide the very best, and the most empowering computer education we can, for all.

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Posted by on October 14, 2020 in Conferences


EduTech Africa 2020 Day 1 (Virtually)

This year’s conference is being staged online, for obvious reasons, and while I have to say that I miss the buzz of a conference venue, it is so much easier to be able to manage work commitments and accessing the presentations and keynotes. I am not a great fan of exhibition halls and networking opportunities. It is way too noisy, too overwhelming for me. Being able to attend and present online therefore represents something of a relief. This year I am on two panels, one around STEM in education and the other around Coding & Robotics. This nexus of topics forms one conference stream and with government plans to introduce coding for all into the curriculum, something requiring urgent attention.

The opening keynote featured Lindsay Wesner and Gavin Esterhuizen discussing innovation in education. In a year in which the ways in which we do things has been utterly upended, it is a good time to reflect on innovation and the role of the technology coach in schools. Technology coaches have been introduced in many schools in an effort to nudge teachers into greater technology adoption. Certainly many teachers would not have been able to make the move online without support from tech coaches in their schools. I found Gavin’s emphasis on coaching the rather more traditional teaching skills of questioning and classroom management rather refreshing. He likened the coach in schools to a cricket coach who can help a teacher analyse and hone their skills. Too often we think of technology only in terms of new digital technologies, and forget that techniques, such as how to ask a question, are also teaching technologies. We should never waste a good crisis, and the emergency measures teachers have had to take to navigate 2020 should be used to examine and re-imagine what good teaching practice means. Digital technologies are all very well, and are increasingly part of the educational terrain, but the core business of teaching has not changed that much. While teaching online this year I found myself increasingly thinking, not about the ed tech stuff, but about how to draw out my students and help them survive the alienation of the Zoom classroom.

Jonathan Jansen then gave a talk exposing the disparity in access to online learning in schools and in universities along class lines. Covid has made these inequalities more visible. Jansen struck an optimistic note, stressing that this crisis has exposed the problem more starkly and raised the possibility of changes to our technological capacity and to our outdated pedagogies. Access is not just defined by differences in technological access, but also as access to quality teaching. Jansen warned that simply downloading teacher notes onto a device does not equate to quality access. This point is absolutely vital and represents much of the thrust behind a growing concern with pedagogy at this conference over the years. What was refreshing to me was the clarion call for greater emphasis on building equity in education. Pedagogy needs to be liberatory and aimed at giving all students access to ideas, knowledge and opportunities to live a life of significance. As Jansen notes, we do not have unlimited resources to reverse past inequalities overnight. We have to focus our efforts where it makes most sense. Throwing money and technology at the problem is not going to work. Our efforts have to be focused on what really matters. And what really matters, in my view is promoting greater equity. In a year which has been disrupted by Covid and by Black Lives Matter, the need for putting equity front and centre is clearer than ever.

Having listened to Jonathan Jansen’s talk I was interested to listen to a panel discussing disruptive technologies in education. I was disappointed to hear that the panel still placed the emphasis on how technological changes could disrupt education for the better. This is a topic worth exploring, but given the class, gender and race inequalities exposed by the events of this year it seems to me that the focus should have shifted to how the call for social justice is core to disrupting education. Technology, in the sense of devices and services available are important, but how we teach, and how we teach to overcome past inequalities is absolutely vital. I suspect that the battleground is probably in the classroom itself where the teacher has professional autonomy, and the ability to action change. Conferences like this one should be sharply focused on foregrounding best practice and creating platforms for teachers to address the issue directly. Our education system is constructed in such a way as to reproduce inequality, and it does this very efficiently. Some schools are well-resourced both in terms of equipment and quality teaching, others struggle for basic needs. Our system creates a two-tiered society, one school preparing future decision makers and managers, the majority of schools producing fodder for the drudge of the workplace. This is the system that needs to be disrupted.

Unfortunately much of the exciting technological innovation is happening inside the well-resourced elite schools rather than the greater education system. These are also the schools which are exploring different pedagogies to support learning, foregrounding critical thinking and creativity. Elite schools are usually good at providing teachers space for professional development and fostering this. The key, to my mind, is that those teachers who are privileged to have this space must make sure that what they develop is broadly replicable. I have worked in a squatter camp, and in an inner city school and know all too well how little space there is for teachers to explore their own creativity and develop adequate solutions for their students. To my mind the truly disruptive educational technology is what teachers create to empower their students and give them access to powerful knowledge, habits of mind and life long dispositions for learning.

This is a long-winded way of saying that to my mind the teacher is the greatest ed tech disrupter. And that is a frightening responsibility.

I then listened to Chelsea Williamson from iSchoolAfrica speaking about how technology can break down barriers in the special needs and remedial classroom to foster inclusion and promote equity. It is often said that good inclusive policy is good policy. In other words giving students with different needs full access is in itself good policy, not just for those with special needs. The strong sense I got from this talk is that different apps and ways of using the technology offer powerful differentiation points for those with disabilities, and that there is an urgent need for teachers to become aware of this and be trained in how to use them effectively. I have taken online courses on inclusion and technology through Future Learn, but I have to say that real learning involves using the tools in authentic contexts rather than just understanding what needs to be done. Because each context is different, in my experience, each teacher needs to go through the learning process themselves. It’s not something you can just pass on to someone else. Even having been through training, I do not feel confident in my own ability to pull this off. I think this is the great paradox of ICT integration within teaching. Ultimately it is a journey that every teacher has to take on their own, finding their own path. In a sense teaching is also differentiated. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa.

The next few sessions I attended became a bit of a blur, I’m afraid. Attending a conference virtually means inevitable periods when real life intervenes. In my case I had a few bitty meetings that interrupted the talks and panels. Luckily the platform allows one to watch sessions later. I watched Neelam Parmar’s talk on her experience of bringing schools online, and the panel discussion on designing a 22nd Century curriculum through digital innovation. The sense I got was that this is a period of immense sense of possibility and change. Teachers are open to change in ways they were not previously. There seems to be a general feeling that the crisis caused by covid and lockdown has opened up acceptance for new technologies and pedagogies that did not exist before. And yet there is also a yearning for normality and a return to classroom teaching. Teachers have become aware of many of the advantages offered by technology, but also aware of its limitations.

In the panel discussion on diversity and inclusion a great many ideas were unpacked around what is implicated in inclusion. What is clear is that a vision is not enough, what is required is ongoing work to create a culture of inclusion to move beyond lip service. While technology may enable inclusion, buy-in has to come from all sectors in society. My own sense is that the only way to create equality and equity is to work towards doing it. This needs to be an ongoing effort, and it involves giving all students access at the level of the technology itself, the pedagogy and the curriculum. At the moment the discussion seems stalled at the level of how to give all students devices. What is really crucial is how the tools are used. The panel kept circling around this issue, and necessarily so. No one can see the future – all we can do is take the first steps and try to act on a vision of a world where all have equal access.

Robert Faltermeier talked about why pedagogy needs to change. I normally shudder when I hear people talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution because the term seems imprecise to me. All we know really is that change is coming, and probably coming fast. I also feel that when people talk about the need to change pedagogy they also tend to talk vaguely about the need for more problem-based, inquiry, collaborative learning. I’m not so convinced. Everything I’ve seen about problem-based learning, for example, is that to work it needs a great deal of guided instruction and teacher scaffolding. The more things change, the more they stay the same somehow. Teachers tend to be conservative in their approach and I think rightly so. To make changes before we know the why, or what or how of it seems rash. It is probably best to stick to the basics. My gut feel is that students are best served facing the future with a solid knowledge of mathematics, science, language, history, art, technology, etc. Problem solving is important, but so is knowing Boyle’s Law or the history of the Third Reich. It is not then that I disagree with anything Robert had to say, more that I think pedagogy has to embrace more, rather than simply change. There does not need to be a flight from content when teaching skills. Critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration all need to be about something. All too often this move is seen as a move away from knowledge itself. It shouldn’t be. I was thinking all of these thoughts listening to Robert’s talk, when he concluded his talk by saying almost exactly what I have said here.

My first day ended listening to the panel on Teaching & Tech – providing quality education online. Karen Walstra and Steve Tudhope provided an excellent summary of lessons learned during remote teaching and best practice. To my mind this really summed up the day for me. The key question going forward is really about teachers and what they have learned during this period, how they view innovation and change, and how this crisis has changed thinking. I think teachers are still somewhat shell-shocked at the moment, and the real moment of opportunity will come as teachers start to really reflect on their experiences.

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Posted by on October 13, 2020 in Conferences


How Schools Should Respond to #BlackLivesMatter

Recently, during a transformation workshop at my school we were asked to raise our hands if we thought that we were racist. I was one of very few white teachers to raise my hand. The reaction was shock and horror. I suppose I should be gratified that so many of my colleagues expressed surprise that I should consider myself racist. After all, I firmly believe in equality in matters of class, gender and race. I can’t remember a time when I did not hold to this creed. I remember being punished during Guidance period at school and having to stand outside the classroom with the other left wing student in my class because we had dared to condemn the Apartheid government’s policies on race. I had gone into exile rather than serve in the South African army, and been arrested for protesting racism as a student. I hope I have never said anything approaching a racist slur, inference or utterance that might have given offence. And yet I was born at a certain time, and in a certain place with a certain skin colour which gives me a privilege denied millions of fellow citizens. I was born with certain ideas embedded in my cultural baggage. Ideas I have not fully unpacked or questioned. Ideas which undoubtedly contain deep seated racist ideological slants which I have not fully understood or disowned.

There is a very useful way of looking at these things in the theoretical toolkit which is Legitimation Code Theory (Maton, 2014), and that is the notion that concepts are linked to each other by connective logics, but are arranged by the knower in clusters and constellations which give meaning. In the Sciences these linkages are made in different ways, but are largely governed by epistemic logics of cause and effect, for example, or of properties and descriptions. In the Humanities, however, constellations are rather constructed by the process of the valorization of ideas. For example in Education a cluster of beliefs around Constructivist Learning Theory charges student-centered practices such as PBL positively, and charges teacher-centered approaches such as direct instruction negatively. This creates constellations, or clusters of ideas that stand in opposition to one another. This despite the fact that there may be no logical connection between the ideas themselves other than their valorization. Constructivist learning theory can live quite happily with direct instruction. Students learn, teachers teach. And yet teachers are almost afraid to whisper that they have taught a class rather than guided discovery because it is so heavily stigmatized.

The constellation of racism clearly includes ideas around racial superiority and inferiority, notions around racial difference and separation, and notions around the justification of systemic oppression based largely on fear of the other. I know relatively few people who would own to these ideas, and would certainly disown any who did. And yet there are undoubtedly strains of racist clusters of ideas hiding in many constellations which we cannot so easily discern. Or if we do, prove difficult to hunt down and eliminate from all our thinking. The same is true of the way we constellate class, or gender, or age, or sexual orientation or what is neurotypical.

There is a deep-seated dichotomy of binary oppositions between mind and body, for example which runs straight to notions of race. For example, Africans are constellated as physical, and social, Europeans as intellectual and individualistic. These clusters of ideas run deep, embedded in many fields, often hidden within expressions of praise. When whites praise the idea of ubuntu, there is no malice intended, and yet it reinforces a charging of ideas that associate Africa with greater communitariansim, but implicitly deficient in individualism, which continues to be valorized as positive! The physical strength and endurance of African long distance runners is lauded, but in charging this as a positive attribute, there is an implied binary opposite which, albeit silently, charges Africa as intellectually deficient and implicitly supports a systemic aversion to African intellectualism or ideas.

These ideas are seldom given voice, except in overtly racist settings, but underpin a great deal of an inherited European intellectual outlook. Why do we, as white people, tend to trust dead white theorists over other approaches, or cling to pride in our own individualism? These are not evil impulses, and indeed I’m not sure I could disavow this attitude even if I wished. It is part of the heritage of being an occidental. I suppose the best that can be asked of any white person is that they begin to examine their hidden constellations of ideas for racist assumptions and implied logics, and use caution when thinking through any problem. It is not that occidental thought is wrong, merely that there are alternative ways of constellating the world, and the occidental view has no logical privilege.

Schools in South Africa, and doubtless around the world are being challenged to respond to calls to examine white privilege and to decolonize the curriculum. I think it would be fair to say that our schooling system privileges western value-systems and outlooks, and that this is no longer tolerable. There is a direct conduit from the constellation of ideas in our education system to the exercise of power in the streets. Many teachers are today posting #BlackLivesMatter messages in support of their students and their demands and this is clearly important, but I think we all need to start the messy and painful process of imagining how to decolonize our education system so that no one view is privileged, and all are valorized. Understanding how ideas are linked and clustered, and how this underpins implicit world views is a starting point.

Many voices are asking white people not to attempt to hijack the conversation and to simply listen and support. I believe this is a period in which teachers and schools generally should listen to the voices of students. But I do believe the position we need to listen from is one in which we acknowledge our intellectual and cultural baggage. We do need to listen from a point of view of saying that our ears are open and we are willing and able to hear.


Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education by Karl Maton (2014)


Becoming anti-racist: Learning about race in CS Education

An excellent blog post on an important issue! there is a great deal to unpack here.

Computing Education Research Blog

I don’t usually invite external review on my blog posts for CACM, but I did this month because it’s such an important topic and I know too little about it — “CS Teachers, It’s (Past) Time To Learn About Race” (see link here). Many thanks to Melissa Perez, Carl Haynes, Leigh Ann DeLyser, Betsy DiSalvo, Leo Porter, Chad Jenkins, Wes Weimer, Barbara Ericson, Matthew Guzdial, Katie Guzdial, and Manuel Perez Quinones.

We have to change CS Education. We do not talk enough about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students and faculty in CS education. We have to reflect that Black Lives Matter in our teaching practice. We have to become explicitly anti-racist (a term I just learned this last week, see the book link here) — actively seeking to address historic and systemic inequities (see piece at CNN too).

One of the reviewer’s comments…

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Posted by on June 8, 2020 in Uncategorized


Teaching in Masks!

As schools in South Africa begin a phased re-opening, those of us who have been teaching remotely for the last two months, will need to get used to teaching some of our students on campus, and some remotely. South Africa has decided to send our matriculation and grade 7 students back first on 1 June, with other grades following in a staggered manner. But the situation is complicated by the fact that some students may elect to stay at home rather than come in to school, some may be ill and are advised to stay at home, and some may be fragile and attend school intermittently. To be frank, as teachers we do not know what to expect. How many of our students in any class will be on campus? How many at home? But we must be prepared to teach them one way or another.

When schools closed as the lockdown was announced I think we had a fairly good idea as EdTech champions as to how to help teachers prepare for teaching remotely. We were able to train those staff who needed help using the school Learning Management System. Were able to suggest software options for recording lessons, adding whiteboards, setting up online assignments, launching meetings, and so on. I do not feel as confident in any advice we can give for teaching half your class face to face, and simultaneously half of it online! This is completely uncharted territory!

Some teachers have explored Flipped Classroom models in which students watch or read instructional materials at home and then do worked activities in the classroom with the support of the teacher. This flips the traditional model where the teacher introduces concepts at school, and students do exercises which explore and consolidate the concepts at home. It seems to me that the only viable way of teaching simultaneously face-to-face and online needs to take this model as a starting point. If a classroom has an interactive whiteboard, the teacher can use the IWB and display their Learning Managment System, be it Google Classroom, Teams or Moodle on the board so that it can be seen by students in the classroom and by students at home. The teacher can then help both students in the classroom and those at home complete whatever tasks have been set. If the teacher themselves has to be at home, they can broadcast to the classroom in the same way, with a substitute teacher on site to manage the classroom. Having a web camera installed on your IWB to capture the classroom would help here as well.

This forms a very general infrastructure which could allow for a variety of pedagogical approaches to be explored by teachers. Teachers are used to adapting to changing circumstances, and will find ways of making it work. In larger departments it might be possible for teachers to team teach, one on site and one at home. Likewise I believe that it would be beneficial to use students’ personal devices in the classroom to pair up students on site and those at home to help work through activities that combine classroom and home-based activities. For example one student on site and one remote could discuss a text, or work on a shared Google doc, communicating via the LMS chat or apps such as whatsapp.

I do not think any of this will be easy, and will be open to all kinds of technological glitches, but I do believe that we will find ways of working that not only make the best of a bad situation, but also open up ways of working that will add tools to our armoury as teachers that we can use once things return to normal.

If they ever do.


On-Line Learning: Out of the Google gallimaufry

A thoughtful and necessary intervention, and a really cool new word to add to our vocabulary!

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

You will be forgiven for not knowing the meaning of the word gallimaufry. I didn’t before I read this piece. The definition, ‘a confused jumble or medley of things’ can sometimes be applied to education, especially during this period of emergency remote teaching. Lester Lalla, Headmaster at St John’s Preparatory School, offers a way through the confusion.

The sudden closure of schools and the race to online learning has been a mammoth task for educators across the globe. I maintain that the dedication and devotion of teachers is incomparable. I am very proud of my profession. 

Educational technology has been a game-changer. It has enabled us to engage our students remotely and enabled us to teach in both synchronous and asynchronous ways. However, while EdTech is an enabler, it is not a substitute teacher. A growing…

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Posted by on May 17, 2020 in Uncategorized


Thought Experiments on Why Face-to-Face Teaching Beats On-Line Teaching: We are Humans, not Econs

Computing Education Research Blog

With everything moving on-line, I’m seeing more discussion about whether this on-line life might just be better. Amy Ko recently blogged (see post here) about how virtual conferences are cheaper, more accessible, and lower carbon footprint than face-to-face conferences, ending with the conclusion for her “it is hard to make the case to continue meeting in person.” My colleague, Sarita Yardi, has been tweeting about her exploration of “medium-independent classes” where she considers (see tweet here), “Trying to use the block of class time just because that’s how we’ve always taught seems like something to revisit. Less synchronous time; support short, frequent individual/small group interaction, less class time.”

It’s hard to do on-line education well. I used to study this kind of learning a lot (see post on “What I have learned about on-line collaborative learning”). I recently wrote about how we’re mostly doing emergency remote…

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Posted by on May 11, 2020 in Uncategorized


Teacher, you are doing a good job, even if you don’t think you are!

As Thoreau noted, we all live lives of quiet desperation, and yet if you go on social media, all you see is happy, successful people boasting of their achievements! During the time of coronavirus this is especially the case. We are daily reminded that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, and that we could all be learning Madarin, or composing symphonies, or at the very least baking industrial quantities of banana bread! It is easy to believe that everyone is coping better than you are, that you are the only one who hasn’t used this time productively. For teachers, we hear colleagues telling us how well their remote classes are going, how engaged the students are, what good results they are getting. How easy it is!

I would take this talk with a healthy pinch of salt. I am sure that some classes do go well. Teachers are doing an amazing job at transferring online. For some teachers just getting online has been a major triumph! Many new tools have been tested and creative and innovative ways of teaching trialed and worked at. This is in the nature of teachers, it’s what we do. We are used to handling disaster, of having our careful planning disrupted by sudden fire-drills, or an unwanted invasion of wasps or bees in the classroom! We cope, we adapt, and we deliver.

But we tend to imagine that every lesson, except for our own, is perfect. We magnify the little hiccups, and imagine nothing productive has been achieved. If I know anything about teachers, and I’ve seen some terrible ones, and some great ones, most of us have been muddling along just fine. We have had days when only a handful of students have made contact, and we’ve felt like a complete failure. We’ve had our screens freeze and our Internet connection go down half-way through an almost full class meeting when we were just about to make a break-through, and we’ve despaired. But we’ve also had days in which things went OK, and students submitted work, and it was OK! And we’ve seen students make progress. Nothing whizz bang maybe, but the kind of slow solid progress that gets made and suddenly we wake up one day and realize how far we’ve come!

And we don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else, especially the ones with the loud mouths. All we have to compare ourselves to is how far we’ve come and how much effort we have made. Some teachers have small children and spouses who work from home and elderly relatives and sick cats and we may have experienced loss. Some teachers have no Internet to speak of, or have to share devices. I’ve heard horror-stories about hard-drives packing in, or keyboards that stop working. We have all had our little moments of panic while teaching remotely. I have a small house and at times my wife, who also teaches, and I have had to out-compete with each other to be heard, while my sons have been on calls with their university lecturers next door! We have had to deal with any number of issues, while our normal routine has been disturbed and learning new things, all at the same time!

I sense that many teachers feel they have done a poor job either because they are comparing remote teaching with classroom teaching, or because they they are trying to stretch the boundaries of what online platforms can do too far. A great deal of teacher angst seems to revolve around the limitations of online assessment. How can you make sure the students all do the test at the same time, that they don’t cheat, that it’s not the parents doing the work? These are all valid concerns, but my advice would be to set aside all notions of doing exactly what you do in the classroom in the online space. Rather look at what the online platform allows, and focus on building learning experiences around the strengths of online platforms. Rigorous assessment is not a strength of the online space, so why stress so much about trying to replicate it online? Rather ask yourself if you really need so many tests or exams. Maybe a project submitted on trust that it is the student’s work is more than sufficient. If you set more collaborative projects and mentor students in online meetings you will have a good idea of what each student has done. Maybe online tests are not necessary.

Most of all, I believe that if teachers trust their own instincts, stop measuring themselves against some imaginary yardstick, and do what they can, they will be alright! More than alright!



Does The Great Onlining Offer Opportunities to move from Teaching Content to Teaching Thinking?

One often hears the view expressed that one of the benefits of the enforced move to teaching online is that it will entail a move away from teaching content, and open up opportunities for a new vision of teaching that foregrounds students’ problem-solving skills. One of the many educational trends that have been rained down on teachers like the ten plaques of Egypt, is the idea that content is outdated, and that what counts in the Twenty First Century is Problem-Solving or Thinking Skills. It is an idea that has become all pervasive. At every Educational Technology Conference I’ve ever attended, at some stage a keynote speaker will express this point of view. Especially if they come from industry. “What we need is not people with paper qualifications,” they say, “it is people who can think and problem-solve!”

But can thinking be distilled from all context and taught as something discrete? Knowledge is changing so fast, the argument goes, that it will become outdated as soon as you teach it, and therefore what we need to be doing is teaching students to think, rather than teaching them content. This idea is seductive because of course it appeals to a kernel of truth. Knowledge is changing really fast. What I learned about the structure of the atom in high school is certainly not what is taught today! And yet the notion that somehow education’s core business has suddenly changed is somewhat ludicrous. Did teachers not teach students how to think pre-millenium? What does thinking that is separated from content look like, anyway?

My own career as a teacher has been affected by this movement towards explicit teaching of thinking. I teach a class called Thinking Skills. In this class we use problem-based approaches together with introducing the Harvard Visible Thinking Routines and cognitive tools such as the De Bono Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps and Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. These thinking tools and strategies are embedded in every school subject, but the purpose of the Thinking Skills class we do in our grades 8-10 is to give importance to thinking itself, and to provide a platform for explicit teaching of the range of cognitive tools we use across the school. I am in two minds about how effective this is as an approach. Thinking, after all, is always about something. Thinking divorced of content makes no sense, and thinking always has a context. How you think as an historian, a musician or as a scientist is different. Learning to think in one context surely confers benefit, and surely fuels habits and dispositions which are transferable to other contexts. But how this happens is not easy to pin down, or easy to demonstrate. Nor is it automatic. We assume that it happens, but we cannot definitively demonstrate that it does. We hope that an awareness of different cognitive tools, and familiarity with using different thinking strategies will improve our students’ thinking skills. We try to teach them to notice when they need to reach into their cognitive tool kits, and develop their capacity to reflect on their own thinking, and to become better at choosing appropriate cognitive strategies. But all the documentation in the world does not add up to proof that this is effective. And as much as I think the Thinking class I teach is useful, I do not believe it supplants Maths or English classes in any way. Students still need to learn to think like a mathematician, or think like an artist!

There is some anecdotal evidence of course, that our approach to cognitive education does work. Visitors to the school express amazement at how well our students engage with problem-solving tasks. As encouraging as this feedback is, it does not amount to proof. The benefit of an explicit Thinking course is not really about improving performance in other subjects, the aim is to improve the ability to think in any context. I think what students enjoy about it is that they get to think about real-world problems without the pressure of assessment or swotting. I think it is also important in that it signals that what the school values is thinking, and the development of thinking dispositions. I believe that this approach has benefits because solving problems helps improve the ability to solve problems. Not least it builds confidence in the ability to solve problems. As anyone who has ever tackled problems like crossword puzzles, for example, will know, once you start to understand how the puzzles are set, and develop strategies for solving the clues, the easier it becomes to work through the clues. And even a difficult seven across will be tackled with a level of confidence that it can be solved given enough time. The ability to solve crosswords does not necessarily make one a better problem-solver in another context, such as Chess problems. One can be quite good at solving one type of problem, but quite bad at another. In our class we try to tackle different types of problems and help students develop strategies and tools for approaching problems. The hope is that each student will develop a sizable toolkit of cognitive tools, and an awareness of which tools are good in different situations.

So, whilst I believe that teaching Thinking has value, I do not believe it can be done divorced from the curriculum. At my school the explicit teaching of thinking is limited, we wish it to be embedded in our curriculum, rather than becoming the focus of the curriculum. It would be lovely to believe that the move online would allow teachers to throw off the yoke of curricula and standardized testing and teach students to think, to problem-solve. Sadly I do not think that it does. It is rather naive, to believe that students, simply by doing an online project rather than more formal classes, will develop thinking skills miraculously. Thinking skills need to be carefully scaffolded and nurtured. Even in a Thinking class tasks are contextualised and we seek to draw students’ attention to opportunities for transferring their skills across the curriculum. As any teacher who has ever set an open-ended project will know, the success of the project depends on how carefully it was scaffolded and supported. Remote learning will not suddenly unlock hidden abilities in our students. If we want those abilities to emerge we need to put in the pedagogical work to develop them. And remote teaching is hard, it is hard enough teaching the regular curriculum.

Doing the kind of work needed to foster advanced thinking skills over Zoom?

I don’t think so.

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