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Category Archives: Coding For Kids

EduTech Africa 2017 Day 1 – The Search for Soft Technologies

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I am once more attending the EduTech Africa Conference and I like to try and distill from the presentations and conversations at the Conference a sense of where we are sitting with Educational Technology in South Africa. As usual there is a narrative, repeated almost like a mantra, around the desire that technology will transform educational practice and deliver a more student-centred curriculum and pedagogy. Margaret Powers delivered a powerful keynote which summed this up succinctly and persuasively. There was an air of optimism this year which replaced the more messianic tone of previous years. Maybe it’s a sense that that goal is a little nearer, a little more achievable. Or perhaps it’s just that there is generally a new optimism abroad, despite the election of Trump, a return to the politics of hope reflected in the rise of Corbyn and Sanders, a sense that no matter how massive the task, the monolith of schooling can be re-imagined and re-envisioned just as there is a sense that the bastions of the political establishment can be assaulted.

But the highlight of the day for me was Stephen Heppell’s address. Heppell’s work on re-imagining the architecture of the school through the design of learning spaces that offer affordances for the kinds of educational transformation the Conference is calling for, is legendary, but it found a particular resonance this year with the track that I followed, that to do with the rise of coding and robotics. This link between designing classroom spaces and coding may seem tenuous, but ultimately it is about the locus of agency. Heppell spoke about the need to give agency to students through the design of learning spaces, and coding and robotics gives the same agency over machines.

Technology may be considered hard or soft, and what I mean by this is the ability to be flexible. Hard technologies do not alter easily, they are solid and fixed. School buildings are hard technologies. You cannot just knock down a wall to accommodate extra students. Soft technologies are flexible and versatile, they can be re-imagined and re-purposed on the spot. Teacher’s pedagogies are soft technologies, in that they can be changed at a moment’s notice to suit what is happening in the classroom. This is why teachers normally change their pedagogies to suit the space they are in. Teach in a lecture theatre and anything but teacher-centred pedagogies are nigh on impossible! As a teacher I have twice been the incumbent computer teacher when the computer room was re-designed, and not once was I or my students consulted! I loved Heppell’s insistence on building learning spaces to children’s specifications!

To my mind what coding and robotics offers is a soft curriculum to replace a hard curriculum, a curriculum based on problems defined by the students themselves, to which solutions are sought collaboratively. Marina Myburgh’s presentation on her exploration of a coding and robotics syllabus at Crawford, Sandton defined for me the journey many schools will be taking over the next few years as we seek to replace our now out-of-date computer skills syllabi with a new curriculum which seeks to map out how computational and algorithmic thinking can enhance all learning. There was a remarkable sense of purpose in the coding and robotics round table discussion that allowing students to explore solutions to problems they define is the way forward. The task is now to research and explore the optimum learning paths to achieve this.

This will involve not only teachers of Computer Skills, for coding & robotics extends across the curriculum. The focus on STEAM and the Maker Movement emphasizes the extent to which we need to ensure that a future in which AI and robotics increasingly threatens our job security needs to be tempered by a concerted effort to ensure that we as human beings are able to retain some control, some agency in our lives. Coding and tinkering may be the most liberating and humanist of all the academic disciplines as the 21st Century starts to get a grip!

 

 

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Coding & The Liberal Arts

DSC00155Up until the early 20th Century Latin formed the basis of the Liberal Arts curriculum, not because everyone would be a Latin scholar, but because it was seen as something which taught one to think, because it was a rigorous discipline requiring accuracy and ability to master a logical system. It formed an excellent indicator of academic potential, and thus persisted in the educational system well beyond its usefulness as a lingua franca. In the 1900s it was largely replaced by History as a preparation for public life, politics and the civil service.

I would argue that the decline of History, and of Latin, has left a crucial void in the Liberal Arts. In a sense it has robbed the Liberal Arts of their importance in the overall scheme of things. When the main purpose of Education was to fuel the bureaucracy of the empire, the need was for individuals possessing the skills to administer vast tracts of foreign soil, far from home with a sense of duty and the ability to remain unflappable under enormous pressure. The study of Latin or History provided a sense of place and importance – it underlined the belief in the superiority of Western culture, and gave the colonial bureaucrat, trained at Harrow or Eton, a sense of their moral and cosmic worth.

The relativism and post-modernism of the last hundred years, along with the decline of the empire, has stripped away all sense of worth and purpose, and left only naked materialism. In Education, the Liberal Arts have been eaten away by the ascendency of Mathematics and Science. Now, I have nothing against the Sciences – they are absolutely vital in any education, but I believe that critical thinking needs a balance, a grounding in the Arts. I’ve just seen some research suggesting that good English teaching improves Mathematical ability. And I have a gut feeling that music is also vital. Drama too – hell, all the Arts are important, but I can’t help feeling that something is missing at the core of our curriculum: a humanistic study which is grounded in rigour and trains critical thinking.

Those of you who are still with me will be surprised now to hear that I am going to suggest that coding, computer programming fills this void. Is coding an Art? Surely it should be lumped with the Sciences. How can it fill that need for a rigorous study which simultaneously fuels a sense of moral worth and makes sense of the Universe? It is undoubtedly rigorous, and I would argue is an excellent training ground for rigorous thinking, so vital for critical thought. There is nothing quite as exacting or as unforgiving as a computer program. One comma out of place, a forgotten semi-colon can negate an entire endeavour. Programmers need to be able to conceive of the purpose and function of a program, design its outline and implement its details in ways which enhance user experience and maximise functionality. Game design, in particular, needs to engage on many levels at the interface between humans and machine. In a sense, like music, it combines creativity with mathematical precision.

I have a sense that the 21st Century is going to be all about how we manage our relationship with machines. The factories of the Industrial Age were one kind of machine, but the digital interfaces of the Information Age are quite another, and I have a feeling that the ability to hack one’s machines is what will define our ability to rise above mere consumerism. What the digital natives of the digital generation seem to lack is that ability to hack their machines. When I think back to what I did with my first computer, a ZX Spectrum, it involved almost only programming! There was precious little else you could do with it. Kids today experience computers almost entirely as platforms for products they download. Very little is done even to tweak these programs. Computing has become an act of consumption first and foremost.

We have a duty to teach kids to code so that people have the ability to act as agents of their own destiny in an increasingly complex digital world. Coding is therefore a humanistic project, perhaps the most vital expression of our humanity in a world where we are relying on our machines more and more.

What should replace History at the core of the Liberal Arts curriculum? Why, coding of course!

 

Hack Your Life!

tdLearning to Code is all the rage right now, but how to implement a coding for all programme is not as easy as it sounds. There are a number of decisions which need to be taken. The first decision is around whether it will be merely open to all, or compulsory for all. At my school we expose all the students to a little bit of coding in their computer skills classes, in the form of some Scratch and some JavaScript. I also do a Game Design unit using Flash, with a little bit of Action Script. It works in that everyone can meet the requirements, but not all students embrace coding enthusiastically, so there might be a great deal to say for going the extra-curricular route, or maybe both.

I suspect that both is the right answer for most contexts. Everyone needs to be exposed to some coding, but I’m not convinced everyone can handle a full-on programme. the second decision is what programming language to use.

I started teaching some coding back in the late 1990s, with some Logo, and then quickly moved to JavaScript. The big advantage of JavaScript is that you do not need a compiler. All you need is a browser and a web editor. Currently I get my grade 9s to use JavaScript to create a quiz which will tell the user if they are right or wrong, and tally a score. When they create Flash games, I teach them to use AS3 to create drag and drops, and how to use tutorials to learn more skills. However, with many new interfaces for creating mobile apps appearing, my gut feeling is that this is the way to go, and I am probably going this route this year. MIT has a platform for creating apps, but there are so many popping up, I haven’t been able to research them all.

Here’s the introductory video for the MIT App platform to give you an idea of how it works.

The third decision is around how to build enthusiasm. Some students will enter into it with gusto and there is so much available online that they will be able to teach themselves. But getting the social aspect to work is vital to any programme having staying power. If you can meet face to face that is the best option, but in many schools the normal sporting and extra-curricular programme is so full, finding a mutually agreeable time is well-nigh impossible. I have tried running a virtual club, but the buy-in is limited. Special programmes which run for a limited period of time, such as a Hackathon or Hack Off may work better if you can find a niche in the calendar. I have been trying to shoe-horn some coding time into whole school programmes such as Cross-curricular tasks, or end of year programmes when teachers are marking exams and willing to sacrifice curriculum time, but for some reason staff meetings tend to resist the idea as soon as you mention coding, or even worse, hacking. For students the word hacking has a much more positive valency, however.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is, to all three questions, but I do sense that this year the zeitgeist is different. The idea that everyone should code is so out there, I think it may just take hold!

 

 

 

Coding is the new Shop!

DSC00169When I was at school we had a subject called woodwork & metalwork, which was compulsory for all boys. Leaving aside issues of sexism, and the often desultory efforts made by my teachers to teach me the elements of joinery and metalwork, the sense was that all boys needed to be able to make, or at least fix, household furniture, and tackle DIY jobs around the house. By the same token, girls had to do home economics, cooking and sewing. I wish I had taken woodwork more seriously because I lack the kind of DIY skills today that would have stood me in excellent stead. Fewer schools offer home economics, woodwork & metalwork these days, but whatever one thinks of this, I would argue that in the twenty-first century, coding is the new shop!

Just as in previous decades, everyone learned some of the basic skills they might require in life to make and create things around the house, so, in the digital age, I would argue the ability to tweak and hack our programmable machines emerges as crucial life skills which everyone should learn. I’m not saying we all need to become programmers, or that we need to study computer studies as a full subject. To my mind the issue is that all students should be able to, at the very least, use HTML to tweak their blog posts or Facebook page, or mod their favourite games, or tweak their avatars. If MIT has its way the future will be awash with programmable machines, and the ability to actually tweak those settings would come in handy too!

I also believe coding gives one cognitive skills which would be of benefit to all. Coding forces students to think logically and accurately. In these days where opinions are largely expressed by sharing or liking, there is more need than ever for a discipline which emphasizes clear logical thinking. I think that creating games is an excellent way of introducing coding to students. Creating Flash games in particular can be very motivating for students because in a very short time, and with very few skills they can have a superb up and running, and this can be converted to an iOs or Android app.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Coding For Kids

 

Holiday Projects – Learn To Code As A Family!

With the holidays fast approaching, I am filled with just a little dread. Not only will my wife trot out the DIY jobs jar, but, as a father of teenage boys I know that after a few mornings sleeping in, a few days of playing the new computer game, will come that moment when the inevitable question gets asked, “What can I do now?”

But these holidays I am forearmed with an answer. Learning to code is all the rage: for good reason. Firstly – it is good mental discipline – the logical reasoning, attention to detail, the need to plan and move from the generality of pseudo-code to the specific syntax of whatever language you are using. I think learning to code teaches you a certain kind of mental precision that children used to get from having to learn Latin.

Secondly – I believe that it is a digital citizenship skill, something we all need to know for a future where being able to tweak your machine, modify your applications will not be seen as something geeky, but something as necessary as breathing. We are fast headed for a technological future where we will be interfacing with machines not as isolated events during a busy day, but on a constant basis. That future has two possible paths, one in which all the coding of those machines is managed by corporations, and we have little say in how we experience our environment, apart from choosing from a list of alternate “templates”, and another in which we are able to tweak the code ourselves, and can deliver more personalized outcomes. I believe it is imperative that we try our darndest to be ready for the second alternative – and that means learning to code.

It worries me that we seem to be producing a generation of consumers rather than producers. When I was young, computers came more or less assembled with nothing on them. You pretty much had to learn to program to be able to get them to do anything. Even to get the programs that were on them to work you had to learn to type in DOS commands! These days computers come with everything on them, and you don’t need to learn a stitch of code to work them. We need to get back to that spirit of showing your machine who’s in charge!

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly, coding is fun. learning should always be fun, but especially during the holidays! It can also be an opportunity to experience learning together as a family. We don’t do enough of that. The natural order of things is that adults know more than kids, hopefully anyway! So learning tends to be about stuff your kids need to know, but you already know. Even if it’s stuff you’ve forgotten, like Algebra, it is never really a situation where the playing field is level. Coding, however, for most families will probably be a learning project the whole family can take on where all of you start as beginners.

So – here’s the challenge! Set up a challenge at the beginning of the holidays, a family project to code your own game for computer or mobile, learning to code as you go! This may sound like an impossible task, but actually the resources online are incredible, and make the task relatively painless. You can scale the ambition as you go. In many cases the tutorials and guidance is so good you can have a game going in 10 minutes! The rest is all about wanting to design your own game.

Here are some sites you can use (mostly free):

This list is not exhaustive, but represents some of the most popular sites.

 

Programming For Thinking Skills

DSC00169Up until the early 20th Century Latin formed the basis of the Liberal Arts curriculum, not because everyone would be a Latin scholar, but because it was seen as something which taught one to think, because it was a rigorous discipline requiring accuracy and ability to master a logical system. It formed an excellent indicator of academic potential, and thus persisted in the educational system well beyond its usefulness as a lingua franca. In the 1900s it was largely replaced by History as a preparation for public life, politics and the civil service.

I would argue that the decline of History, and of Latin, has left a crucial void in the Liberal Arts. In a sense it has robbed the Liberal Arts of their importance in the overall scheme of things. When the main purpose of Education was to fuel the bureaucracy of the empire, the need was for individuals possessing the skills to administer vast tracts of foreign soil, far from home with a sense of duty and the ability to remain unflappable under enormous pressure. The study of Latin or History provided a sense of place and importance – it underlined the belief in the superiority of Western culture, and gave the colonial bureaucrat, trained at Harrow or Eton, a sense of their moral and cosmic worth.

The relativism and post-modernism of the last hundred years, along with the decline of the empire, has stripped away all sense of worth and purpose, and left only naked materialism. In Education, the Liberal Arts have been eaten away by the ascendency of Mathematics and Science. Now, I have nothing against the Sciences – they are absolutely vital in any education, but I believe that critical thinking needs a balance, a grounding in the Arts. I’ve just seen some research suggesting that good English teaching improves Mathematical ability. And I have a gut feeling that music is also vital. Drama too – hell, all the Arts are important, but I can’t help feeling that something is missing at the core of our curriculum: a humanistic study which is grounded in rigour and trains critical thinking.

Those of you who are still with me will be surprised now to hear that I am going to suggest that coding, computer programming fills this void. Is coding an Art? Surely it should be lumped with the Sciences. How can it fill that need for a rigorous study which simultaneously fuels a sense of moral worth and makes sense of the Universe? It is undoubtedly rigorous, and I would argue is an excellent training ground for rigorous thinking, so vital for critical thought. There is nothing quite as exacting or as unforgiving as a computer program. One comma out of place, a forgotten semi-colon can negate an entire endeavour. Programmers need to be able to conceive of the purpose and function of a program, design its outline and implement its details in ways which enhance user experience and maximise functionality. Game design, in particular, needs to engage on many levels at the interface between humans and machine. In a sense, like music, it combines creativity with mathematical precision.

I have a sense that the 21st Century is going to be all about how we manage our relationship with machines. The factories of the Industrial Age were one kind of machine, but the digital interfaces of the Information Age are quite another, and I have a feeling that the ability to hack one’s machines is what will define our ability to rise above mere consumerism. What the digital natives of the digital generation seem to lack is that ability to hack their machines. When I think back to what I did with my first computer, a ZX Spectrum, it involved almost only programming! There was precious little else you could do with it. Kids today experience computers almost entirely as platforms for products they download. Very little is done even to tweak these programs. Computing has become an act of consumption first and foremost.

We have a duty to teach kids to code so that people have the ability to act as agents of their own destiny in an increasingly complex digital world. Coding is therefore a humanistic project, perhaps the most vital expression of our humanity in a world where we are relying on our machines more and more.

What should replace History at the core of the Liberal Arts curriculum? Why, coding of course!

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2014 in Coding For Kids, Critical thinking

 

Coding For All?

ImageThere is a positive mania for all things coding right now, and it begs the question, should we be teaching everyone to code? Part of me believes that everyone should have some exposure to some kind of programming. I believe it helps develop the rational mind in some vague way, in the same way that the study of Latin was said to be good for one! It is also an essential twenty first century skill. People should not be at the mercy of technology, and to gain some ability to control the world around us, we need to be able to hack our machines a little.

I have always taught a little bit of coding in my computer skills classes, whether a bit of Scratch, or some HTML or JavaScript. Recently I have been using ActionScript with Flash as well.

Another part of me, though, recognises that coding is not for everyone, and ramming it down everyone’s throats might be counter-productive. I would love to see some coding as part of the core curriculum, and I do believe everyone should have an introductory look at it, and be encouraged to take it up, but I don’t think it should be compulsory.

I also believe that coding should be embedded in the curriculum. It should be seen as part of any act of critical thinking. There should be some coding in History, some in Maths, in Geography and Art. Students should be encouraged to develop apps or games that help them learn in all their subject disciplines. I believe all kids are capable of that, and that increasingly coding and learning are the same thing. Learning in a Digital Age is wrapped up with one’s ability to hack solutions. Creating a website is a deeper learning experience than merely viewing one. Creating a game is more packed with learning than merely playing one.

Saying all kids should be coding is perhaps a step too far, but we should be encouraging everyone to give it a go! MIT App Inventor looks like a great site to encourage students to develop apps for any subject discipline – a challenge I will certainly be setting my students this year!

 
 
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