ICT in schools doesn’t have to be shit. In fact it can be the most exciting subject that delivered well will leave kids inspired, enabled and equipped with the mental tools to lead better lives rather than sitting bored working through a hopelessly out-of-date lesson plan learning something that they’ll ultimately forget. Since my last article back in December, our education secretary Michael Gove MP said that ICT leaves children, “Bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers”. So what can be done?
The problem isn’t the teaching of Microsoft products in the classroom, but the general lack of inspired education in science and technology. The lack of logical and analytical training leads to a poor take-up of science subjects in higher education, a lack of appreciation for technology and science and the biggest travesty of all; a lost opportunity to use perhaps the most accessible science to guide children through the concepts of critical thinking, observation, testing – skills which I’m sure you’ll agree, the adult population is sorely lacking.
I blogged about how ICT in schools was shit last December and I was promptly picked up on my article by a passionate IT administrator of a nearby busy primary school whom with the year 6 teachers, threw the gauntlet down and suggested that I come in to visit their school for a whole day to teach sixty eleven year-old children about software the Mike way.
The thought filled me with dread. I mean, had they actually read my article? It’s a sweary rant that endorses rebelliousness, hacking and references malware and pornography in equal measure. Well, I know the IT administrator read my article and she rides motorcycles and plays drums, so maybe that explains it
The problem (as I see it)
ICT has always been about teaching word processing and spread sheets. At least that’s how it was when I was at school. It’s easy to blame the teachers but having spent a day in their hard-worn shoes, let me tell you it’s not an easy job that they have. They’re already up to their eyeballs in standardised testing, numeracy and literacy programmes, strictly timed lesson plans and when they’re not teaching, they can be found policing, monitoring, nursing and counselling. They may not have first hand experience of the applied sciences or methods of teaching them. After all, this is getting into the realm of philosophy and epistemology and not just logic and programming!
ICT provision also appears to differ considerably between schools. Every school that I have seen in the last year (4 in Hampshire, 1 in Surrey) all have classrooms equipped with interactive whiteboards and computers but not all have accessible hardware (e.g. Lego Metastorms Robots/small programmable electronics/control hardware), especially in the younger years’.
There also appears to be a strong focus on ICT as a generic subject which boils down in layman’s terms to, “Working on computers”. From my parent’s point of view, schools were very keen to show off their computer hardware purchases but often very little of the potential of this equipment is realised as there isn’t always the right software available (it’s often expensive to acquire).
I am not going to talk about using computers. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that schools already have a fabulous grasp on what computers are and how to use them to support learning in all subjects. I’m going to share with you what I believe could be refined into a model for teaching logic, programming, critical thinking and scientific literacy skills.
How the day went
This section is a blow-by-blow account, so if you’re more interested in the why rather than the ‘how’, skip to the next section
Organising the day took a lot of emailing back and forth between myself and the school. But eventually a day was set, June 1st (last Friday). Two weeks before the date, I’m informed that the school has a Jubilee celebration planned for this day and I might have to be rescheduled. I hadn’t prepared the lesson at this point so figured that I could incorporate the Jubilee into it somehow. I had planned to use Scratch, a computer program which makes other programs but instead of programming using an error-prone language, one drops coloured chunks of pseudo-code onto a canvas and using the built in graphics editor, creates sprites and uses these chunks of colourful code to make interesting things happen. In other words, simplistic programming 101.
I wrote two demos just in case one failed and also it gives me twice the opportunity to train the kids. I wanted to cram as much of the good stuff in as I possibly could – training that the children probably wouldn’t be able to access at any other school.
The first demo that I prepared was a Guitar-Hero clone and I used Bryan May’s “God Save The Queen” as recorded from the top of Buckingham Palace as the theme. ROCK! I purchased two Ardinuo control and sensor boards and wired up four buttons using crocodile clips, buttons, cardboard and hot glue for the controller:
On the day, I woke up in the morning after getting about two hours’ sleep. It was as humid as a night in the rainforest and the air conditioning unit in our bedroom was working like an asthmatic jogger’s lungs. It was dawning on me all night.. I hadn’t yet seen the school, nor spoken to the teachers. We’d only corresponded by email – what if it all goes badly wrong?
Two coffees, a Red Bull and a 45 minute drive later, and I arrive at the school gates. After meeting the IT administrator and before meeting the year six teachers, I’m taken to the dinner ladies and place my order for the first school dinner that I’ve had in well over 20 years. A jacket potato with tuna.
After meeting the two year 6 teachers and a local IT educational hardware expert (who was in for half a day to set up some fabulous Lego Metastorm Robots), I was taken into one of the year 6 classrooms and there I sat while the children streamed in like a sea of little fishes, all eager to learn and wearing mostly red, white and blue clothing for the Jubilee day.
The teacher took the register and introduced the ICT day and then handed over to me. It took me a little by surprise since although I knew there would be time for a talk at the start of the day, I didn’t know that I was doing it. Still, rather tentatively, I stood up in front of 60 expectant faces and all of sudden my mind went blank and my brain started to say, “Oh shit. This is where everyone realises that you know nothing about software”. It was my own personal “fritzherbert” moment.
Geez, thanks brain. I thought you were on my side. I took a pen from the interactive whiteboard and drew a big smiley face, much to the amusement of the room. I hadn’t used an interactive whiteboard before and I couldn’t help myself. So I drew another one.
After introducing myself, I asked them all if they knew what software was. Two children put their hands up. I asked then if they have knew what a computer was? All sixty responded with hands held higher than flagpoles. I explained that software boils down to a list of instructions that the hardware follows. “Ok, I thought.. don’t lose them.. let’s see if we can get a brainstorm session going” and with that we came up with several quick-fire examples of where computers and software might be used. It was amazing to see lights go on when I asked who had gone on a foreign holiday on an aeroplane and then to tell them that after take-off and before landing that software controlled the basic flight functions of the aircraft. We brainstormed this:
After a few minutes, it was time to start the sessions proper. The 60 children were split into three groups of 20 and I was to take one group at a time in the ICT suite while the other two groups stayed in classrooms working with robots, lego and other technical and group activities, rotating sessions throughout the day so that everyone had an opportunity to do each task.
I had decided to use Scratch for the day and the two demonstrations that I had prepared (here and here) were already pre-loaded onto the 16 computers in the ICT suite and I brought along my laptop too and had connected it to the classroom projector.
I was concerned that by taking a group of children into a classroom and sitting them down in front of the computers that I might lose them in a distraction-filled environment. I therefore thought that I needed to create a bigger distraction to hold their interest. That distraction was a projected guitar hero game with the national anthem blaring out from some speakers in the middle of the room.
The children were all buzzing with excitement as they entered the ICT room and this was my first real opportunity to gauge their level of interest and confidence in technology. They all told me that they get one hour per week of dedicated ICT and that they loved it. I asked them if they’d seen Scratch before and they hadn’t. So I explained that Scratch was a “Computer software program that is used for creating other computer programs” and the explanation sat well with them.
So I quickly had a volunteer come up to play the game, turned the speakers up to 100% and rocked out with Bryan May while I explained very simply how guitar-hero style games worked from a gameplay perspective. While the player was still playing, I instructed all of the remaining children to open scratch and to load the project on their computers so that they could play along too.
I gave them all a few minutes to play and ask questions and it worked well. I think they were all expecting to be bored We didn’t delve into the script or the sprites, this was just a demonstration. By the end of the day I would be asked by almost half of the children how they could run these games and get this software at home. Result.
We loaded up the second game, this one requires two players. A type of “Pong” game with a Jubilee theme. Player one on the top used a slider to control the bat. Player two on the bottom used the arrow keys.
What I didn’t tell them was that using keys to control a bat was much more difficult than using a slider. This was borne out with cries of, “It’s unfair!”, “It’s not working very well!” from player two. Ahh, my young apprentices’ – this is the whole point!
I explained that the slider moves the top player instantly to an absolute position as the player’s bat tracks the slider location, so it’s easy to flick it to where you want the bat to go. It’s INTUITIVE. But that using keys moves the bottom player just a few spaces to the left or the right, so necessitates having to be pressed over and over again to move quickly.
When the bottom player expressed annoyance, I explained that to balance the game, I had added a special move. By pressing space bar the bottom player could hurl a cup of tea up the board and if it hits the top player, they score a point.
This impressed the children greatly. But not as much as the next revelation: I had scripted a sound sensitive sensor to allow the top player to lob biscuits at the bottom player but they would have to make a loud noise (like a clap) to do so.
When I revealed this, the classroom broke into pure anarchy. All of the children realised that they could effect the gameplay by making noise and noise they did make. It got so loud that I had to tell them all to stop. They looked at me, I closed the door and said, “Carry on” with a big smile and they laughed and continued the frivolity.
Once the game was over, we had a feedback session. I got all the children to describe the game and then gave them my opinion: “The game sucks, shall we see what we can do to make it better?”. I gave them all five minutes to split into groups of two and play a little versus game with the person next to them. I then stopped them all and asked them what we could do to make the game better and I received lots of creative suggestions:
- Allow the top player to shoot by pressing a key (their computers had no sound sensors so the top player was effectively crippled versus their bottom player opponent).
- Change the graphics:
- Change the ball: Suggestions of “Olympic Torch”, “Beachball”, “Smiley Face” and “Flaming Baby” were all given.
- Change the bats / scenery.
- Change the tea & biscuits.
I wanted to start them off with an introduction to Scratch, so went back to the laptop and asked them to follow my instructions while I pointed to the projected image to show them where to click. “On the right hand side, these are sprites. And sprites are pictures with code attached to them to give them special behaviours”. A lot of terminology, but they readily understood it after asking questions.
I had them customise first the ball and then to run their game to see if it works. Some children made balls that were too small or too large and some coloured theirs so that they matched the background colours and couldn’t be seen. While the children were designing their balls, I was explaining to them that they needed to think carefully about the design to keep it playable. And yes, I did get chortles of suppressed laughter when I accidentally said, “I’m going to colour my ball with the theme of the Olympic torch”. Must be more careful with language next time.
And boy, did I get questions! “I don’t understand the point of this!” said one young lady. “This is so cool, whoever made this is a genius!” exclaimed another. During the free-form creative time, I was constantly torn trying to fairly allocate my time around the circle of young designers and programmers on their computers who all had burning questions and not a lot of time to answer them in.
Teaching is hard. Projecting one’s voice constantly and directing and controlling the class wasn’t easy. I noticed how all of the teachers had bottles of water or squash on their desks, and now I know why. Standing in a hot room for hours a day having to talk loudly and be on perfect form is hard. It’s harder to teach software concepts to children than Royal Marines – and trust me, I’ve now done both!
After changing the ball, I showed them how to change the player bat sprites, the main stage (background) sprite and the tea and biscuit sprite (and associated ‘explosion’ version which shows when a hit is registered). They all had fun for ten minutes changing sprites and making their own version of the game.
For the scripting to equalise the game to give the top player something to shoot, I showed them an example. The cup of tea was the bottom player’s ammunition and so I used the below script as a demonstration.
I asked the children, “Can someone tell me what happens when I press the spacebar?”. I got several answers, “The player shoots”, “A special move”, etc. I then explained to the children that as a programmer we need to learn to think more deeply about processes. I explained that when a key is pressed we then need to embark upon a list of commands to draw a cup of tea, to then place it over the firing player, then to show it (because it’s invisible to start with) and then to make it move across the screen to the other player).
I had the children read the script out loud with me.
“When space key pressed”
”switch to costume tea”
I then had the children open the “biscuit” sprite and start to create their own script (it looks very similar to the one shown here, but is effectively the opposite as it’s player 1 that’s firing, not player 2).
I had them all go to the orange “Control” tab to get the control event. I didn’t tell them where it was, but just to find something that would work. Some children were really fast at this, others needed help. I’m glad I chose a small and easy and fun script to demonstrate as the clock was ticking and there wasn’t much time left. Oh, plus the teachers wanted to relieve me to go see what the other sessions were doing..
This was the most interesting portion of the session for the children. Without going into more detail, they all learnt some incredible things here:
- The most common thing that children would say is, “Is this it? Am I done now?”. The answer to the question was always the same: “Test it.”.
- Direct application of mathematical knowledge to software scripting.
- X and Y co-ordinates on both positive and negative axis and knowledge needed to control where the missile (tea/biscuit/whatever the child has created) is to move to.
- When they claimed it worked, a friend would nearly always be able to find a problem.
- Another surprise “problem”… (see below)
I had planned another, final bug for the children to find. Some of them noticed while they were testing their scripts. Occasionally the biscuit would fly diagonally instead of going straight down. That’s because they had the “x position” set to a static number. Changing this to a variable and understanding what variables are and how they are used and seeing the enlightenment on their faces was magical and a moment I will never forget.
Children are able to identify bugs and, with guidance and application of prior mathematical knowledge, fix them. I doubt this happens anywhere else in the country. But in this classroom on this day, it happened sixty times.
And yes, there was a strange moment when I said, “x position” for the first time. Just like the “colour my ball” moment earlier, I learned to adjust my use of language to avoid the faus pas. Occasionally I would refer the children to speak to their IT admin and called her my her first name instead of Mrs B. Amusingly, the children would chastise me for doing this and say, It’s “MRS B…!”. By the end of the day I was using everyone’s titles correctly
Definitely a trial by fire.
Lunchtime. An hour to sit, eat and rest weary legs and vocal chords. I also had my first school dinner in over twenty years and it was surprisingly good! My son commented that he had a similar school dinner but he chose pizza and sausages (also on offer at this school I hasten to add) and that his “Jubilee biscuit” (so that’s what they’re called..) didn’t have a cherry on it.
The lack of a cherry on my son’s biscuit (he was in Hampshire, I was in Surrey) was mentioned to @hantsconnect and they replied:
@MikeWTweets We provide dinners to 474 Hants schools, 12 Wilts & 2 Dorset. We’ll feed back his cherry disappointment tinyurl.com/67uerh9
There’s much, much more to be said but not this article is already long enough. The day was both tiring and exhilarating.
At this school, certainly. They’ve asked me to come back for year five and the headmistress (who thought I was a teacher and declared to my surprise that I had a natural talent for teaching children) asked me back also, as did the teachers. The feedback from the day that I have received was entirely positive and I have to say that I learnt quite a lot about myself, about teaching and about ICT in schools during the day! One child said that it was the best day of his life (I’m not kidding, it was quite an emotional moment) and many children reported that it was the best day of their schooling so far.
I can report that this was the most rewarding IT project that I’ve ever been involved in. I am humbled to have been asked to come in and share a day with the school and the children. It was an amazing experience.
It was obvious to me that this school was driven to provide the best environment for their children, not just in ICT but in all areas of the curriculum. Sadly, this won’t be the case in all schools. I’m particularly concerned about whether schools in deeply rural or (ironically) city areas can match the same level of provision. After all, it’s hard to run an ICT programme if you don’t have access to computers or if parts of those computers have been stolen or broken…
An ICT recipe…
If you work in education and would like to run something similar to this day, to make the perfect ICT cake you will need:
- One kilogram of School leadership:
- That extends an invitation and doesn’t impose a structure or restrictions on the day. (Trust).
- Two cups of Teachers who fully buy into the programme. (Enthusiasm)
- One litre of enthusiastic and knowledgeable instruction, either delivered from an external visitor like me, or from another similar IT professional. (Knowledge)
Bake the whole lot for a day, feedback and review.
If your cake comes out sloppy and tasting like wallpaper, please don’t blame me!
If you work in government, please think about:
- Providing a fund to expense payments to cover the costs of specialist assistance.
- Provide training allowances for schools to bring in paid external consultants to educate teachers (and maybe the children too) in areas that the teachers may not have the expertise.
- Curriculum to emphasise on critical thinking, specifically:
- The scientific method (observation, hypothesis, testing, analyse results, report or rethink)
- Sceptical values
- Q: “I’ve finished!”/”Am I done now?” – A: “Have you tested it?” (Testing)
- Q: “It works!” – A: “Ask your friend to test it.” (Peer review / confirmation bias)
- This is the core skill for all technical jobs.
- It’s also the core skill needed to distil truth from bullshit.
- Stop teaching Microsoft (or Apple or whatever vendor) products. (They’ll be long out of date before children ever have a need for them).
- Stop teaching specific IT behaviours and instead incorporate use of IT in other subjects to cover the bases for normal computer user uses:
- “How to use a search engine”
- “How to use Word”
If you work in industry, please think about:
- Taking a day or two out of your schedule to do something – anything – to help your local community.
- You never know what you might learn or what might come out of it in time.
- …and you might just influence and change a few young lives along the way.
I can honestly say that I know what needs to be done about it and I find it frustrating that politicians and industry bodies delay, holding endless committees, writing reports and generally wasting time all the while children are passing through the school system with an inadequate IT experience.
With the very best will and all the hardware in the world, the main two barriers to ICT training appear to be the focus on the wrong things (hardware & software packages instead of on logic, critical thinking and science/tech literacy) and on a lack of dedicated knowledge and preparation to guide children through a successful and rewarding project in a very short time (e.g. the Jubilee Pong demonstration).
It’s also not a problem that will go away on its own. Whilst enlightened people in industry, politics and education may well have ideas to resolve the problem, a 25,000 word Ofsted report into ICT in schools published in 2004 didn’t mention the word “programming” even once in the 25,000 words it contained. That’s a big failure, especially coming from the nation that spawned the computing industry.
I have discovered that children have far more creativity and much less fear of peer pressure and judgement than us adults do. I am completely confident that if I ran this same class with a group of adults, that I wouldn’t have seen the wide array of ideas from each of the student’s projects. Adults have a tendency to look at what the person next to them is doing and out of social compliance, to copy them. Children simply don’t care, I saw laser beams and ponies and all kinds and varieties of amazing drawings and concepts.
I also wish that our nation had an ICT apprenticeship scheme where children could start training in software development under the mentorship of industrial professionals and their teachers working together to provide them with real skills. After all, over in California we regularly see children working in companies or even simply making good pocket money selling small software applications online or in mobile app stores. It’s not unusual over there, but completely unheard of here.
Furthermore, I hope that these children continue to enjoy their education as much as they have at this particular school and that they go on to fulfil their potential. I hope that they won’t forget some of the lessons that they’ve learnt in this class and I know that I certainly won’t forget the lessons I’ve learned either.
Thank you to everyone involved, you know who you are!
*edit 28th May 2013* I received a lovely letter from the headteacher last month:
Mike Wilson came to our school in June 2012 to deliver a day’s workshop on programming for our Year 6 children.
Prior to the workshop, he had a discussion with the class teachers and ICT Technician to plan the programme for the day around the curriculum requirements and available resources.
He devised a carousel of activities for 4 groups of pupils who rotated between Mike’s sessions on Scratch programming software in our IT Suite and more informal ‘explore & invent’ sessions using programmable Lego Mindstorm models and other hardware.
Mike communicated his passion for computer programming to our Year 6 children and he held their attention completely. All the groups showed great enthusiasm as they explored the Scratch programmes he had put together and then progressed to making their own.
Mike clearly has a natural gift for teaching. The children learned a lot from him and many told him how much they had enjoyed the workshop sessions he led.
He was extremely well prepared and explained key concepts clearly to the children, with the result that they were quickly able to grasp and make use of them. We would have no hesitation in booking another session with Mike and in recommending him to other schools.
Headteacher (now retired)
Laleham C of E Primary School