Learning to code

Software programming hasn’t been taught at my school for years. It was a bit of a gamble for me to include it in my programs for 3 subjects I teach: 9IST, 10IST and 11IPT. I was intending to do programming with the year 9s but decided to extend this to the year 10s in the hope of drumming some interest for the Software Design  HSC course and to the year 11s because the students expressed interest in learning.

Intro to programming

I used different ways to introduce the topic. First up were the year 10s who I got to play with Context Free Art (visual programming) which I barely learned at the CS4HS at Sydney Uni a few days before. Next up were the year 11s and I took them straight to Python for Beginners course with groklearning; the first couple of modules are free and sufficient to get beginning programmers going. Finally, with the year 9s, I went completely analogue. In groups of 3, they had to design a dance move for 8 beats and write it in pseudo-code. Another group gets to execute the move using the pseudo-code.

The year 9s had the best fun and, in my opinion, really learned what it means to design and code software programs. They experienced the challenge of breaking down the problem (dance move) into smaller components and think of sequencing, concurrent processing and even looping. Then there was the challenge of coding the move. Also, they realised that code – if unclear – could be interpreted in different ways or worse, wrongly (not as designed). They got the big picture: developing algorithmic-thinking and coding skills.  As quoted from @gilfer in a previous post, Software is poetry

… programming is not really the practice of writing lines of code. It is the art of taking big, intractable problems and breaking them down into ever smaller ones which can be understood, explained and then carefully assembled into a living, breathing work of art.

Software is poetry. It’s the expression of ideas in the most elegant form a programmer can devise.

Learning Python

I really enjoyed my road-test of NCSS challenge last year and so changed my new school’s IST course so I can include it in (he he).  As mentioned, both my years 9 and 10 are doing the NCSS challenge 2013 in its spiffy new groklearning platform. It fits right in with the IST syllabus (core topics + software design option) as well as my experiential approach to teaching. I even decided to make this one of the assessment tasks for year 9s; I’d have done the same with year 10s except their doing exams instead.

Both classes started the challenge today – Beginners. Starting with a quick campfire, I told them about pair programming (one of the strategies I learned yesterday as good for success in introductory programming – go on read it; I will try the other strategies later) and of course, remind them to have fun. It’s too early to tell but hey, I’m excited because the students were totally engaged in the challenge and were having fun….hard fun….as in, easy is boring kind of fun.  In both cases, I had to boot them out at the end of the period as they wanted to keep going – and we’re talking they’re supposed to go to recess or lunch….not another subject that perhaps they don’t like!

Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me but the year 9s did better than the year 10s. Was it the dance move intro? 🙂

There are a few year 9s who I will have upgraded to the Intermediate challenge as Beginners seem too easy for them. #proudmoment

I thought I’d share my here as well; feel free to reuse, upcycle, remix – if you do, all I ask for is feedback to how it can be better….atrribution would be nice, too. 2013 – 9IST – Assessment 3 – NCSS (PDF)

Using ClassDojo

I used ClassDojo before when I first ran my Digital Media Jedi Academy (also for 9IST). As before, I’m using it to communicate my expectations and award points. The points this time is for a request for an in-school competition outside of the national challenge. I do listen to my students and besides, using ClassDojo really forces me to look at each kid and see if they are showing expected behaviours…and my favourite is “exceeding expectations“. In this way, ClassDojo is my tool to remind me to check in with every kid as I have a visual reminder of eveyrone in my class and the ones who are not racking up points (are they not showing the expected behaviour or am I just not seeing it – go look, Mrs Mawby!). The points system is handy also for the teacher observation component of the 9IST task.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not using the Negative Behaviours (removing points) because in my 6 months with these classes, I’ve never had reason to control negative behaviour….yes, I’m lucky.

expected behaviour

expected behaviour


Okay, have shared heaps now and will stop – just wanted to leverage the excitement of the day to churn out a blog post 🙂

UPDATE 12 August 2013: I just added the task in PDF (I forgot to attach it last time….oops!)

It’s all about learning


“A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem” – Albert Einstein

Justin Lanier (@j_lanier) recently blogged a story that succinctly captured my current thoughts on pedagogy. Justin’s post was a welcome relief with what seems to me a growing pre-occupation with trends, styles or approaches to teaching – (guilty here, see related post). For instance, a Twitter conversation highlighted to me that my way of Project-Based Learning (PBL) could confuse some as  it did not follow the 8 Essential Elements of PBL published by BIE. That conversation shook me enough to hide the link to my PBL page; however, I stand by my way because it’s been gleaned from my personal and professional experience which is really relevant to the computing subjects I teach…. I just don’t say I do PBL anymore.

But let me move on to what I really want to write about here….

The tagline of this blog is – It’s all about learning – and I’ve come to appreciate that this is precisely why I blog…to share my learning journey, mostly through my teaching practice. Part of this journey is my search for what it is that optimises learning and my Tag cloud shows quite a variety of these. Truth be told, what really works for me in optimising learning is not a teaching approach or style. It’s no secret either. It’s building relationships….and relevant posts are under the tag: You Matter, a phrase largely credited to @AngelaMaiers, and one I’ve extended to You Matter, I Care.

Regarding content, my Tag cloud also includes metaphors and analogies, stories, focus on literacy, and lots more under a very generic tag of learning strategies. When asked, I often say that what learning needs is a context – real world or make-believe.

Here’s a book that explains why what works for me actually works….and it contains more tools/strategies….and how-tos….and encouragement …and it is called ….

image courtesy of thebookdepository.com

image courtesy of thebookdepository.com

an imaginative approach to teaching – by Kieran Egan

The premise of the book is to tap into the students’ emotions and imagination using cognitive tools they develop as they grow.

The book is narrative in style and you can almost hear the author speaking. Egan encourages teachers to make use of these tools, mix-and match and leverage growth in students (i.e. can still use stories and play even when they are ready for theoretic thinking or abstraction). Being practical-oriented, the book is perhaps better used as a reference, e.g. select tools, rather than read from start to finish.

The tools are so ‘obvious’ from one’s own learning experience that they seem ordinary and perhaps why they aren’t used more often. What tools are there?

Part 1: A Tool kit for Learning

  • story
  • metaphor
  • binary opposites
  • rhyme, rhythm and pattern
  • jokes and humor
  • mental imagery
  • gossip
  • play
  • mystery
  • embryonic tools of literacy

Part 2: A Tool Kit for Literacy

  • sense of reality
  • extremes of experience and limits of reality
  • associate with heroes
  • sense of wonder
  • collections and hobbies
  • knowledge and human meaning
  • narrative understanding
  • revolt and idealism
  • changing the context
  • literate eye
  • embryonic tools of theoretic thinking

Part 3: A Tool Kit of Theoretic Thinking

  • sense of abstract reality
  • sense of agency
  • grasp of general ideas and their anomalies
  • search for authority and truth
  • meta-narrative understanding

The list certainly affirms tools that worked for me such as stories, metaphors, changing the context (e.g. problems vs exercises, teaching equations big-picture style),  association with heroes (e.g. Polya, Jedis), sense of agency (Cloud, Dream),  as well as some I haven’t blogged about.  AND I’ve now got a host of other tools to explore including mystery, revolt and idealism as well as meta-narrative understanding.

and since I’ve fallen in love with Inquiry learning, it may just take that form. A mystery would make a nice inquiry, no?

p.s. If you don’t want to buy the book, resources are available online on ierg.net.

Imagine: multi-modal learning


I love the word, the idea, the song (melody, lyrics, riffs).

We received a (much-wanted) piano – a gift from a stranger (quick digression: husband asked at a local garage sale if they had a piano. The answer was no but that their brother had one to give away but it was in Bega – a good 6-hour drive away! Husband goes off on a road trip with 2 mates and now it’s home…a piano with stories…gotta love that).   Not a day goes by without it being played by my daughters and recently, me. Yes, I’ve decided to re-learn.

If you’ve been following my blog before, you’d recall that I have tried to do this before and, in fact, used the experience as an inspiration to introduce Algebra. That was a few years ago and the interest waned. But now, we’ve got a REAL piano. with a story.  So re-learn, I must.

I chose to learn “Imagine”. I got the free music sheet from here. I had a go and then hit YouTube (as you do) and found this tutorial. This guy made it looked easy and talked about chords. So there I was, tinkering away and said aloud, “I wish I could play chords on the piano” et voila! my fairy godmother appeared! Actually, it was my 15 year old daughter.  She learned the skill from her Music elective and she showed me how. And guess what, there are patterns (again). So now, my ‘version’ is a hybrid of the sheet music, the video tutorial and the face-to-face tuition I got from my daughter. THIS is multi-modal learning!

There’s much here that can be adapted to classroom learning and I will list a few. Please feel free to contribute any more you can glean out of this.

  1. Motivation drives learning. Have purpose.
  2. Learning through (work)sheets is possible. It is a point-of-reference.
  3. Learning through videos is possible.
  4. Direct instruction can be a real boost.
  5. Immediate and specific feedback is invaluable.
  6. Articulating (identifying) difficulties can become learning opportunities.
  7. Learn from anyone; kids can teach.
  8. Identifying patterns can be a catalyst for learning.  Abstraction is necessary for transference (and I’m really excited about this transference bit – building my repertoire and dreaming of improvisations – haha)
  9. Practice. There is a difference between knowing and mastery: I now know how to play Imagine but mastery is still a dream.
  10. Learning is relationship-building.

Imagine a classroom where these are at play.

My students made me cry

Term 2 2012 was spent as a relief teacher, teaching Computing Studies to mostly boys in years 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12. When I started that journey, I had a dream of Students as Teachers, a post I ended with:

Students will learn. This time, I’ll let them teach…each other…and quite possibly, me.
With changing perspectives, (my) teaching is evolving and I find that exciting. For the record, I’m also a little scared it’ll fail, i.e. that I can’t facilitate my students to teach. I’ll try anyway.

I have blogged a fair bit about this 9-week journey and how I was such a GBL n00b, took risks with teaching and learning, “flirted” with Inquiry-based Learning via Clouds and Dreams, and generally just explore different teaching approaches (or styles).

I was always mindful about covering the required content BUT  I knew I wanted MY students to get more out of their time with me. I wanted them to learn so much more than the bullet points on a syllabus document. The thing is, they do anyway, from most teachers, if not all. It’s just that we’re often not explicit about it nor give students time to reflect on their learning as well encourage questions and conversations (see related post, Not Much).

While I played with different teaching approaches, there were common themes: self-directed, specific and regular one-on-one feedback (face-to-face, written, online via Edmodo), do what you ask the students to do, and a driving mantra of “get to know the kids”.

But with my year 11s, I did one thing differently – and that’s to regularly give them time to reflect, in writing or online, on their learning: what they learned, mastered and struggled with. I think that this has helped them learn to learn. Here’s a snapshot of some responses to my end-of-term survey:

Student preferred activity

[Click to enlarge]

This was a class who initially answered the question “what have you learned?” with “Nothing” to “not much”. Now, I got: “we used an example to help explain tasks focused on in class .. very good tactic” and “Allows us to think about our future, as well as learn about Information Processes.”

Of the activities mentioned, you can read about “Can we trust the cloud?” and “What price a dream?“. The IPG challenge veered away from Inquiry-based learning as a competition designed to cover the rest of the syllabus content really quickly. Each group was assigned an Information Process to research on. Every lesson, the topics were swapped and each group then had to find mistakes, add more information and report plagiarism (it’s amazing how quickly they realised how easy it is to spot!). At the end, each topic was presented to the class. The prize was a free lunch from me – which turned out to be a class party where they all willingly chipped in ….it coincided with the end of term and my time with them.

It is interesting that there is a good spread of what activity each student liked the most. Some obviously preferred to work in groups. A few enjoyed competition. Many liked the personal and individual work. Regardless, the ability to articulate thoughts about their learning had improved for most students. And, none of these activities go towards their marks/grades.

I found that moving because that was a realisation of my dream; they were learning and teaching each other…me, too. As if that was not enough, read through some of the general comments.

Student comments

[click to enlarge]

And that’s how students made me cry! *at home*

I used to be embarrassed to say as a teacher, “I’m not passionate about teaching but I am passionate about learning”. Not anymore. I was designing learning experiences – very rarely did I “teach” the class collectively. Edna Sackson articulates this so well in this post: From Teaching to Learning.

I am accountable to cover syllabus content and I can’t let that go. What I have let go of is “control” because I can’t control learning. In letting go, I have allowed myself to explore other ways for the content to be learned….and maybe I was just lucky but this year 11 class engaged with the content more than I thought they would, and certainly some more than others! and that’s okay.

In a nutshell, here are what worked and I’d do again:

  • diversified approach
    • I’m really loving inquiry-based learning
  • give time to reflect on learning
    • talk about it, promote it
  • get to know the kids
    • design activities to accelerate the process. with my year 11s, for example: About Me wiki, one-on-one time in class, prompt/honest feedback on work, Dream document. As one student said before saying goodbye: “you found something good in all of us” – and why not? This is what makes people tick.


Not much

As previously blogged, I’m doing Inquiry-based learning with my Year 11 Information Processes and Technology (IPT) class. Our topic now is Analysis and our focus question is “What price a dream?”.

The class has been working on this for a few lessons now and yesterday I asked if they felt they were learning. One responded with “Not much“. I didn’t take offence because it is literally better than “nothing” (what they used to say until I got them to reflect regularly, i.e. stop long enough to think of what they have learned). Besides, the relevant syllabus content really isn’t difficult; if I were to teach it lecture-style, I would cover in 1 lesson, what has taken us 4, so far.


I got thinking…..

and this is what came of it…..

I started the lesson with this on the board:

Inquiry-based learning

  1. contextual (inquiry)
  2. self-directed
  3. personalised

I told them that when I started, I found them unmotivated and disengaged (also mentioned in my Inquiry-based Learning post). I mentioned that doing Inquiry would perhaps get them engaging more with the content. So the first one was on Cloud Storage and this one now on a life dream for Analysis. Many students nod at this stage realising that indeed they engaged with the syllabus content within the said contexts as well as that their inquiry journeys were largely self-directed and personalised.

I then drew this, explaining as I went:

For all those examples, I named names. I identified students who were showing learning the syllabus, extending their learning, and even abstracting. Seeing individual faces light up as their little gems were acknowledged is priceless!!! (#youmatter) As it turned out, students loved these “shout-outs” (as they call it).

It’s probably best to just “quote” myself here:

If you think you haven’t learned much, it’s because you haven’t pushed yourself enough. My job as a teacher is not to just tell you about things but to give you contexts for learning, opportunities to learn, challenge you and give you feedback. Self-directed learning requires discipline and motivation.

I’m here. Are you asking enough questions? When you ask questions, I answer back – often with a question. But, I meet you where you’re at. Some of you work harder than others, and that’s ok. And those of you who’ve sought my feedback have learned more.

So, are you asking enough questions? Because really, if you’re curious enough, there is no limit to what you can learn.

To be honest, I lost a few along the way but many stayed with me through my mini speech cum reflection cum challenge. One even applauded. Not surprisingly, it was the one who said ‘not much’ yesterday; and today, he got more than he ever expected to learn in an IPT class. In fact, he even asked if I had different approaches for different classes (sounds familiar, yes?) I answered him and added, “Inquiry seems to be working best for me and that means this class“. One of these days, I will post about the “how” I’m doing this with my year 11s.