What did they learn?

This post is about my 9 IST 2014  Game On project originally premised on the notion of making the world more humane (see links for related posts). This was essentially a project-based learning approach (PBL) and it had the 8 essential elements of PBL according to the Buck Institute of Education (BIE), a PBL leader.  It’s tempting to see how I’ve done against that checklist and I dare say it was a good PBL but what I really want to do here is ask the harder question of whether or not this project has achieved what I set out to do.

That is, has the project somehow made the world more humane?

Have the process and product of answering the driving question – “Can developing games help develop resilience?” – somehow created a more humane world, on top of achieving curricular outcomes?

The previous Game On event post has partially answered this … and it is a YES. Connecting with others. Making time for play and enjoying it. Celebrating achievements. Laughing out frustrations. Giving feedback. All good stuff and all told from my perspective.

Let me share what my students said. I used one of  Harvard University’s Project Zero Visible Thinking Routines, “I used to think…now, I think” as a student reflection tool. I’ve quoted a few below but if you want to read more, find it here – SDP reflection (PDF).

on Game Design

I used to think… now I think…
Would be pretty easy as there are so many games already made It’s challenging but now I realise how creating a game isn’t so simple and coming up with a new idea is not as easy as you think. However, designing games is a rewarding process and is absolutely fun.
It is easy to come up with an idea and develop a game and it is the programming and algorithm which is the difficult part in the game designing process. That coming up with ideas take up a lot of patience and skill. It is vital to come up with an idea which has a vitally fun and interesting output. It is essential to consider how the gamer or viewer will find the game as well.
That games you could just tell the computer what you wanted without having to use certain blocks and that it would be quite simple once you have an idea, it would do the rest for you. Actually, there are specific instructions you must use to make games. You have to be determined because sometimes things don’t work and you have to try again.

on Software design and programming

That software design and development has to strictly follow the design process of design, produce, evaluate. That evaluation is the most key part of design as it enables communication between the designer and user.
That it was really boring and that there wasn’t really many things you could do with software. Also, that people just made things that already existed and that it wasn’t helpful or fun. Software design and development is very good and useful and there is so much you can do with it that is not already created but you make new things and new ideas.
It really only involved one person and that you always typed in binary. It involves a whole group of people for it to be successful. Now I know there are many other computer languages that you can use.

on being a Software Designer / Developer

That it was a simple and mindless job people did and that it was boring and stressful. It takes a lot of creativity and thinking to be able to design and produce something. Also, that although it may be stressful, it’s a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding when you see your finished product.
That in order to create a good idea, it was only the creator’s mindset or viewpoint on it that shaped how it turned out. That repeatedly seeking advice and information is important to keep you on the right track. Reviewing your work from different perspectives help in taking your creation to a new level.
You didn’t need to know much maths. Never have I been so wrong.
It involved a set of rules to need to follow to do your job. It involves more creativity. Successful games have creative people who made them.

They’re thinking of software as a creative process and tool.

They’re thinking of and “using” others.

They’re thinking of writing games for others to enjoy.

They’re seeing challenges – and perseverance – as a way to learn.

They’ve realised that their thinking has changed.


This being the last teaching day in 2014, it is good to reflect that teaching can be good. It’s not always good but good times, like this, make up for when it’s not so good.

Perhaps a relevant recap to where this “journey” started with a quote from John Maeda (Make it more humane) is this new video by @veritasium looking at the on-going search for technology to revolutionise education, and I quote…

The foundation of education is still based on the social interaction between teachers and students. For, as transformative as each new technology seems to be…, what really matters is what happens inside the learner’s head and making a learning think is best achieved in a social environment with other learners and a caring teacher.


Make it more humane

“Don’t make the world more high-tech, make it more humane.”

This quote is from a Fast Company article, 10 Crucial Lessons From History’s Graphic Designers, attributed to John Maeda. I’ve never head of Maeda before but the quote really struck a chord with me as this is exactly what I’ve been pursuing in my IST projects this year.

For example, year 10s tried to answer ‘How can multimedia help engage learners?‘ They are also currently working on “How can robots help solve the plastics problem?” Year 9s tried to answer “How can digital movies help address teens’ problems?” and this year’s crop of videos are particularly good. Year 9s are also currently working on Game On 2014, which will be bigger and better than Game On 2013.  I actually launched the year 9 project with the quote above and Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on building resilience (strengths) through video games. One of her most salient points is this:

Good games should …bring out [the best] in players…courage, creativity and empathy…really tap into strengths.

That is my current challenge to year 9s. I’m excited because I believe this class gets this ‘humane’ thing. They are girls who understand the beauty of a flower as Richard Feynman puts it, in the context of computing; they will never look at software in the same way again. This is more of the ‘make it more humane’ stuff. Learning Science helps us understand the world we live in; ipso facto, learning Computer Science helps us understand the digital world we live in…and in understanding, we have a better hope of engineering a better world, digital or otherwise.

What I’m seeing is increased engagement, particularly with year 9s and I feel I struck a goldmine in engaging girls in computing. The catalyst for blogging about this is the story of the women behind Vidcode (Alexandra Diracles and Melissa Halfon ) – where they talk about what it could be like if there were more women in computing along with their journey as a startup company. They echoed some of the issues mentioned in Fortune’s Why Women Leave Tech article. I am hoping these Vidcode women never leave tech, and instead continue to build more humane tech….better futures.

A more humane future, a better future, or preferred future (in ACARA’s Technologies curriculum parlance) is possible and worth pursuing. This is why I am passionate about increased diversity in computing and at the moment, I’m working on addressing the pipeline though issues remain in the industry (re: why women leave tech – read it). And while I still maintain the question ‘why is it so hard to get girls to study computing?’ (a post written just over a year ago), I feel somehow that I’m moving towards the right direction. Some of the strategies I shared in that post are working for me and it feels good to look back to it a year later and be able to see positive changes.

There is hope.


According to GoodReads, the actual Maeda quote is:

“The problem isn’t how to make the world more technological. It’s about how to make the world more humane again.”

This isn’t just about teaching, learning or using technology. It’s not just about integrating technology. It’s about creating technology to make a more humane world…and you don’t have to work in IT to do this….more likely, it would be work with IT for the vast majority…so, a bit of computer science for everyone, yes? (go on, read the Richard Feynman link above).

Shall we?

Multimedia PBL and wrestling with the marriage problem

After a term break from PBL, I’ve gone back to it with both my 9 and 10 IST classes. I’ve been meaning to share the ‘idea’ but just haven’t got there (Is it really week 4 now?). Anyway, I’m glad I’m doing PBL again now as well as incorporating some of the things I’m learning as I do my Masters in Special Ed.

So then, in this post I’ll share my 10IST PBL plus a (rough) lesson plan that targets content (IST: problem definition, GUI design) as well as an example of teaching approach that promotes active response (one of the effective teaching principles I’ve learned about recently).



We’re about a third of the way in and most of the theory have been covered (via direct instruction) by  now. However, I’ve noticed that while students ‘get’ the idea of what engagement looks like or what ‘good’ GUI looks like, I wasn’t convinced that they’ve wrestled with it enough to apply in their own projects.

(rough) Lesson Plan

So I designed this lesson to show how a topic could be presented online in three different ways. The topic is a probability problem popularly known as the marriage or secretary problem.

I divided the class into discussion pairs.

First, I showed the wikipedia version which provided a  brief description of the problem. Discussion was first done in pairs and then as a class. This is the first time the class have heard of the problem so there was a lot of “I don’t get it” and a few, “yeah, I’ve encountered that problem heaps of times”.

Then, I showed this academic article version which provided, as expected, a more academic description of the problem and solutions. There were ‘whoas’ as we scrolled through the voluminous and dense text blocks and equations. Again, discussion pairs followed by class discussions. We got to unpack some of the GUI principles to do with form, function, navigation, layout, etc. just by comparing this with the wikipedia version. They were applying the content previously learned, both in terms of concept and language. Their analysis of GUI design is becoming more sophisticated and this is awesome.

Finally, I showed this NPR article with a sensationalist and attention-grabbing title of How to marry the right girl: a mathematical solution (thank you @fawnpnguyen for the inspiration!). We went straight into class discussions on this one and highlighted which GUI principles made this one more engaging, including the use of graphics and share/comment buttons – a feature they may well include in their projects.

There was also a bit more discussions when one of the students piped in that she thought the wikipedia version was more engaging with its neutral tone and predictable structure. This emphasised one of the key things in the design process, i.e. problem definition and how wikipedia addresses a different problem (and audience) than the other two. Engaging‘ then, is relative (gotta love those lightbulb moments). Therefore, as they set off creating their own solutions (project product), they need to be mindful of the problem they are actually trying to solve.

Then, I asked them to create their own version of the topic in what they think is engaging. Students challenged themselves to learn more HTML and CSS tags and JS scripting, based on what they want to learn and incorporate in their own projects.

Sometimes lessons work according to plan, if not better. This was one of those. It can be better but I sure was pretty happy with it.

Discussions in pairs and whole-class with plenty of opportunities to raise and answer questions as well as working in pairs with plenty of opportunities to synthesise are strategies for active response to help with learning engagement. Students are constantly wrestling with the content from different angles. 

An exciting footnote:

The student who preferred the wikipedia version went on to do more research on the marriage problem because she really wanted to understand it (she was in the minority, I assure you, but enough to make this ex-maths teacher a little bit happy). And in doing so, has illustrated yet again the beauty of tangential learning and the power of inquiry driven by curiosity.

Feeling like a student

Overwhelmed Flood sign, Upton-upon-Severn
photo by: Bob Embleton [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s often said that good teachers are learners. I believe this to be true. A more recent realisation is the difference between being a student vs. learner.

I’m a student again – started with my Masters in Special Ed. I am learning heaps, for sure but as a student, I’ve re-discovered the appeal of procrastination, the panic of sitting an exam, the need for discipline and rest. My blog tagline is – love to learn – and there is that…especially when I choose what to learn. As a student, I have to learn what has been set out for me to learn and while there are interesting bits, there sure are boring and tedious bits.

Being a student can be overwhelming, a feeling I don’t associate with being a learner.

Faced with so many things to do, it’s like you don’t know what to do anymore. Or worse, “you can’t do anything”, as one of my daughters articulated. As a parent, I’ve seen my daughters overwhelmed by schoolwork; granted, they have healthy extra-curricular commitments (by healthy, I mean they have enough but not too much, not out every day). It’s painful to watch particularly since I don’t recall ever feeling that way as a young student.


and so I wonder…

Are we expecting more from our students today? Do we expect them to learn something new every lesson, in all their lessons every day? Do they have opportunities to enjoy what they have learned before they have to learn something new again?

As a teacher, or parent, would you like to be a student again?  now?

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.