I love teaching girls to code

Tomorrow, my classes and club will begin participating in the NCSS python programming  Challenge 2014. It’s our second year and I’m quite excited as it’s a really fun challenge.

Like last year, I introduced the software programming and design topic using dance; except this time, I actually linked it to computational thinking straight away – decomposition, pattern recognition, pattern generalisation and abstraction, and algorithm design.  Timing was on my side as the year 9s have been learning new dance steps in preparation for the Year 9 dance. Plenty of inspiration in terms of computational thinking processes, value of coding, control structures and even functions…with parameters!

There is so much hype on teaching kids to code – nearly 12 million views of code.org’s What most schools don’t teach and the rise and rise of many learn to code sites. There’s also the impending implementation of the Digital Technologies curriculum, etc. etc. etc. But for me, it’s far more than the hype – I actually love teaching students to code.

Learning to code is more than just about writing code; it’s the least of it, in my opinion. It’s all the other stuff about computational thinking and systems thinking and critical thinking and creative thinking. That’s a whole lot of thinking – and doing – right there!

With computation thinking, I think it’s important to point out that we all do most of this already.. in real life! Think of all the procedural and component-based stuff like recipes and routines we have, for example. What is less common is algorithm design, especially in school where we teach ‘tried-and-tested’ algorithms. This is true not just in mathematics where we teach (and test) mastery of algorithms but also in humanities subjects like English as we teach the “right way” to write essays, for instance. In schools, it’s rare for students to design their own algorithms, their own way of doing things.  Learning to code provides opportunities for algorithm design, encourages it even. And I love it.

Systems thinking is taught in many subjects. We are surrounded by systems. We’re made of systems. But, it’s rare for students to make their own systems. Learning to code provides opportunities for designing systems.

Teaching kids to code can be daunting and having set “courses” do help. Learn.code.org is a good entry point for beginners (students and teachers alike). I also recommend  NCSS python programming  Challenge . Both are challenge-based and fun.

I also think it’s a good idea to expose students to the experience of learning another language, mapping similarities and differences – the meta stuff. This includes reflecting on problem-solving methods and attitude when faced with difficulty.

I enjoy doing the challenges with the students. Sharing the joy of wrestling with knotty problems and working out solutions. I love that I have a window to how they think. I love it when they come up with creative ways of thinking and solving problems. I love that they don’t ask “when I’m I ever going to use this?” because it’s fun just getting through it.  I love it when they teach each other and work together and share frustrations and wins together. This, for me, is the fun stuff…and I’m lucky I get a chance to be part of it because I teach coding.

The best part is that I get to play along.

print (“NCSS 2014, here we come!”);

On Creativity – how?

I’m passionate about creativity so it doesn’t take much prodding to write about it.

@whatedsaid asked “How could these two videos help us improve student-learning? http://wp.me/p1ZuBL-ai / by@sherrattsam always guaranteed to make me think!”  Both of them encouraged me to write a post so here I am.  I will include the videos here but please do visit the linked post because it offers more things to learn.

My plan here is to express my thoughts on each video briefly and then go into answering Edna’s question.

Time and Focus

In this video, the kids were asked to complete the picture, twice. Once with just 10 seconds, the other with 10 minutes. The time was variable but the focus was constant, i.e. complete the picture.  What if time was constant and focus was variable? For example, keep the 10 seconds rule but say ask first to “complete the picture” and the other time to “draw a picture”.  Both approaches encourage creativity.  Play factors in too and that seemed more encourage for the second opportunity of longer time.  I reckon saying ‘draw a picture’ would give that sense too.  

My 10minutes sketchbook project is very much an experiment in creativity.  I change the variables and see what I come up with. Sometimes I constrain the time, as with the work on the cover.  Often, i change the focus. And often, too, with an element to play.


In this video, Louie Schwartzberg talks about gratitude.  The beauty of nature is all around us.  So is the beauty of man-made things and ultimately of people and our interactions with them.  He encourages us to have a closer look and  be grateful.

Inspiration is everywhere and sometimes we do have to look closer.  Just as important is this standing back and looking at what we have created, perhaps with fresh eyes and thus a deeper appreciation of what he have achieved as individuals and collectively.  Drawing such inspiration is critical to the creative process, an impetus to get the creative juices flowing.

In the classroom

So how can we use the two videos to improve student learning?

  1. Change the creativity variables. Change the constants. Ask the question differently.  It is okay to constrain time, really.  Creating artificial deadlines or time-chunking – is a good strategy for task and time management (read more here)
  2. Make time for play.  This is important, too, when introducing new technology.  Give kids time to ‘shake the sillies out’.
  3. Provide plenty of inspiration.  Point them out if you have to.
  4. Showcase work.  It is good to look at what has been created and share in the joy of having achieved something on one’s own or with others.  With technology, it’s even easier to widen the audience beyond the classroom or school.
  5. Encourage this action-reflection cycle and teach kids about this explicitly.  Creativity involves a combination of being-inspired and actually doing.  Action without reflection and inspiration will eventually burn out.  Reflection and inspiration without action will not lead to anything concrete or improvements.  We need both.

I’m sure more can be drawn from these two videos so please feel free to add your thoughts.

I think that these are good things to consider in Project-Based Learning as well so will add this to my PBL page.

UPDATE (5 Jan 2012)

I think this doodle by Giulia Forsythe captures the sentiment well, with a quote from Jason Zweig: “Creativity is a fragile flower, but perhaps it can be fertilized with systematic doses of serendipity.”


How can we teach critical and creative thinking?

The catalysts for writing this much-procrastinated post are these posts on the same theme by Bianca Hewes (@biancah80) AND this by Giorgio Bertini.

Bianca posed the same question as my title and my immediate answer was – teach them the way you learned to be a critical thinker. Thinking back, I know there were several ways for me though the most influential would be learning Information Systems Analysis and Design and Philosophy (and Theology) – both at college/university level. Let me focus on the latter because G Bertini appears to have successfully used philosophy in his classes.

I did enjoy the content of my philosophical and theological studies, some of which have stayed with me even now (as mentioned in About Me). But, it;s not just the content – largely irrelevant and too abstract for kids younger than 15 perhaps. Philosophy as a study of what is fundamental is a way of learning, so-to-speak.

Here are some practices to foster if we are to teach critical and creative thinking.

It is okay to question

Nothing prepared me when my Philo professor asked, “How do you know you’re real? (differentiate reality to a dream and vice versa)”. I was only 16. Moreover, going to a Catholic university, the last question I expected was “Is God real?”. These are heavy questions to contend with and we did study several discourses to answer them. But for this post, what I want to highlight is that with philosophy, you soon learn it is okay to question. More than okay, it is integral. Questioning is that important to philosophy and critical and creative thinking. Asking “what if” is part-and-parcel of the process.

In teaching maths, I’ve tried to instill in my students that it is okay to question what I say or write – in a polite way, of course. I am fallible.

Adjunct to this is that students must feel safe to question. That involves among other things, no put-downs, follow-up, some fun activities (not all activities must be graded or marked), knowing the kids, teacher as facilitator (don’t let them drown in the unknown).

Find different ways to respond

There’s no point asking questions if there is no intent to find answers. As mentioned, we studied various philosophers and theologians – thinkers. All were logical though I have to admit that in theology, I found the discourses into the existence of God ultimately required a leap of faith.  I doubt that any of those would have convinced an atheist, logical or not. The point is, in order to teach thinking, it must be modeled, preferably in various ways and concretely.

In maths, this can take the form of equations but also of diagrams and reasoning (esp. in Geometry). It is worth showing that sometimes there are multiple methods to arrive at the same answer. I also remember when I told my year 9 class about Descartes (cogito ergo sum***) before launching into a lesson on the Cartesian Plane – they were enthralled; sometimes maths is so abstracted that students forget maths is wrought by human hands, or minds, more like.

Encourage group work

We had a lot of group studies, especially in preparation for oral exams. These group studies showed me how limited my thinking was and how through open discussion my thinking expanded and grew. That was learning with and from others outside of the classroom even.

I find that for younger years, it is easier to assign specific roles to play in group work – especially for assessments. I also like to play around with group sizes; mostly I find 2-3 most workable in maths.


***Descartes said: Cogito, ergo sum.  I think therefore I am. I can doubt everything except for the fact that I am thinking now. Thus, my existence is proven by the mere act of thinking. (my extremely simplified version of Descartes’ philosophy on existence)

Do you think these practices would help?

Creativity in Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is arguably at the core of mathematical teaching and learning. That is, various concepts and skills are taught/learned in the hope of solving more and more complex problems. Logic is very much valued.

I have always sensed that mathematics (re: Logic) and creativity are contradictory.

I just read an interesting article on observations on Real Science : sometimes (often even) logic stumps scientists and creativity paves the way to solve problems. The article talks about diversity-induced far view talk reliant on metaphors and analogies. I learned today that the idea of far view, or distancing oneself via abstraction, is a strategy for creative thinking (read more on Scientific American). The way I see it, it’s a logical way of thinking outside the square or taking on a different perspective.

My point is, logic does not necessarily clash with creativity. Used in tandem, the likelihood of finding solutions is increased.

The challenge now is translating this into practical applications in the classroom! I already use metaphors and analogies in teaching (re: Analogies and Algebra post). I must encourage students to think of their own. Also, I need to harness more the potential brought by the innate diversity of  every class – this means, at least, more opportunities to work in group to solve problems…futuristic perhaps?

Love2Learn – some strategies

I’m a teacher but, unlike most teachers I know, I am not passionate about teaching. Rather, I’m passionate about learning.

This blog will be an attempt to record my learning…as a teacher, as a “student”, as a human being. The challenge is to document – via this blog – one item I’ve learned a day. Obviously, some days are packed, like today, when I attended a professional development course. The fun will be in dissecting days when learning isn’t so obvious.

Learn To Learn

This was the title of the course I attended today. There was some theory:

  • learning is an assessable product but it is also a (teach-able) process
  • learning is a factor of skill and will (cognitive and affective) as well as reflection (metacognitive)
  • learning is a cycle of planning, acting and reflecting/evaluating
  • learning necessitates a questioning mind (in my opinion, questioning is a manifestation of opening one’s mind, a necessary premise for learning it self)
  • learning is personal/individual as well as social/interactive

I really enjoyed the strategies and examples, some experiential, that were shared. The list is massive so  I’ve picked just a few here, possibly the ones I’m most likely to adopt.

  1. Metacognitive thinking, aka thinking about thinking: KWHL, self-assessment (Journal, learning log)
  2. Critical Thinking : PCQ/PMI, analogies (similarities and differences)
  3. Creative Thinking: SCAMPER
  4. Questioning: Progressive Questioning, Socratic
  5. Remembering: RAP, 30-word/short summary, analogies (making connections)


K: What do I know now? (Foundation)

W: What do I have to learn?  (Goal)

H: How can I learn more (Plan and Activities)

L: What have I learned (Evaluation)

Journals – Potential scaffolds:

  1. What I recall and What I wonder
  2. What did I learn and what did I not learn (questions, confusions)


P: Pros, positives, plusses, advantages

C: Cons, negatives, minues, disadvantages

Q: Questions, consequences, what-ifs, interesting


Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify/Magnify/Minify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse/Rearrange

This has obvious application in design-oriented task but may also be used to challenge assumptions and the status quo.

Progressive Questioning

Have the open-mind of a 5-yr old who constantly asks What, Why and How. Of course, the purpose is not to ‘annoy’ but to get a deeper and/or broader understanding.

Socratic Questioning

The list is massive but the crux is asking questions to clarify and probe. Apart from the overt given, questioning should encompass assumptions, reasons, evidence, perspectives, implications.


R: Read and highlight key words/phrases

A: Ask key questions

P: Put into own words