Regular readers will know I have something of a small obsession with Conway’s Game of Life – the classic “game for no players” based on cellular automata, and so, naturally enough, when I decided that I really had to write my own Scratch program from, err, scratch to sharpen up my skills for teaching children via Code Club, that is what I chose to write – the (not very sophisticated) results can be seen above.
My first conclusion is that Scratch is a truly awful tool for most programming tasks. I know it is not meant to be a general programming tool, but I quickly discovered that it is hobbled even when it comes to doing those things that one assumes, at first glance, it is set up to do – like drawing on the screen. Scratch actually has very, very limited functionality/expressive power when it comes to drawing graphics – being only able to handle pre-provided sprites (as first class objects) and using a pen which marks out one pixel at a time – thus one cannot (at least easily) find a way to draw anything beyond dots and lines on the screen in response to events.
If you run the above program using the Flash player provided by the Scratch site you will probably see one of the big downsides of that as outlines of the old crosses are left on the screen (the Java player does not have this problem but it is very slow in comparison).
From a teaching point of view I also find Scratch’s message-based system less helpful than an imperative
GOSUB like approach: the children I work with, after many weeks, are still struggling with the idea that messages should drive actions (probably we should blame their instructor!) – I know this event-based style is more common in the real world, but I think teaching the idea of problem decomposition via subroutines or functions is probably more important educationally.
Yesterday I went to the first London Hackntalk and gave an impromptu (and so unprepared) and brief talk on my thoughts about teaching children to program – my experience with Code Club makes me rather less starry-eyed about mass programming education. There were a few responses from the audience which suggested I had not really got my point – that we would struggle to fully replace an ICT curriculum based on usage skills with one based on programming – as the audience continually suggested ways to get motivated and engaged kids into programming (rather than make it a mass participation thing), but one point that was made by a member of the audience was very acute – given what our children see computers do in games that cost many millions to develop, how realistic is it to expect all or many of them to put lots of effort into toy programs that chug out the sort of graphics you can see above? I think that is a really difficult issue we have to consider when overhauling the curriculum and I am not sure the enthusiasts of radical change (of which I was and still am one) have thought it through fully.
(I did also encourage them to be Code Club instructors and was a bit disappointed to see that I appeared to be the only one – we urgently need to teach more programming and so these problems of the early days of the overhaul should not obscure the need for change.)
- Here Come the Coding Girls (antsict.wordpress.com)
- Code Club doubles reach, calls for developers to volunteer (wired.co.uk)
- Coding, Computer Science and iPads – My Current View (antsict.wordpress.com)
- Code Club Crew (stclemcodeclub.wordpress.com)
- First Code Club (stclemcodeclub.wordpress.com)
- Tablets and Apps: How to ensure impact on teaching and learning (1 of 5) – The Big Picture (olliebray.typepad.com)
- The educational potential of computer programming (bobbywhyte.wordpress.com)
- Why Programming is so Hard to Teach (gflint.wordpress.com)
- Teaching Kids to Program Using Scratch and the Kinect (classroom-aid.com)
- cellular automata (cyberleague.wordpress.com)
This week’s New Scientist reports (online link below- it’s a short piece in the physical edition on p. 19) that Duolingo – a free online service designed to help people learn a new language by translating web content is working very well.
To probe the site’s effectiveness, Roumen Vesselinov at the City University of New York used standard tests of language ability… he found that students needed an average of 34 hours to learn the equivalent of … the first semester of a university Spanish course.
I have just been over to Duolingo’s site myself – refreshing some French – and it is certainly easy to use. The site’s blog shows that this project has some strong values and has set itself some big targets – it looks well worth exploring.
- Learning a New Language is Fun and Easy with Duolingo (iphone.appstorm.net)
- Use Duolingo to Learn a New Langauge in the New Year (freetech4teachers.com)
- Study: Learning Spanish With Duolingo Can Be More Effective Than College Classes Or Rosetta Stone (techcrunch.com)
- Duolingo gives language learning a jump start (newscientist.com)
- Duolingo: Learn a Language and Translate the Web (englishblog.com)
The first thing I had to do when I started work on my PhD course at York was to complete an online learning unit on plagiarism.
It was fairly tedious, as I had already had to sit through several hours worth of lectures at Birkbeck on the issue when preparing for my MSc project report.
Maybe plagiarism is the big issue with students – after all there are thousands of scientific papers out there and the temptation to “rip and paste” much be great for students struggling with deadlines.
In in my case I took no chances – this is the very first sentence of the report:
Multiprogramming computer systems face a fundamental problem of being able to run programs that, in sum, require more memory than is physically available (Tanenbaum, 2009, pp. 173 -174).
Is it over the top to cite for such a basic idea? Perhaps, but it didn’t harm anyone.
Yet it seems that plagiarism is not the real issue with researchers (and this presumably includes PhD students) – just 9.8% of biomedical paper retractions were for this reason. But 43.3% were for fraud.
And the proportion of crooked papers is rising – up by an order of magnitude between 1976 and 2007 – and that’s a rising proportion of a rising number too. But the better news is that this is an increase from 3 to 83 (out of 310,000 in 1976 and 868,000 in 2007).
Could I have fiddled my MSc report (I didn’t of course) – I suppose I could. Although I supplied all the software I used to conduct my experiments and plot their results (apart from some R used to draw pie charts and so on), I doubt that anyone would have had the time to actually replicate the results. Perhaps if my paper had broken new ground (as opposed to reconfirming some thirty year old findings that did not seem to have been validated for modern software before) then maybe somebody would have had to do that…
- Delusions of candour: why technology won’t stop plagiarism (theconversation.edu.au)
- Amherst Professor Resigns After Plagiarism Discovery (insidehighered.com)
- Plagiarism: Flattery or Fraud (livingstoncoc.wordpress.com)
- Plagiarism on the rise at Swedish universities (thelocal.se)
- What’s an Academic Fraud? (strategyprofs.wordpress.com)
- Plagiarism Checker Plagtracker Eyes Asia Expansion (techinasia.com)
- Canadian columnist accused of plagiarism (guardian.co.uk)
- Use These 10 Sites to Detect Plagiarism (mashable.com)
- University of Waterloo researchers issue retraction and apology after using U.S. expert’s text and information (news.nationalpost.com)
- Population Ecology at Work: How The Globe and Mail Misunderstood its Environment (allaboutwork.org)
This has been sitting around for a few days now, because I don’t really want to have a flame war with someone I like, but here goes anyway…
Damian Counsell (@pootblog) objected to what I wrote about grammar schools, so I thought I’d do a proper reply. His comments in italics.
Those 75% of students—sorry: “victims”—”thrown on the scrapheap” in Northern Ireland still subsequently outperform their matched peers in comprehensive schools on the mainland. I’m tired of reading this cliché—this lie—every time the question of school education policy in these islands comes up for the usual evidence-lite discussion; though it’s understandable that it should proliferate as rigour and hard science have been drained from the secondary curriculum by the same ideologues who’ve brought us selection-by-house-price.
Firstly, if not directly related to the matter in hand, Britain is not “the mainland” – that begins at Calais.
The claim here is that it is a “lie” that those in Northern Ireland who failed the 11+ still did better at school than those in comprehensives (presumably Damian means the same three quartiles) in Britain. Now, I could simply say I was writing about Catholics in the mid-1970s (because I was) and say that it’s an open-and-shut case – Catholics who failed the 11+ did spectacularly badly at school (today the religious position is somewhat reversed, which is more evidence of how working class protestants are being systematically failed by their political ‘leaders’ – but that’s another story). But actually the problem was a more general one:
The final figure (figure 6.4) of this section looks at the relative extent of unqualified school leavers in both religious school systems. This is a particular problem in Northern Ireland where the proportion of pupils leaving school with no O Level or CSE qualifications, of any kind, has been and remains higher than in Britain as a whole: in 1986/7, for example, 21.9% of Northern Ireland school leavers had no GCE/CSE qualifications compared with 9.6% of leavers in England and 16.1% of leavers in Wales.
(From here. Sounds like being thrown on the scrapheap to me – if we assume all or almost all these school leavers were from “secondary schools” – as they are called in Northern Ireland – then that indicates around 30% of pupils entering those schools left with no CSEs or O levels at all.)
NB: A crucial change since then has been the “comprehensivisation” of the exam system. The old CSE/CGE divide essentially wrote off those who took CSEs even before they got started – for while a CSE Grade 1 was an equivalent of an ‘O’ level C grade (ie a pass), the mere fact that a pupil had been entered for a CSE was a signal that they were not seen as a strong performer.
Since that time Northern Ireland’s pupils have closed the gap significantly at the bottom end – though 21.7% of Northern Ireland’s workforce still had no qualifications, compared to 13.2% of England’s – and in 2005/6 3.1% of pupils in Northern Ireland got no graded results whereas the figure for England was 2.2% – figures from Regional Trends 2008.
Understandably, you still haven’t addressed my central point, which is that the claim that 75% of kids end up on the “scrapheap”, however generously you interpret that metaphor, is simply false. I’ll say it again: under the comprehensive system, kids from the same backgrounds do worse than they would do at secondary moderns. The dogma of comprehensivisation is up there with Lysenkoism in the pantheon of systematic, ideologically motivated establishment lying.
Damian did not produce any figures and I have: to repeat, I was writing about the mid-1970s when the figures were truly appalling. Even today the figures show that selective education is producing half as many again kids with no qualifications in Northern Ireland as in England (where comprehensive education dominates) and that the full cohort of adults in Northern Ireland includes a huge excess, in comparison to England, of people with no qualifications at all.
Obviously there’s no way to test the counterfactual, but I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised if the advent of the comprehensive school in system in England and Wales led to significant numbers of children who might otherwise have led happier lives growing up to be convicted criminals; but I’m not going to overplay my hand here; you’re right: unlike Lysenkoism, it’s unlikely anyone died of starvation. Let’s just say that—even if it resembled reality in any way at all—your talk of human beings being “thrown on a scrapheap” isn’t exactly measured language either. And that’s where I came in.
One thing that *isn’t* a counterfactual is my central contention. Again, you deliberately avoid the point. I’m not saying that kids “*would* do better at secondary moderns”; I’m saying that kids *do* do better. It’s the biggest side-by-side comparison in secondary education and ideologues deliberately ignore the overall result; just as they ignore the results when vouchers are shown to help poor and black pupils in the only randomised trials in education I’ve ever read about.
Kent is neither here nor there: it’s one artificial island of selection set in a sea of mixed-ability, LEA-controlled state schooling, so the effect of selection-by-house price is doubled down. Of course kids in secondary moderns there are going to do badly—if indeed they do: you haven’t actually cited a substantive result in that case either.
Well, where is the evidence that kids do better at secondary moderns then? I understand the point about black pupils – but no evidence has been offered here for the central claim. If Damian has some evidence to back up his point I’d love to see it. My point about Kent is that in that county – where selective education dominated until quite recently (thanks to the Labour government some of the secondary moderns have now become ‘academies’ and so the position is changing though maybe not that much), there is a high proportion of failing schools: look at this table, for instance. This blog and map suggests to me that Kent is also letting a lot of its kids down.
I freely concede that the religious divide in Northern Ireland had, and continues to have, terrible effects. Catholic kids are and have been simply worse-off on average. That’s a fact, and that wasn’t what I was engaging with either.
I was simply attacking one tired, hyperbolic, clichéd untruth that appears over and over again in such discussions. It keeps being trotted out because no right-thinking person dares to challenge it. The burden of proof here doesn’t lie with me; it has always rested with the social engineers. (If only they had a tiny fraction of the rigour of most actual engineers!) It’s a measure of how polluted the ground has become that you and others can repeat this outrageous myth and throw up chaff when asked to back it up with anything other than personal anecdote.
And, yet again, for the avoidance of doubt: I am not advocating a return to the grammar/secondary modern divide. I just want discussions about education to be based on evidence, not dogma and tribal boilerplate.
And, this is subjective so maybe will not pass Damian’s test, but the idea that the 11+ was in some way more “equitable” than “selection by house price” (which I freely concede is a big factor) is also nonsense. In the mid-1970s West Belfast was one of the most concentrated islands of deprivation in Northern Europe, but as is the way with ghettos, we middle class kids were in there with everybody else. Of my primary school class of about 28 (all boys), 5 of us passed the “qually”. Gary, Tony and I were from middle class backgrounds, Michael and Liam were not. Liam refused to go to a grammar school as all his brothers had gone to De La Salle school (on his street) and he was not going to be different: so three quarters of the grammar school boys were middle class from a cohort where I’d guess to close to 50% of the boys were on free school meals.
I had a couple of chemistry sets when I was young and also had great fun with them (though as they involved a naked flame my mother always supervised).
One set allowed me to manufacture a foul-smelling, green-coloured gas – which the guide asserted had been used as a weapon during the Great War.
I bought my eldest daughter a kit a few years ago and it was so boring and lacking in excitement that we both gave up on it after an hour. It was not used a second time.
The BBC report that our experience is not a solitary one and that safety concerns have more or less destroyed the market for kids’ chemistry sets. It’s quite hard to justify selling anyone a set that allows them to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, never mind give it to children. But without the magic, what’s the point?
- Whatever happened to kids’ chemistry sets? (bbc.co.uk)
- Whatever happened to chemistry sets? (guardian.co.uk)
- Whatever Happened to Kids’ Chemistry Sets? (happolatismiscellany.wordpress.com)
- The history (and future) of kid’s chemistry sets (boingboing.net)
- Children’s chemistry sets used to contain cyanide [Holy Crap Wtf] (io9.com)
- 3D printers as universal chemistry sets for nanotechnology (foresight.org)
- 9 of the scariest toys of all time (holykaw.alltop.com)
I try to keep openly political things off here, but this response to the OFSTED report on computing in schools is so good it deserves more publicity:
“Today’s Ofsted report on ICT in schools shows that our computer teaching is simply not up to standard. For too many pupils, computer teaching can be little more than a glorified typing course.
“The fact that the overall effectiveness of ICT teaching is only satisfactory or poor in nearly two thirds of all secondary schools in England is not good enough. We need far more rigour in ICT teaching, with higher quality training, higher standards and continual assessment of what pupils are being taught.
“The Government must look at this evidence and feed it into the review of the National Curriculum. I have written to Michael Gove to offer Labour’s support for the curriculum review so that we can attempt to build a cross party consensus.
“Pupils need to have an opportunity to understand the mechanisms and coding behind computer programmes. Learning how to type on a wordprocessor, enter data into a worksheet or design a powerpoint presentation is not sufficient.
“If the UK is to maintain its competitiveness and educate a new generation of Alan Turings we need to develop the programming skills, as well as the understanding of the links between computing, maths and science.
Notes to Editors
The report, available here: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/news/young-people-are-not-being-sufficiently-challenged-ict-lessons-0 contains a number of worrying findings including:
* A fifth of ICT achievement is inadequate, despite the subject being a compulsory part of the national curriculum;
* Many teachers have “limited” knowledge of programming; and there are weaknesses in more demanding aspects of ICT such as control and data handling
* Pupils’ use of ICT in other subjects was only occasionally tracked or recorded. For those students in Key Stage 4 who were not receiving specialist ICT teaching there was no systematic record of their learning in ICT and no means for teachers or pupils to know whether they had gaps in their knowledge.
* High flyers are often neglected and the students do the same tasks over and over again; The ICT curriculum and qualification routes provided by nearly half of the secondary schools surveyed were not meeting the needs of all students, especially at Key Stage 4. In these schools a single vocational examination course was taken by all students, limiting challenge to the more able, or ICT was offered as an option to some students with others not receiving the full National Curriculum. As a result, in 30 of the 74 schools visited nearly half of the students reach the age of 16 without a sound foundation for further study or training in ICT and related subjects.
* Very few examples were seen of secondary schools engaging with local IT businesses to bring the subject alive for their students. This was a particular issue for girls, many of whom need a fuller understanding of ICT-related career and education options to inform their subject choices at 14 and 16 years of age.
- ICT ‘poor in secondary schools’ (bbc.co.uk)
- Secondary schools fail teenagers over computer lessons, says Ofsted (guardian.co.uk)
- The dismal state of computing education in English schools (cartesianproduct.wordpress.com)
- Cribsheet 14.12.11 (guardian.co.uk)
- My Assessment Arrangements for ICT (simonhaughton.co.uk)
- Computer lessons are out of date, admits government (guardian.co.uk)
- Computer Science: the new English Language? (caroleannwright.wordpress.com)
- It’s official. Ofsted have spoken… (digital-teacher.co.uk)
- Computing classes don’t teach programming skills (telegraph.co.uk)
- Programming should take pride of place in our schools (guardian.co.uk)