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Three years ago I had great fun teaching some primary school children how to use Scratch and take their first steps towards being computer programmers of the future.

At the time there was a lot of optimism about changes to the English curriculum and a return to a more rigorous teaching of computing in schools.

Today, though, there is a pretty predictable warning that things aren’t going to plan – like so much else in the last seven years good intentions were not backed up by the money needed to make the policy really work.

Back then I decided I was going to write a “book” on how to code – my principal audience being teachers who suddenly found themselves with the requirement to teaching basic coding … but had a change of job, couldn’t continue the teaching and nothing much happened.

But, having had another, err, change of job (to currently no job – have a look here if you want to hire me), I’m now determined to finish it and so I am also looking for anyone willing to read it through.

I don’t intend to charge for it, so it’s not a commercial operation, but I would be interested in hearing from anybody who has an interest in learning to code/learning more about computing but who is not an experienced programmer – crudely put, if you think the “book” stinks then I probably won’t make much more of an effort with it, if you think it is good or getting there then I’ll keep working on it, trying to make it e-reader compatible and so on.

Let me know in the comments or directly: adrianmcmenamin at Google’s email service.

1 March 1971

English: St. Agnes' Church Andersonstown. Cele...
English: St. Agnes’ Church Andersonstown.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forty-three years ago this day – in Belfast – was much like this day – in York (I am in the University library as I write this) – sunny and bright, not very warm but showing signs that winter was on the way out.

That morning, in school, our P1 teacher did as she always did – and asked us to suggest a topic for the “diary” we would write in our jotters.

My hand went up – and I suggested that we should write that it was the first day of Spring.

The suggestion was not a popular one. Most of the boys (it was an all boys class) lived in Lenadoon, and that weekend (1 March 1971 was a Monday) there had been serious rioting there. At that time Northern Ireland was on its headlong plunge into semi-civil war (the nadir was the following year) and Lenadoon was very much in the front line. As Ed Moloney details in A Secret History of the IRA, escalating the conflict through rioting was the central tactic of the Belfast leadership of the IRA at this time – and, of course, the British Army were more than happy to facilitate them in that.

The teacher picked my suggestion – and I am sure she was right to cling to the hope that the children might want to concentrate on something other than armed conflict – though some of the boys still wrote and drew about their weekend of CS gas, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.

I was marked out as a teachers’ pet – a key moment in my education experience. And I suppose there is also the metaphor of me picking “science” over “politics” – a choice I have been making and remaking (with different answers at different times) ever since.

Things only got worse in Lenadoon. That summer the Northern Ireland government – in a further and more or less final demonstration of its fundamental ineptitude – introduced internment with out trial – managing to both inflame opinion by negating human rights and, in general, putting the wrong people in jail anyway.

Then, in early July 1972, Lenadoon was at the very centre of the conflict with the IRA and British Army exchanging gun fire along Lenadoon Avenue (see the video) while at the end of that month the British Army moved in with overwhelming force in “Operation Motorman” and occupied a number of buildings in the estate.

The displaced families then moved into the school – Blessed (now Saint) Oliver Plunkett – and, essentially, the school closed, and I moved to Holy Child in Andersonstown, joining the great Mrs McManus’s P3 class.

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Three steps forward, but one step back?

The new English ICT/computer science curriculum promises to be a huge step forward and, in my experience, a chance to teach children something for which their enthusiasm promises to be close to unlimited.

One thing puzzles me, though. Speaking about it today the education secretary, Michael Gove – who deserves some praise for listening to the arguments of the professionals on this issue emphasised that, from the age of 11 children will be taught “at least two” programming languages.


Go to university where, generally, they are training you to be a professional programmer, and they still only teach you one at a time. Why do we expect children at 11 to learn at least two?

Code Club first session

Code Club logoAt last managed to lead my first “Code Club” session – it had a slightly chaotic start as none of the computers we were using had Scratch installed and nor did we have access to a login that allowed us to install Scratch in the Windows “Programs” directory – but once we worked around that we all had great fun.

From the start it was obvious that Scratch made sense to the kids – they immediately grasped that the endless loop control would set the actions it enclosed to run endlessly. Of course nobody (apart from Visual Basic users?) works with similar simple graphics tools when writing an industrial strength program, but that was not the point: this is about teaching loops, conditionals and branches and so on.

The lost time at the start meant it was all a bit hurried so I do not know how much of the programming the children took in – as opposed to just ensuring that their Scratch scripts matched those in the worksheet. But on the first time out – none of the children had used Scratch before – simply being able to manipulate the programming elements was probably more than enough.

In any case, all of them were hugely enthusiastic when I told them they could install Scratch on any computer they had at home and practise on it there.

Code Club feels like a huge success to me already.

Shoe laces and psychopathy

When I think back to my time in the mid-1970s at Holy Child Primary School in Andersonstown in West Belfast I often conclude that the principal qualification for teaching most staff there had was either a hatred of children or a psychopathic desire to do them physical and mental harm. (I am not joking by the way).

English: The Andersonstown Road This road is c...
English: The Andersonstown Road This road is constantly busy with shoppers, churchgoers and cars. It is the route of choice for people travelling to and from Twinbrook and Poleglass. The floodlights of 443977 can be seen in the top right of the picture. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Children were hit for any reason, or indeed no reason at all. Once a female teacher dragged me off the ground for a good ten metres by hair alone. My crime was to have, at a school sports day at Casement Park, to have got out of my seat to have congratulated a school mate. No circle of hell is hot enough for people who treat 9 year olds in this way.

(Of course, at the age of 11 the system then went on to throw 75% of its victims on the scrapheap via the 11+ exam. I passed that and went on grammar school, one of the lucky ones. But I remember the waste of talent and the brutality of the system well enough to regard those who think it was some sort of golden age of order and social mobility with a mixture of pity and contempt.)

One of the little scams of our teachers – all of them, not just mine – was to naff off to the staff room for a cup of tea and a cigarette at morning break time having set us some work. The idea that the point of the break was to let the kids out into the playground seemingly never occurred. School was not for our benefit, after all. Failure to do the work, or to have done it badly would quite often result in a beating.

So one day my P6 teacher decided that the task we would all have to do was to write-up on how to tie our shoelaces (as you can see the task was predicated on the need for the teacher to have to make the minimal amount of  preparation – sometimes we were simply told to copy out passages of school books). In truth, I did not know how to do this and the task caused more than a little panic. Frantically, experimenting and desperate, I managed to get it done.

And, whatever the reason, the way I learned to tie my shoe laces is, it would appear, the correct way.

When I read this column in the Guardian last night I thought the opposite, and so this morning tied one shoe in the way I have always done (at least since that day in 1976) and one in what I thought, from having read the linked website, was the “correct” way. Needless to say, after about half an hour of walking the shoelace on the “correctly” tied shoe was coming loose and that on the “traditional” side was still firmly fixed.

What they didn’t teach me at ‘A’ level (or at university!)

English: Button image for use in templates - I...
English: Button image for use in templates – Impedance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always found the concept of impedance in an electrical circuit bearing an AC load something of a mystery.

At ‘A’ level it was just handed out ex cathedra but explained very poorly (and certainly not in any physical sense).

Even at University where in my first term (the first term of second year students as I made the mistake of going straight into year two of the four year course – a mistake my university career never really recovered from) I did a pretty intensive course on DC circuits, it was never explained (astrophysicists presumably not needing to know much more).

Now, though, it matters again. Impedance and other electronic effects are very important in considering the physical layer of network on chip systems – something at the heart of my PhD research.

So I bought Electronics Demystified – not normally the sort of book my inner intellectual snob would even contemplate, but I needed to get up to speed and yet not spent a lot of time on the physics.

The book is indeed somewhat simplistic and very short on any sort of physics-based explanation, but lo-and-behold, in chapter two it explains simply that complex impedance is an electromagnetic effect. Maybe I missed it, but I just do not recall anyone ever pointing this basic point out before. I don’t claim I have a full understanding now, but I do know what is at the core.

I am also left, once again, wondering why we teach magnetism so poorly when plainly it is the equal partner of electricity, which we teach an awful lot about (or, to be fair, we did – this was some years ago!)