Thursday, 7 February 2013

Computing at Key Stage 3

I've just had a read through the new National Curriculum framework which includes the new Computing program of study. I'm really interested to see how these changes are applied in schools, as there is a lot of tricky stuff there.

I've had a look through the 'Subject Content' bullet points for computing at KS3 and made a few brief comments on the practicality of teaching each of those strands in a secondary school today.

Design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical system

Starting off quite easy, I would expect most schools already do this to some extent. Excel modelling, along with some flow chart style control software (Go, Flowol, Logicator etc.) would be a good way to meet some of this at a basic level.

Understand at least two key algorithms for each of sorting and searching; use logical reasoning to evaluate the performance trade-offs of using alternative algorithms to solve the same problem

Wow - I remember learning this at university and think it was complicated. How my year 9s are going to cope with this I'm not sure. You can find a list of sorting algorithms on a wikipedia page - examples include. quicksort and bubblesort. I'd be really interested to know what other people are planning on doing for this. I guess a challenge to write a program to sort a list would be an interesting way of approaching this aspect (perhaps in python or even javascript?). 

A real challenge is that the majority of ICT teachers I know, didn't learn these things at university - many have never written a computer program. 

Use two or more programming languages, one of which is textual, each used to solve a variety of computational problems; use data structures such as tables or arrays; use procedures to write modular programs; for each procedure, be able to explain how it works and how to test it

It would be interesting to know what the government's definition of a non-textual programming language is - would something like Scratch meet the requirements? 

Learning a textual language is quite a big thing, but I do think it's important if our young people are to help our country become a world leader in the computing field. The real problem again, is that our ICT teachers will really struggle with this.

Understand simple Boolean logic (such as AND, OR and NOT) and its use in determining which parts of a program are executed; use Boolean logic and wild- cards in search or database queries; appreciate how search engine results are selected and ranked

This one isn't too bad at all. Most students quite quickly pick up how boolean searches work in year 7 when discussing search engines. This can then be built up to using them in something like Excel, and then to using it in programming languages.

Understand the hardware and software components that make up networked computer systems, how they interact, and how they affect cost and performance; explain how networks such as the internet work; understand how computers can monitor and control physical systems

It's a bit GCSE ICT, but I think many students will already have some idea about these things. Most households now have their own wireless router, so they are using this technology every day. 

Explain how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system

It depends on how deep you go here - I'm not sure I'd like to explain this in much depth to any of my KS3 students.

Explain how data of various types can be represented and manipulated in the form of binary digits including numbers, text, sounds and pictures, and be able to carry out some such manipulations by hand

Straight forward enough in theory, although I'm not sure what software you'd use to do this.

Undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals, including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users

I'm sure coming up with projects based around this would be reasonably straight forward.

Create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital information and content with attention to design, intellectual property and audience.

Most ICT teachers already do this - often in the form of a graphics or presentations project. I'm not sure intellectual property is well covered at KS3, although students should be able to grasp this at basic level (thou shall not steal). 

Overall, this is quite an interesting move towards a more programming orientated ICT computing classroom.

There are lots of good things in here, and a desire to have our society as a world leader in computing is something few would argue against.

There are however two problems.

One, is down to us teachers to solve - how to motivate the students to want to learn about programming. Many students are genuinely interested in finding out how things work, but given the choice of teaching programming or graphics, graphics would definitely be the easy option. Having said that, I've had to teach Access Databases for years, so this problem is nothing new.

The biggest problem I can see is staff expertise. I can't think of many of my colleagues who have ever written a proper program in any real programming language. There will be many schools and colleges that have no expertise at all in this area. It's really important therefore that if the government wants to make a good job of this, that they invest heavily in training up teachers to teach computing properly. Scheme's such as this one, whilst good for the headlines aren't really that great - 500 newly trained computer science teachers in a country with 3.6 million secondary students makes a class ratio of 1:7200!

I'm behind the changes in principle, but practically speaking, this is going to cause a lot of problems in most secondary schools. However, with enough investment in terms of time and money, this could be the start of something really good for this country.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Teaching secondary students to code

Scratch is a great introduction to programming
I taught some students to code today. The thing is, I never thought they would enjoy it as much as they did, but when one student exclaimed "this is really cool sir!", it was clear they were genuinely interested in understanding how programs are made and computers work.

Truth be told, this was a 'stretch and challenge' task for a few particularly good students, but it did get me thinking again about whether the whole class would have enjoyed the task, and how I could have made it appropriate for them. This particular task was to do with learning SQL - a language used to talk to databases, which I haven't taught to anybody below sixth form until today, so it was great to see how the year 8 students took to it.

So what languages and tools are appropriate for our students? Here's a few of my thoughts, with ideas rated on ease of use, worthiness in the ICT curriculum, and usefulness outside of it in the real world.

Scratch is one of the basic tools most ICT teachers will have dabbled in at some point. It's fairly basic with a nice drag and drop interface, that can give kids a really nice introduction to coding.
Ease of use: 9/10
Worthiness: 9/10
Usefulness: 0/10 (Nobody is going to buy something you make in this!)

Game Maker 
Game maker is one of my favourite discoveries ever. I've been using it for 6 or so years now and it's fantastic. I make a basic game for students with a flying saucer that has to get to a diamond through a maze and they run wild on it. I've seen some amazing stuff created with this from 11-16 year olds. Another great thing about it is you can use the drag and drop interface, but there is the ability to code in it too.
Ease of use: 8/10
Worthiness: 9/10
Usefulness: 1/10 (It can make executables to share, but again, it's unlikely you'll make your millions with it)

Excel & VBA
GCSE ICT has often involved Excel spreadsheets and students have produced some great things in them. Excel is also able to record and run macros, and you can then look at their code (which is in Visual Basic for Applications, or VBA code). Once they've worked out how the basic commands work, then can then experiment with IF statements, Loops and so on. This a really nice introduction into programming and it's incredibly useful in lots of situations. I'm well aware that many people want to move ICT/Computer Science away from spreadsheets, but I'm really not sure why - I think they're great! 
Ease of use: 7/10
Worthiness: 7/10
Usefulness: 7/10

What websites are made of. Simple and effective and reasonably easy to learn the basics. The best thing about these skills are that you can make lots of money from them. I've had students sell websites they have made using skills they've learnt in lessons. It's actually quite exciting to many students when they work out how to make a web page blue!
Ease of use: 7/10
Worthiness: 10/10
Usefulness: 10/10

SQL is a language used for talking to databases. I use it in web development all the time and it's not majorly complicated. The problem with this is it's not all that useful unless you know how to use something like PHP (see below). Still makes for an interesting lesson, and you can test it in an Access database.
Ease of use: 5/10
Worthiness: 7/10
Usefulness: 6/10

Server side scripting - this is where it gets a bit tricky if you go beyond the real basics. The plus side is the language is really powerful for web development and uses a lot of familiar programming syntax. It's great, as long as you've got a suitable test platform, which is a problem for some. Having said that, we've just brought hosting for about £50 a year, which does our A Level students fine.
Ease of use: 4/10
Worthiness: 7/10
Usefulness: 7/10 

The conclusion
There's loads of other ways of teaching coding to kids than the few I've mentioned above, but those are the main ones I use. I love to try new things with my classes, so if anybody reading has some ideas that have worked well for them, please do let me know!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

BETT show tips for first time visitors

The yearly BETT show is a great opportunity for teachers to scope out some new ideas and discover some great tools that they haven't seen before. Every January tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world invade Olympia, London and as one of them in previous years, here are some of my thoughts that might help you.

Take some food and drink

It's tiring work speaking to all the exhibitors and navigating through the sea of people. Take some snacks and some water to help keep your energy levels high.

Plan, but not too much

Most people only go for a single day and it's really difficult to get around and see everybody. You should always have a list of a few people you really want to see and plan your route around the show from that, however it's always good to have a wander too and check out all the things you didn't know existed. 

Enter all the competitions you can

There's always competitions on - things such as free software, iPads, laptops etc. are always on offer. If you see one, you might as well give it a go!

Pick up free stuff

Most stands will be offering some kind of free gift - usually pens, but you can find sweets, lanyards and trial software. I even picked up a Lego toy last year.

Don't try and talk to everybody

If you're not interested in what's on offer, you can tell the exhibitor that wants to talk to you. They won't mind! Remember there's about 30,000 other people for them to speak to. Be nice though!

Eat early or late

It's a good idea to not eat at lunchtime - expect massive queues at pizza express and little chance of somewhere to sit if you want to eat between 12 and 2.

Have fun

Remember you're supposed to enjoy the day and be inspired. If you're not feeling that way, sit down and have a go on an interactive quiz or play with the Lego Mindstorms robots.

These are just a few of my thoughts based on previous experiences. There's a really good post by Ian Addison with some more useful advice here. This year instead of being a visitor, I'll be exibiting a school rewards system which should be a new and exciting experience - come and see me at stand IN-8 for a chat and a free pen!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

National Curriculum Review: A Teachers Opinion

The Department for Education's recent review includes a number of recommendations for big changes to England's National Curriculum, which will have a massive effect on the shape of education in this country for many years to come. Here are some of my thoughts on something that will effect me and thousands of teachers like me in the delivery of our subjects.

Was a review necessary?
Yes, absolutely. It's always good to check you're doing the right thing and personally, I'm not sure we were. The government has delayed any changes until 2014 so we have time to debate the ideas put forward, which is also a good thing.

What are they key recommendations?
There are quite a few, but the ones that are most interesting to me are;
  1. The restructuring of key stages
  2. The moving about of subjects between national and basic curricula
  3. The removal of 'levels' for assessment
The restructuring of key stages
Currently as a secondary school teacher, I notice that in year 8/9 students become somewhat demotivated as what they are doing doesn't seem to be going anywhere or worth anything and this 'KS3 Dip' is well reported phenomenon. Some schools have already started their students on GCSE courses in year 9 to help combat this. One of the recommendations is that KS2 is split into an upper KS2 and lower KS2 - whilst this sounds sensible (if not particularly revolutionary) I can't really comment on this as I don't teach primary students, however they've also proposed two different models for KS3/4.
  1. 7/8 as KS3 and 9/10/11 as KS4 (2 year - 3 year approach)
  2. 7 as secondary reception, 8/9 as KS3, 10/11 as KS4 9 (1 year - 2 year - 2 year approach)
At our school, we currently have a different curriculum for year 7, based on 'learning to learn' where students learn skills rather than knowledge. It's something that's worked well at times and it's been tried and tested in many other schools. The problem is that students coming into year 8 can have a big gap in their knowledge in some areas and students (particularly those who already have those skills) may see it as a bit of a pointless year.

The second option proposed simply moves year 9 into KS4. This would help with motivating students in year 9 as they'd be working towards something, however you may still see a dip in year 10, if there is only a final assessment at the end of the course (which is what has been proposed). I'd also be very concerned that students at the end of year 8 would have a hard time picking the right subjects for themselves.

Of the two options above, and the existing system, I'm still not sure which one is best. I very much like the idea of starting students on a more meaningful course in year 9 however, and if they had the chance to specialise further in year 10 within schools this might be a good option.

Regardless of the structure at KS4 (2 or 3 year), how about GCSEs becoming more like degrees and A levels, where each year counts for a percentage of the final GCSE?

The death of ICT and D&T?
The National Curriculum defines what subjects should be taught and what content within those subjects is compulsory, through the Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets. The Basic Curriculum defines what other subjects are compulsory, but the content is not prescribed. The proposals are that Design and Technology, ICT and Citizenship move from the National Curriculum to the Basic Curriculum. 
Taken from the National Curriculum Review

Citizenship is something that many students and teachers don't really value - every teacher would say that students should learn about citizenship in some form, but personally I'm not worried about it being moved into the 'basic' curriculum, where it could be taught within other subjects.

Design and Technology is quite a big thing to be moving however - which includes food tech, resistant materials, electronics, textiles etc. Most schools have a large D&T department and this could be a very worrying development for those teachers. Personally, I think every child should be able to do some basic DIY, cook and sew and whilst I might happy teach my own son or daughter these things, some parents wouldn't.

I'm an ICT teacher, so for me the biggest worry is the moving of ICT to the basic curriculum. This runs a real risk of ICT teaching being moved to other subjects and ICT teachers losing their jobs. As I discussed in a previous post, many non-specialist teachers will not be able to teach ICT to the same depth as subject specific teachers so students could really loose out here. The only 'but' here is that the review does mention that computer science should be considered;
  • "We have also noted the arguments, made by some respondents to the Call for Evidence, that there should be more widespread teaching of computer science in secondary schools. We recommend that this proposition is properly considered."
This is also against a background of a lot of noise about the subject, including comments from Michael Gove, Google and Microsoft. I can only hope that the idea is to change ICT, rather than remove it.

No more levelling
Some teachers love them, some hate them. I'm more with the latter - I think it's absolutely right that students should know where they are and how to improve, I just think that to any kid, getting a level 5 actually means very little. I also think that because in many subjects (like ICT) assessment is solely teacher based, they are very inconsistent across schools anyway. The review recommends that they should be abolished, and replaced with a 'mastery' system that refers back to the content of the curriculum more. 

Reading the report, the proposals seem to relate to APP a bit, where the curriculum into specific elements to assess. The crucial thing here is that there is no overall general level for a subject - no more saying Jimmy is a level 5 student, but rather Jimmy has mastered Programming (for example) but needs to work on his Spreadsheets and Modelling.

I expect for the sake of statistics and comparisons, we'll still work out averages, but I still really like it in principle.

Any review is going to spark debate and this one certainly raises a lot of questions. The reasons for doing the review are absolutely correct - it's not nice to see the this country falling behind others in anything, let alone education. I'm very concerned but the notion of D&T and ICT becoming part of the basic curriculum, however it's definitely time we started talking about changing things significantly to put ourselves amongst the global leaders of education again.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Teachers Pensions: A Teacher's Perspective

Changes to next year's teacher pensions have recently been announced by the government against very strong opposition from teachers unions such as the NUT and NASUWT. As a young teacher with 40+ years of service left, these changes are going to have a big effect on my teaching career - as the unions say, I'm going to have to work longer, pay more and get less at the end of it.

We are living in a difficult economic period, with people losing jobs and facing big pay cuts, including both private and public sector workers. The question is, are these changes fair for all? I'm no expert, but hope that someone may find my thoughts on the topic useful.

How do teacher's pensions work?
As a teacher, I currently pay in 6.4% of my salary every month into a pension. My employer, pays in 14.1%. Assuming I was earning £25,000 - that's £1,600 from me plus £3,525 from my employer, or if I was earning £35,000 it would be £2,240 from me and £4,935 from my employer.

These get put into a pension 'pot' and when I choose to retire, I get a monthly payout. If I had joined the scheme before 1st January 2007, I would get a lump sum when I retired. If I had joined after that date, it would be an option at the expense of a proportion of the monthly income. 

The payouts are based on the final salary of the teacher concerned. Teachers are paid a pension of 1/60 for teachers who joined in or after 2007 or 1/80 for teacher who joined before 2007 for every year of service. 

For example, if i was paid £35,000 in my last year of service and worked for 20 years, I'd get £11,667 per year if I joined in or after 2007, or £8,750 per year with a lump sum of £26,250 if I had joined afterwards.

The new proposals
The government has proposed some major changes to these pensions;
  • Raising the pension age to 68 (from 65 for those who joined in or after 2007 and 60 for those who joined before)
  • Increasing the contributions for teachers by an average of 3.2%
  • A move to a career-average scheme
These proposals have obviously upset teachers and the Government seems willing to make few concessions, although they have agreed to protect the pensions of those workers retiring within 10 years, and keep the accrual rate of 1/60.

The question is, what is the difference between the two?

In terms of money
To really understand this, we need an example. In this, I'll assume that the average salary is 80% of the final salary, so for example a teacher retiring at £35,000 would have a career average salary of £28,000. I'm also assuming the teacher has worked for 20 years and is retiring at 60.

This graph shows that someone retiring at 60 with 20 years service would get around 70% of the pension they would have got under an old scheme. It's only an illustrative example, but it gives you an idea of the difference.

Remember that for this, teachers will be expected to pay an average of 3.2% more into their pension. (Using the £35,000 example, they will be paying £3,600 per year or £280 a month, compared to £2,240 or £186 a month at the moment). £100 less a month is going to be a big concern for most teachers.

Lets say I live to 80 and retired at 60. I've worked for 20 years as a teacher with an average salary of £28,000. I'll have personally paid in £53,760 and my employer will have paid in £78,960 to my pension over this time (total £132,720) and received £125,440 back. I'm not really sure where that £7,280 goes!

The pension age
Of the changes, for me this is the one that's most concerning. I cannot imagine working until 68 as a teacher - it's a scary thought. I also don't think that having lots of older teachers in the profession is a good thing - you need a good balance. New teachers bring in new, innovative and exciting ideas. Without these, education in this country could become very stale indeed.

Deal or no deal
Any teacher is going to argue against these changes - just as any private sector worker would argue against a pay cut, regardless of how long or hard they work. Over 40 years, I'm going to end up paying in an extra £50,000 and getting 70% of the pension I would have had before the changes.

The teacher's pension has never been 'gold plated', however even with the reforms they will still be well worth having. The main issue for me is that this isn't the deal I signed up for in the first place. I don't like the idea that the government can simply change the rules when it wants - there's no guarantee that this is the last change 'for a generation'. Remember, this is against a back drop of years of real-term pay cuts.

Teachers will be be feeling undervalued and underpaid at the moment. We do a very difficult job and I don't feel there's always an understanding of what it involves from people outside of the profession. Everybody has their part to play in society and regardless of whose fault the credit crunch was, that does include us. I'm quite sure if teachers were well supported and well paid, we'd be in a position to accept changes to our pensions, but I really don't feel we are either. Unfortunately, the pension reforms where the last straw for many after years of tough times.

Any calculations and figures above are ignoring inflation. Figures used for calculations are taken from the teacher's pensions website. I found some interesting discussions here.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Is teaching programming that important?

I've read a lot in the news recently about how ICT lessons should be more about programming and less of what we're doing at the moment. There's some very strong arguments for it and I wholeheartedly agree that programming of some sort should be experienced by all, however I don't believe the picture is as clear  as it might seem in some of the articles you might read online. Therefore, I've decided that this might be an interesting topic for my first ever blog.

First off, a bit about me. I'm a 26 year old ICT teacher from Devon.  I first looked at programming when I was about 8 after my dad showed me how to create some shapes on a sinclair spectrum, which I thought was amazing. I went on to modify a few games and create a few basic websites for local traders. In the last few years I've turned my attention to some bigger projects such as the South West Teacher Training Portal ( and a school rewards system called EPraise (

I love teaching; there is nothing more satisfying or fulfilling than being able to help young people learn. I also love solving problems and helping other solve problems, using computers. Teaching ICT is a chance to do both every day and it's great. Something I love about ICT is the pace at which it changes - I'm teaching things now that I never got the chance to do 5 years ago. Most of these changes have been the result of me and my colleagues seeking to keep the content up to date, relevant and interesting, not the result of what the media or politicians have suggested, however I think the fact that the media and the government appear to be more interested in what is happening in ICT lessons across the country has to be a good thing. I also think that sometimes the realities of the situation in classrooms is not always clear to these people, so here are a few of my thoughts on the subject;

The goalposts need moving
I guess this one is really obvious. At the moment, the National Curriculum / Program of Study (from the Department for Education) mentions the word 'programming' once at KS3 and doesn't mention it at all at KS4. This is a reasonably easy fix - take out the bits that add the least value and add in some new bits. There are of course options to study programming at Level 2 (e.g. OCR CCSE computing), but it's important to make something compulsory if every student should be exposed to it.

Teachers need up-skilling
The majority of ICT teachers I know do not have a good knowledge of programming and most don't have an ICT related degree. This has never been a problem before, because we've only been expected to teach the National Curriculum (see above). To retrain thousands of ICT teachers is a big job - however teachers love learning - they just need to right support to do it.

There also needs to be specific guidance about what ICT teachers should be able to do. Should they be able to use Logo? Should they know web programming and SQL? Should they be able to create smart phone apps? Or perhaps guidance in terms of understanding of programming terminology, such as arrays, functions and loops.

Not everybody can teach ICT
I read somewhere today that any teacher could teach ICT and we could move a lot of content from ICT lessons into other subjects. It's an argument I've heard before, once even from a secondary school head teacher, and I certainly agree that most of my colleagues could teach the basics of word, powerpoint and excel. There is also no doubt in my mind that the majority wouldn't have the depth of knowledge that ICT teachers have in those areas and would be lost if it came to graphics, animation or website design. ICT teachers are very skilled people which seem to be taken for granted, which is a real shame.

Should every student really be expected to learn programming?
Yes - to some extent. I'd like to be able to give my students a better understanding of how their computer works, as well as what they can do.

The 'But Sir/Miss I'm never going to need/use this' doesn't convince me - I leaned about electrons, neutrons and protons at school and whilst I don't think I've mentioned those words in about 10 years, I still have a better understanding of the world around me because of it.

It's also worth noting a few facts here - the UK is a world leader is software development. For example, we have the third largest video games industry and in 2010 it generated over £2.8bn. Industry leaders are crying out for high quality graduates, but numbers are falling.

Should every student be exposed to programming - yes. We just need to be careful with how much as many kids would get very, very bored, no matter how skilled the teacher. I can't imagine how I'd teach a terms worth of programming to any of my non-option groups. There is definitely a place for it, but it's not the only thing we should be teaching in ICT lessons. Despite what many say, presentations, word processing and spreadsheets are still of value.

We need to tell kids the big picture
We did a questionnaire at school recently and discovered that a lot of our students don't see when they're going to use ICT in their future jobs. That's a shame. I don't know whether it's the same story in other schools, but I know that I've started to add thing to my lessons that explain how important the skills they learn are and how big the ICT industry is in this country. I wonder if we've got so caught up in the delivery of the subject that we've forgotten to tell our students why they're doing it in the first place. We should also be celebrating our computing heritage, which I'm not sure we do at the moment.

Some cool tools to help
There are some great resources out there to help you teach and learn programming. Once such resource is Code Academy - - which teaches you in a fantastic, interactive way that you may find students love (although it didn't seem to work properly on our schools machines).

A summary
ICT teaching needs to change, although remember we teachers have been changing it every year since the subject was invented. What we need now is something to aim at and some support to get there. We also need to remember that whilst programming is important, there's plenty of other things we teach kids in ICT which are just as important and arguably more useful.