A Self Organised Learning Environment, and I wasn’t even there!

Sugata Mitra in his excellent and prize-winning TED lecture discusses the idea of Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE). Essentially the idea is that children, given the Internet, can teach themselves and find the answers to big questions. He’s the founder of the Hole in the Wall computer in project. India. Watch the film to find out more.

There’s an idea I’ve pondered for a little while. I want to stop spoon feeding pupils. I want them to be confident to make mistakes. I want them to be able to solve problems independently. Actually some of this is quite hard to do as a teacher.

My year 10 class (age 14) have been learning JavaScript and HTML. I set them a problem; to create a web page that would convert a temperature to Celcius or Fahrenheit depending upon what the user requested. I gave them some of the code and also the formula. They worked on this problem for 5 weeks, 1 hour per week. I gave help only in extreme circumstances (if I felt an individual was just getting nowhere and was beginning to get down about it). They browsed, they debugged, they discussed and argued,and eventually they got it.

The more striking example came two weeks ago. I was out of school for a meeting so had left work for my classes. One year 7 class (age 11) were midway through a database project and had already created and populated their own databases. I set the work to carry out some sorts and searches on the table. I also asked that they provided screenshots of these and wrote about them to show what they had searched for and why this would help a user. I left the lesson plan on my desk with an example set of screen shots taped to the wall at the front.

On my return, the cover supervisor apologetically told me there had been a mix up with cover and she had only realised halfway through the lesson that they didn’t have a teacher. She was covering a rowdy year 11 class so only managed to pop in a couple of times but the children had seemed quiet and busy.

Next lesson I discovered the students had done all the work set. That’s relatively unprecedented for a cover lesson anyway, but they’d also taught themselves a new skill. Filters and sorts in databases aren’t rocket science but they hadn’t done it before and with something new I’ll ALWAYS demonstrate first.

What did this mean? Should I resign? Did the children need a teacher?  Could they just teach themselves from now on?

Well, no.  Ultimately there were certain factors I put in place for this to take effect:

  • example material on the board
  • video tutorials on the school intranet (very short tutorials, some only 30 seconds, teaching specific skills – I’ve been using these for years for self-paced learning)
  • ground work in the lessons before on this topic to design and create the databases and discussing how and why databases are used in society.

That was this scheme of work.  Last term year 7 created web pages using HTML and a bit of CSS.  They used Code Avengers to build up their own skills and I also showed them W3 Schools and encouraged them to find out new stuff for themselves.  One of my colleagues who is less confident with HTML effectively threw whole lessons over to W3 Schools and I think the outcomes from her class were better than mine!

So, I think Self-Organised Learning Environments have some benefit.  I do think Sugata Mitra is right in indicating that the structure of schools today is not as effective as it could be but I don’t think knowledge is obsolete.  Groups of children, given access to knowledge and the thirst to acquire it will teach themselves something.  Whether those Tamil children really understand the depths of DNA replication is questionable but I don’t think that’s the point.  They sort of got a bit of it.  I bet the day after he left they discovered Minecraft.

However what we as teachers do is set the frameworks in place.  The structure of learning is important and education as an internet-based free-for-all would result in a lot of surface-level knowledge.  That said, I think there is definitely something to be said for stepping away from the lesson sometimes and telling the students that any answer to a problem is fine, as long as it addresses the problem

My Ideal Planner

I bought a diary last week. Yes in the middle of the academic year.  I have yet to find a way of planning that works for me.

This year I have tried 2 teacher / lesson planning apps.  Teacher Planner for iPad and My Class Schedule for Android.  I’ve given up with both for various reasons.  So here is my ideal planner:

  • it must work in the cloud so I can check my lessons on my phone, tablet or desktop
  • fortnightly or weekly timetable
  • choose however many lessons per day you have
  • pauses for holidays
  • set all term dates in advance and lessons repeated automatically for the WHOLE year
  • have a “this lesson” and “next lesson” section for each lesson
  • carry over the “next lesson” section automatically into “this lesson” for the next lesson
  • sync with Google calendar so items from my personal and school calendars are displayed alongside lessons

So far I have found nothing that does all this.  They are all awkward and clunky.  I emailed Pirongs last year (who make excellent hard copy teacher planners) and asked then when they were bringing out an app version and they replied they had no plans to do so.  Well sorry but I think say goodbye to your business in 10 years or less if you have “no plans”.

Maybe I’ll build my own.

Edmodo – a year on

edmodo badges

edmodo logo

A year ago I came across the social learning network Edmodo.  Probably via Twitter, I’ve no idea really.  What started out as a small-scale trial is now fully embedded across the department and also used extensively by other groups in the school.  It might be useful to share how and why this has happened.

I teach a relatively large class, now in year 11 doing a coursework-only vocational ICT course (DiDA).  There are 28 students and as they have very different abilities, by March of year 10 had got to the point where they were all working on different things and managing their own work well.  The full DiDA qualification has 4 units, each equivalent to 1 GCSE in points.  Each unit contains probably 12 separate pieces of work. Every piece of work needs to be reviewed, receive feedback and be re-drafted.  Most are screen based and therefore not suitable for printing.  Over the two years that’s over 1,300 pieces of work I need to look at if I only look at it once.  I usually look more than once.

I REALLY wish I hadn’t done that calculation 😦

Anyway I needed a way of keeping track of what I had looked at, and for the students to record my feedback.

The first group was set up for the students working on the graphics unit.  They developed logos, example packaging, shop fronts and digital posters for a “healthy takeaway shop”.  They uploaded, I gave feedback (based on exam board marking criteria) they resubmitted and I gave more feedback.  As an aside they also realised that if they uploaded relatively large png files it took forever but if they converted to gif or jpg the upload times were much better!


After about 3 weeks (I’m impatient with trials – if it works it works). I rolled out to my other classes who were soon uploading all their work.

In September we decided to start using Edmodo with year 9 doing the Essential Skills Wales qualification in ICT (I won’t dwell on that).  One of the requirements of this is that students submit two drafts of much of their work.  Many forget (who ACTUALLY saves 2 copies of a presentation when you know the 2nd is much better than the 1st?) so Edmodo handily keeps these drafts for us.

We then started using it with large numbers of students.

My 10 year old son watched me marking at home and told his year 6 teacher about it.  She’s set it up for his class and I also log now as a parent!

School Stats

We now have over 1000 students, 31 teachers and 38 groups on our Edmodo.

It’s being used in ICT, Art and Maths as well as for general 6th form communication, student parliament and vocational activities such as 6th form buddies and Duke of Edinburgh’s award.

My colleage @ademuzzy has presented once to the whole staff on Edmodo and once as a 1 hour CPD to a few teachers.

Lessons Learned

Students really engage with this (“it looks like Facebook!”). They like choosing their favourite quote, learning style and career aim.  We’ve kept a bit of an eye on the profile pictures to avoid the pouty ones.
It’s great for students to submit work and get comments.  Written feedback on work is very important and something we are focusing on this year in school.  Writing comments on work gets a bit samey after a while and if your’re anything like me the students at the bottom of the alphabet can get a raw deal.  However, like with reports, you often want to write the same thing, with a few alterations on many students’ work.  Yes I copy and paste comments – but I then change the 20% of the words which are important.  Saves tons of time and means I write much longer and more meaningful comments.

It’s excellent for discussions.  For OCR Cambridge Technicals in year 12 I set a question (below) and asked students to comment.  The resulting discussion can be used as evidence for their qualification!

edmodo discussion

As a Head of Department I really like that I can see all the work that students are submitting and all the comments my colleagues make.    Not because I am keeping tabs on them (although it IS part of my job) but because if a colleague makes a really positive comment about some work I have a look at it.  I wouldn’t have seen it before and it means we can ALL share in the good work.  I don’t have special access as a HoD – colleagues can also see my comments.

This means we can use Edmodo as an easy way of moderating work across the department which we plan to do in March.

We can set up a group for a particular group (e.g. year 10) then small groups within that for particular classes. The same assignment can be sent to all small groups but if you’re careful each can have a different due date. (Bit fiddly this – at times I think we have micro-managed).

Students really take note of the due dates of tasks!

The smartphone / tablet apps are excellent cut-down versions of the main site.  When the WiFi works in my classroom I walk around with the iPad discussing student progress with individuals.  Great!

I can link it to Google Docs (as can the students) and all my Google Docs can be transferred into Edmodo seamlessly.

The students like the backpack feature – they can put work in their backpack to take home.

I can give parent codes to parents to see what their child is doing.  Now as a teacher I had no idea what this looked like but when my son came home with a parent code I logged on (different account).  I can see what assignments he has due, the work he submitted and the marks and comments his teacher gave.  It means I have a MUCH clearer idea of what his teacher is looking for and can have a really meaningful discussion about his work with him.  As a parent I’d actually rather this than formal reports.

It’s made marking loads of fun!


Well no it hasn’t, but it has helped.  The notifications tell me how much marking I need to do and it’s satisfying to tick them off.  I can also create badges to award to students who pass particular criteria.  There are lots of generic badges on Edmodo, you can share badges with other teachers and also create your own. Ideally it would link up with Mozilla Open Badges but I guess you can’t have everything.  Incidentally year 11 scoffed at the badges when they first saw them but now have a bit of a competition going on.

edmodo badges

We can also link up with other teachers and groups round the world.

Probably most importantly, Edmodo runs really well on our dreadful internet connection! (currently<8Mbs for the whole school.  Welsh Government cash set to change that soon!

There are inevitably some downsides.  Sometimes it doesn’t quite do what we want, but that’s a small price to pay for a free site that in the space of a year has revolutionised the way we run this department.

Ultimately any teaching tool has to be judged by whether it raises attainment.  We won’t have the results of these qualifications until August 2013 and there are too many factors to enable a straight comparison to last year to take place.  However as a teacher, I know exactly where all my classes are on all pieces of work.  I am giving much better feedback to students on their work.  Students are reacting to my comments and redrafting their work.  As a parent I am having really high quality discussions with my son about his work.  How can all of this NOT lead to better attainment?

Advice to potential Computer Science teachers

The UK Government has announced today a scheme to entice Computer Science graduates into teaching in England with a £20,000 incentive.  I am delighted by the message this sends out about the importance of Computer Science.  I hope it doesn’t detract from the very important job of retraining hundreds of excellent ICT teachers to teach Computer Science.  I also hope that Computer Science graduates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be similarly tempted soon!

7 years ago I started a PGCE in ICT after a career in industry.  Several of my friends have sought my advice about going into teaching and it’s always the same, do it, but do some preparation.

Before applying to do the PGCE I spent a week in a secondary school (coincidentally the one I work in now).  The school and department were kind enough to plan a programme of lessons for me to observe and even take part in.  I was able to find out about the curriculum, the way it was applied and the pressures of teaching.  I could also observe the rhythms of the teaching week.  I started the week with the determination not to see it through rose tinted spectacles and finished it more enthused about it than before!

I was on maternity leave at the time so time off work wasn’t an issue and I managed to sort childcare for the week and I know for some of my friends, the ability to take time off work is limited.  Consider this though, a week of unpaid leave is NOTHING compared to the fact that your salary in a years time will probably be 1/3 what it is now.  If you’ve made the right career choice then that won’t matter to you but if it was the wrong decision – it’s a costly mistake.

  • Find out about your local secondary schools (this link will help)
  • Check their website for the name of the head teacher
  • Write to them enclosing your CV and ask to spend some time observing lessons, point out your expertise
  • You don’t need a CRB check to work in a school if you are not alone with children – a qualified teacher will be with you at all times
  • Check how much input the teacher wants you to have during the lesson (we’re all different)
  • Go round the room and speak to children about their work – get involved!
  • Ask if there is anything you can help with during lunch time or after school.
  • DON’T tell them that they’re doing it all wrong and when you start teaching you’d wipe the slate clean – we’re in a state of curriculum flux in ICT/Computing in schools and we know how to handle it!
  • Remember that this could be a week-long interview if a job comes up later (it was for me!)

Teaching – as if it were industry

Having spent roughly the same amount of time teaching as I did working in IT as a programmer / analyst, I thought I’d summarise what the teaching day is like for these new would-be Computer Science teachers.  It’s a tongue-in-cheek analysis!

You arrive at work at about 8-ish and spend a little time preparing for the day.  At 8:30 you have a 1 hour meeting.  During this meeting you need to impress people.  The attendees don’t especially want to be there, although some of them are quite excited, but it’s important that they know more and can do more at the end of the meeting than they could at the beginning.  You spend most of the meeting walking around the room.  It’s a good idea not to talk for a long time yourself but instead to ask questions of the attendees.  Make sure you ask well thought out open questions and ensure all the attendees are called upon to respond.  You need to have thought up some stimulating activities for these attendees to do during the meeting as well.

As soon as that meeting finishes you have a second meeting.  The format will be largely the same as the first although the attendees will be different and the subject matter will vary.

At the end of the second meeting you need to go to a third, shorter meeting (only 20 minutes this time).  To get there you have to walk up a 50m corridor which is about 1.5 m wide.  The difficulty is that about 200 people will be coming the other way.  Most of them will not be looking where they are going and 3 of them will be swinging their bags.  At this third meeting you have 20 minutes to make announcements, find out why some people didn’t attend meetings, and sign forms for 25 attendees.  You are also supposed to pray for a bit.

Finally you get to have a cup of tea after this as you have 20 minutes without meetings!  A large room is allocated to this but only a small corner has been given over to the facilities to make the cup of tea.  It seems to have been designed by someone who has never made a hot drink.  Nevertheless the 40-odd people who use this space perform a daily dance around each other and manage to make some sort of drink.  If you are lucky you will get to drink it too.  Try to fit in a loo-stop before the next meeting.

Once a week however you can’t put your feet up during this session as you have to stand outside and watch some of the meeting attendees running around, or instruct them on queuing procedures.

After this well deserved rest you will have another 2 hours of meetings back to back before lunch beckons.  You may find however that you spend much of this lunch “hour” talking to meeting attendees about why they didn’t pull their weight in your meetings.  You don’t have to do this of course but it’s quite hard to do your job well otherwise.

After lunch, another meeting.

During any of these meetings, certain unexpected things might happen which you should be prepared for:

  • attendees are sometimes late
  • someone might cry
  • someone will probably sneeze all over you
  • you will have to ask someone to wash their muddy hands before touching your keyboards
  • someone might say “I dont gedddd itttt” in a really whiny voice despite you having explained “it” in 4 different ways and asked them to stop looking at their hair in computer screen 3 times
  • someone will delete all their work without realising it and claim the computer didn’t save it

Occasionally you will find yourself with an hour (10% of the time) where you have no meetings and can do some work.  The work you have to do comprises planning for meetings and assessing what went on with them as well as countless other tasks.  Hopefully coming from industry you will be familiar with the concept of hotdesking.  This will be useful to you as the first 10 minutes will be spent finding somewhere to work.

Sometimes you will be able to leave at 3pm – like you might have done on Fridays in some industry jobs.  More likely you will be there until 4:30 or later catching up on work.  You will also do a bit more work later that evening.  From time to time you will have meetings with the parents of your meeting attendees.  This will involve 3 hours of 5 minute appointments.  Most of the people you see you will talk about what a great attendee they are raising.  The ones you need to talk to won’t be there.

You will get lots of holidays and your friends will probably moan about this.  Holidays are when you catch up with the work you don’t have time to do at work.

Of course, while all of this is true.  There are some genuinely great things about teaching (which mean that I won’t be heading back to industry any time soon).

  • year 11 coursework deadline isn’t going to move and isn’t going to be shelved due to a changed business direction or a takeover
  • you won’t be lining the pockets of an already rich industrialist
  • very often some of your pupils will absolutely “get it” and be delighted to show you their progress
  • one of your pupils will make you laugh out loud in a good way every day
  • occasionally pupils will come up to you after the meeting and thank you for a great meeting
  • you get to go on school trips to interesting, cool and fun places
  • you get to take part in madcap charity fundraising events (1:36) which gets over 8,000 YouTube hits
  • you are challenged, every day, in a way you often can’t predict

Aggregation of Marginal Gains – why cycling and education are so similar

  1. During the Olympics and Paralympics the British Cycling team won lots of gold medals.  Some other teams questioned whether everyone was actually playing by the same rules and of course Team GB cycling director David Brailsford was interviewed repeatedly about his strategy.  The phrase “aggregation of marginal gains” was bandied about a LOT but as he described – Team GB had focused extensively on the tiny details that could gain them an extra 100th of a second.
  2. GCSE and A-level results tend to show an upward trend year-on-year (with some exceptions).

Now – some of the things “we” (as in people) are better at with regard to sport than, say, 20 years ago.  The duration, intensity, location and timing of training is carefully managed.  Nutrition is better understood – not just the need to load up with carbs before an event but the availability of nutrition gels during endurance events.  Technology has played a huge part in terms of the physical stuff (carbon fibre bikes, better shoes etc.) but also the impact technology can have on assessing training.

Of course all the other teams have access to this as well (to a greater or lesser extent depending on funding – the velodrome is not a level track for more than 1 reason).  However Team GB appear to have investigated every single possible improvement in performance – even to the extent that washing your hands properly means you get ill less.

Now I think we’ve been doing something like this in education for, well forever really.  Exam results have got better, and let us assume that Ofqual have done their job properly over the years and that exams have been properly standardised from year to year – i.e. they are not getting easier.

People outside education often scoff about the near constant improvement in exam results.  Here are some things schools and individual teachers have been doing over the past few years – some of the “marginal gains” we’ve made.  Feel free to add your own:

  1. near obsessive examination of questioning techniques, types of questions, who is being asked, who is answering, the time between the teacher asking and the student answering
  2. assessment for learning – types and quality of feedback, who is giving the feedback
  3. students teaching each other
  4. nutrition – yes it makes a difference in sport and in education too.  Anecdotal: teachers do report improvements in concentration and behaviour when diet improves.  Only today in the staff room the science department were discussing how most of the bottom sets don’t have breakfast whereas most of the top sets do.
  5. data – we have a lot more of it and use it to target students much more effectively
  6. technology – I don’t actually think ICT is the panacea for everything BUT there are lots of ways in which technology improves the access to learning for many students.  Not “the internet” but the differences in the way information is presented.

Of course there have been many negatives – things taken out of education that teachers feel is missing but the way something like AFL starts off as a Big Thing – then becomes so embedded in your lessons you don’t even realise it’s a thing at all is a marginal gain.

The problem is that if Team GB win even more Gold medals in cycling we’ll be delighted.  When more students gain better grades – the boundaries are shifted and the whole system is said to be flawed.

Don’t “Make a PowerPoint!”

As an ICT teacher, at this time of year my room is always booked out by other teachers doing some ICT with their classes.  It’s the only time of year they can get such free access to the ICT suites and many of them do some great ICT lessons.

However what really makes me irritated is when a class is told to “Make a PowerPoint about X”.  It is this kind of lesson that has given ICT such a bad name.  One worse is when students have to print it out at the end of the lesson…..

PowerPoint is designed to create screen-based publications.  This means that animation can be effective (it can also be horrible) and that whilst it will print OK, it’s best viewed on screen.

Briefly there are 3 ways I have used PowerPoint within lessons successfully.  Other presentation packages are available obviously and we have used Google Docs as well.

Create an Information Point

This is designed to be viewed by the user sitting in front of a computer (or touchscreen).  The user should be able to navigate the information point using the mouse (or touch).  It should be clear to the user when all the content on a slide has loaded.

Features needed:

  • action buttons or hyperlinks
  • animation on slides all with previous or after previous
  • auto or mouse click transitions disabled between slides so the user has to use the navigation

Create a Digital Poster

This is designed to run on a screen in (say) a reception area.  The school probably has one.  It should run with no user interaction at all.  These can even be displayed in the school reception.  (In industry these are called digital signage so I should probably call it that).

Features needed:

  • transitions between all slides to be set to go automatically (with careful timing)
  • animation on slides all with previous or after previous
  • slide-show set-up to run in a loop

Create a Presentation

This is designed to be presented by someone standing in front of a room full of people.  Any user interaction should be carefully considered based on the content of the presentation and the impact the presenter wants to make.  I think if students are going to make presentations they should actually present them.  This is difficult in a class of 30 which is why I prefer the two previous options.

Features needed:

  • the design of the presentation should mean that the presenter does not read their slides as this is very boring and assumes the audience is stupid
  • the presenter should decide how they want the animation to run – do they want every slide to load automatically or do they want to reveal bits of content manually? (This takes practice.)
  • speaker notes should be created – mainly because it removes the temptation to write everything on the slide!

Testing and a little tiny bit of Computer Science?

Any of these options needs careful testing.  The first two, provided a tight brief has been set (e.g. 5 slides or 3 minutes) can be easily peer reviewed by having a quick trip round the class by lots of students.  They can also be uploaded to the VLE and peer reviewed at home.

The testing part also encourages pupils to consider the HCI (Human Computer Interaction).  It’s very, very simplistic here but will start to get them thinking along the lines of other screen-based apps and websites they have used – what works and what doesn’t.  Neil Brown from University of Kent has blogged about using HCI as a way of teaching Computer Science without the programming.