Monday, 18 September 2017

Google Photos - Digital Tips and Tricks

Google Photos is the newest and slightly hidden gem of the Google Suite which allows you to, backup manage and share photos easily. It is perfect for when you are on a field trip and want to share some photos with your class or with parents and want to avoid the confusion of shared folders. I have used the app on the bus back to school and have shared everything before I needed to rush back to class.

How do I get started?

You need to first install the app on your smartphone and the visit the website to see your albums and backed up photos.

What does it do?

The app and online version continues to update now allowing you the ability to

  • create and share albums with anyone
  • create a collaborative album for others to contribute images
  • create animated gifs with a series of photos
  • make and download a collage with selected photos
  • within the phone app make a movie with selected pics
Have an explore with the quick guide below either using your work account for school photos of personal account. You have the option to automatically sync your photos in the background to your online account or alternatively you can manually select which photos you wish to backup. When you delete a photo from your camera roll a copy can be left online.

Guide to explore

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Blended Screencasts - Record & Flip

Record & Flip

Record it, then flip it, simple!

Screen recording, or Screencasts are one of most most effective teaching tools in the arsenal of a teacher who is fortunate to be work in a 'technology enhanced learning environment' but, if the devices you have to hand are laptops, not tablets, than expecting your students to create a screencast can be more of a hassle than it's worth. 

That is unless you know how to record and flip. 

I've used demonstrated this technique before in a context of asking students to model a skill with apparatus, such as how they can measure an angle with a protractor, but with a little imagination it's not difficult to see how this could be used in other ways:
  • Mapping skills in Humanities
  • Rationale for a design proposal in Design & Technology
  • Description of the significance of imagery in the Visual Arts
  • Mind Mapping relationships and connections
  • Reflection on ideas and opportunities for development in a flash draft in English
  • Reflection/critique of a passage/excerpt in a printed book/magazine
  • Annotation of musical notation to indicate understanding of the structure
  • Annotation of diagrams, graphs, and charts
  • Explaining a strategy or process in solving a Mathematics problem
  • and many more...
All the students need is a whiteboard or a sheet of paper, and to position it as shown above. They can tap the spacebar to start and stop the recording. 

Once the recording is finished the student can flip the video horizontally and vertically, then review and trim* the video is necessary before sharing it with the teacher. 

An Example from Mathematics

Here's one I did earlier...**

*If the student has done a great deal of  'umming and ahhing' they can delete the segments of the video that are unimportant, but most of the time this is probably unnecessary as you're not looking for a highly polished artefact here, and hesitation (when and why) may well be useful information in and of itself.

** Disclaimer, the hesitation you see in this video was intentional in order to create a sense of authenticity, honest, it's true! 

Friday, 8 September 2017

Quizlet Diagrams - revise knowledge with clever visuals

Quizlet remains as one of those Swiss Army knife style apps that you end up repurposing and going back to time and time again. Last year it got a significant revamp with the Quizlet Live game feature and now there is a clever addition called Quizlet Diagrams.

In essence using Quizlet is a perfect approach to get students to revise new terms or develop and broaden their vocabulary. In Economics I want student to use the appropriate terms and words to explain the nuances of complicated concepts and models. For instance we want our students to confidently use the term 'appreciation' rather than trying to just say that a currency has gone 'up' In my experience Quizlet is a pretty good tool to help develop this basic knowledge.
The new diagrams tool goes further adding a really clever visual layer. You can pin a term to a specific part of the diagram and then the students use the match or learn tools to revise which term matches which part.

How do I use?

  • You need to sign up for a free Teacher account with your GApps account
  • Search the diagrams examples for your subject
  • Duplicate an existing set of flashcards or create to start a fresh
  • Drag a screenshot or image into Quizlet
  • Use the pin icon to add terms.

Are there examples I can look at?

There are lots of really clever examples already created and available online. You can share any of these with your students by posting the link into our Online Learning Platform (Teamie)

Have a go and test yourself first !
  1. Biology Cell Structure Diagram
  2. Soil Layers Diagram - Science and Geography
  3. Match the European Country
  4. Spanish Vocab - el desayuno (what's for breakfast I think :)

How do students access?

You can copy the link directly from Quizlet and send this to your students with the Online Learning Platform (Teamie) The two best modes from students to practice diagrams are Learn Mode or Match Mode.

Learn mode is very clever and randomly gives students either match or multiple choice questions based on the set of flashcards you have created and it helps students track which ones they find easy and those which are harder. Match mode is probably the best supported to diagram and give the students a random challenge based on the flash cards you have added to a diagram. See below


Monday, 28 August 2017

Posting tips for better formative assessment

The Online Learning Platform in Middle and High School is our key tool to both share resources and communicate with students.

The post option has lots of hidden tricks allowing you to collect student responses, develop polls for students to vote on or share Google Docs. Have an explore through the slides below for examples to explore and try with your class.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Holidays, Screen Time & Parental Guilt

Screen time: Interacting? Consuming? Communicating? Creating? []

Holidays are fabulous, and with them comes, especially for your children, time, in particular, more leisure time; and in a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” for many, while we anticipate some great memories and experiences, with the typical 21st-century family it doesn't take long before the inevitable tensions caused by the multiplicity of screens in the home can start to cause problems. The fact is that a vacation inevitably means more time spent with screens, for the whole family, not just the kids. Yes, you know it's true.

Cue the inevitable pangs of parental guilt, brilliantly summed up in an article from The Atlantic:

"Tune into the conversation about kids and screen time, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that before the invention of the iPhone, parents spent every waking moment engaging their kids in deep conversation, undertaking creatively expressive arts-and-crafts projects, or growing their own vegetables in the backyard garden. There’s a tendency to portray time spent away from screens as idyllic, and time spent in front of them as something to panic about. 
But research shows that vilifying the devices’ place in family life may be misguided."

Depending on where you will be spending your vacation, you may well find yourself in a situation where your children are stuck indoors for many hours. Obviously a long haul flight means that kind of scenario and most families are prepared to tolerate a lot more screen time in that situation for the sake of maintaining sanity. But what happens when, at your destination, you are faced with, for example, inclement weather (yes Ireland, I'm looking at you). This means that potentially your children are stuck inside for days on end, and there's only so many hours you can spend persuading them to play board games and read books before screens and their many distractions become a temptation... Then when (not if) parents inevitably concede, it causes a great deal of guilt, not to mention potential condemnation from in-laws?

Screen Time - Not just a kid thing [Credit Paul Rogers]

How much is too much?

Common sense media have recently released the results of a huge census that they have taken, 'Media use by Tweens and Teens', researching typical uses of screen time. I've written about the issue of screen time before in the context of early childhood. But what make this census of particular interest is that it's focused on the screen time of older children. The findings are certainly worth reading, and for the most part they handle the issues it represents well, other than their tendency to grandstand with their "9 HOURS OF MEDIA DAILY" (which includes listening to music, something you could be doing while spending a week hiking in the mountains...) But my main gripe is their strange choice to exclude adults from the census—it's my contention (recently confirmed by another media census focusing on parents) that many if not most adults would rack up just as many hours as our children, if not more (especially if they're working on screens during the vacation, which many do). Given a comparison like that, it would put this kind of alarmist rhetoric into a much more reasonable perspective. For example, at least two recent studies show that the typical adult spends between eight and eleven hours on screens, although "to be fair, much of that probably happens while doing other things at the same time." (Statista)

"On any given day, parents of American tweens and teens average more than nine hours with screen media each day. Eighty-two percent of that time (almost eight hours) is devoted to personal screen media activities such as watching TV, social networking, and video gaming, with the rest used for work."  
The Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens

As mentioned, the amount of "free time" available to everyone in the family during vacations increases, but you can be sure that especially for your children, with this significant increase, the likelihood is that your children will want to occupy most, if not all of this free time with "entertainment media". This was the focus of the census, and included media like books, not just screens, but as you will not be surprised to learn, screens dominated. A lot.
"entertainment media” is a very broad category, including everything from music, TV shows and videos, books, and websites to computer, video, and mobile games. But the fact that tweens and teens in the U.S. are using an average of six to nine hours' worth of media a day is still astounding. As discussed elsewhere, this does not mean they are stopping all other activity and attending only to media during this time; but it is still a large amount of time spent absorbing a large amount of content.
on any given day fully one in five 8- to 12-year-olds in this country is using more than six hours of screen media, and nearly as many teens (18 percent) are using more than 10 hours of screen media." (The Common Sense Census, 2015, p 30)

The survey provides little of anything in terms of advice as to how to manage this, although one particular statistic really stood out to me, and it is at the heart of my advice to parents in dealing with this tricky issue.

Media Use by Tweens and Tweens Report - Page 22

"Only 3% of teens' and tweens' digital media time is spent on content creation" 

Almost every vacation I get bombarded with emails parents and teachers desperately requesting ideas for ways that they can use screen time more productively during their vacation, so here is my advice if you want to try and make screen time more productive in your family this holiday.

Get creative

The notion of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for, well, lots of purposes. Designating their use simply as "screen time" can miss some important variations. The Common Sense Census identifies four main categories of screen time.

  • Passive consumption: watching TV, reading, and listening to music 
  • Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet
  • Communication: video-chatting and using social media
  • ​Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music

21st Century Family Screen Time [image credit:]

If screen media use can mean writing a short story on a computer, video-chatting with relatives, watching videos, reading the news online, or playing games, what is the point of documenting the total amount of time teens spend using screens? Instead of auditing, let's focus more on balance, the paltry amount of time spent creating with screens could be nudged up extensively by replicating at home some of the ways we encourage our students to use screens in school, only this time giving your kids much greater freedom of choice in terms of the focus of their creative endeavours...

If your children are dual language learners (DLLs), this is an excellent way to encourage them to reinforce their language other than English, by replicating some of their school projects in their mother tongue.

A model I use for framing our use of screens at UWCSEA is something I sum up as 'vitamin digital' of 'VITAD'; five domains of tech use. Even better, as your kids have been working within many (if not all) of these domains, they will already have a good idea of the kinds of tools they need to use, without you needing to teach them! Each of these domains is powerful in its own right, but they really come into their own when you start exploring combinations of them...

VITAD - Video, Image, Text, Audio and Data Handling - Core Domains of Tech

Video editing:

Make music videos, animation, stop motion video, 'supercuts' from YouTube clips. Why not appoint your kids as family 'media journalists', why not give them the job of documenting the holiday? I'm sure they'll let you contribute some of your media to the project... 

Image creation:

Image montage/mash up, slideshow, add music to convert the slide show into a music video? Image editing, filters, layers, digital artwork... 


Make an ebook, presentation, blog, choose your own adventure (hyperlinked Google Slides), coding, website, browse (research holiday destination?) persuade, demonstrate...

Learn to touch-type, for more advice on this see my related post, but it's safe to say that if you/your child dedicated 15-30 minutes a day to this everyday throughout the holidays they could be proficient by the start of the new school term in August! 


Slideshow commentary, soundtrack, podcast/radio show, composition in GarageBand, or remix of favourite tracks? 

Data handling: 

Spreadsheets: pocket money, trip budget, holiday costing, problem solving, graphing stats (choose data and gather ie how many times does 'x' do 'y'???


Do not be mistaken, just because they are working with Maths activities on a screen, doesn't make the experience much more palatable for your kids. That said, there is no doubt that using screens to encourage greater numeracy is a no-brainer, these tools are brilliant at enabling practise, with immediate feedback, and developing 'automaticity'. Despite this, Maths practise will most likely need to be encouraged with tangible rewards for completion of certain achievements. I expect my kids to do a half an hour of Khan Academy before they do any other screen activity, half an hour a day during vacations is the goal. Maybe offer them rewards as they complete certain mile posts or missions? In order to keep vacation stress to a minimum, I find it a really good idea to ask them to go back and master grade missions that precede the grade they're in, as this is an effective form of revision/consolidation/practise, even if this means a Grade 5 student working on the Early Years mission to get started, if I did it, so can they! This way you're also less likely to be called on to help with problems that they can't solve independently, and they are more likely to enjoy the sense of fluency and confidence that comes with working speedily through concepts that they have practised in previous years, not to mention the reward of mastering a grade level. That said, both you and they might be surprised at how many foundational skills they are less confident in than they thought, just as well you did this then, isn't it?

... Better still, why not join them in a little Maths revision yourself? The Khan Academy App on the iPad is particularly good for this.

There are plenty of other options besides Khan Academy, especially if you don't have a reliable WiFi connection, these can be really useful. One of my favourites is the Ken Ken App, like Sodoku, but with basic operations thrown in. Also, pretty much anything from the developers behind Squeebles is a safe bet—there are many tried and tested Maths Apps, such as these, and these, that you can install on an iOS device near you, I'm sure many if not most of these are also available on Android.


Check out my coding posts on this blog and you'll see a complete guide of many kinds of apps and sites to fill any vacation... :)

Focus on the Meaning not the Medium

Now I'm not going to pretend that all these ways to use screens to create are going to trump the use of screens to consume, interact and communicate, any more than you have any intention of only using screens in your life for creating. For this reason you may need some incentives are going to have to be in the form of some essential agreements; with a bit of careful negotiation I'm sure you can work out some sort of compromise...

Finally, some wise words from the American Association of Pediatrics (updated October 2015):
"Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects. 
Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer."

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Digital Approaches to Activating Prior Knowledge

In our staff meeting we explored ways that technology can really enhance our ability to activate and assess prior knowledge and to introduce concepts. We all have approaches to pre-assess students understanding some of which involve technology.

There are specific digital tools when used a part of our repertoire can amplify the process of activating knowledge. In clever ways they help assessment, monitor, track and provide the data to help us differentiate learning in the face-to-face classroom. Overtime we should be comfortable with the following and use them to help assess and support differentiation.

If you teach Maths there is an amazing range of specific adaptive tools at your fingertips. (MangaHigh, Khan Academy, My iMaths) 

First steps:

We all provide students with materials to look over before class, such as unit pages in Teamie, chapters of a textbook or to watch a YouTube video. We also use formative assessment tricks at beginning of lessons such as questioning, mini-whiteboards to connect back to prior knowledge.

Isnt this enough?

Well, yes but with a few tweaks if can be significantly amplified. If we want students to be watch a video or to read an article we should be setting them some questions to focus their thinking.

Technology can really help with this process by letting you
  • Track and monitor if students have actually watched or read the material
  • Automate collecting responses from the students
  • Help you see a collated view of responses and flip between questions or students.

Challenges and thoughts


A few table groups spoke about the timeliness of pre-assessments. If you really wish to differentiate you need adequate time to analyse how students have performed.  For instance if you are beginning to explore a new concept, students can engage with a homework task in the days prior but does this give you time to modify what you were planning to do?


Suppose instead of having a mini-lesson during class time explaining a concept, that you record yourself with a document camera and have students engage with this ahead of class. What if only half of the students look at the resource? Do you repeat yourself or split the class into groups. Overtime I would suggest that students understand why you are exploring this approach and help them see it as part of the routine and to be prepared. We also need to do something in the first part of the class that explicitly refers back to the homework and references the prior knowledge so they understand how it connects to the learning. If they come to class prepared and yet that work is not referenced by the teacher they will be less willing to do the pre-assessment next time.


To be organised in advance and to preset some homework preparation requires some effort. If you also want to create your own material to support the course it can be extremely time consuming.
  • Start with using a Teamie post to ask a simple question about a resource. This can be a virtual plenary to your lesson. Lock the comment if you don’t want students to see each others comments and then unlock when class begins and get them to read or reply to each others responses.
  • Take an existing good resource or video and repurpose using EdPuzzle.
  • If the approach works explore making your own resource. Try a screencast on your mac using Quicktime, or borrow a document camera to record a mini-lesson.

Presentations - click to end to see department ideas

Sunday, 7 May 2017

21st Century Spelling

Spilling had never bin maw impotent

Spelling has never been more important, as my example above attempts to illustrate. In an age dominated by screens, misspelling is tantamount to an admission of idiocy—but the way we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment. Please note that none of the words in the title are actually misspellings, but mistakes they are, and a right twazzock you will look if you spell in a way that is overly reliant on proofreading tools as a safety net. It's time we took account of the fact that in a world where screens are ubiquitous, the ways we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment.

These days the likelihood of interacting via text with others in a digital environment is commonplace. Even more critical, people who misspell in these environments are generally assumed to be less intelligent, less articulate, and despite their possible intelligence/experience, any perspective they offer is then likely to be dismissed or demeaned if it is littered with misspellings.

It has never been more important to master the ability to spell correctly. 

Unfortunately most schools, despite the criticality of spelling in the 21st-century, still rely on 19th century strategies to teach spelling. This really does need to change. So, with that in mind...

Critical considerations:

  1. Children (and adults) can only spell words they know, sounds obvious, but so many of the spelling lists that are used with students contain words they do not know, so could not possibly be able to spell, other than through guesswork, which leads us to... The corollary to this is the simple fact that the skill of knowing or suspecting that a spelling is wrong is an essential aspect of learning how to spell, especially in a world where checking a spelling is as easy as 'searching it up' in Google, or just asking your smartphone to spell it for you. 
  2. There is a much greater validity to the skill of being able "guesstimate" in a TELE (technology enhanced learning environment), and ‘phonological awareness’ is more essential than ever, as an accurate phonetical estimation is relied on by computers to substitute for a correct spelling. A student who cannot phonetically 'approach' a word is unlikely to be able to approximate something that a computer can correct. Related to this is the critical importance of being able to spell the first half of a word correctly, most modern computing devices can now auto complete a word if a student is able to spell the first half of it correctly. Apple's 'QuickType' in iOS 8, and apps like "SwiftKey" utilise this approach very effectively, and the power of Dictation (speech to text) has never been greater, but it will still struggle with homophones (same sound different spelling and meaning). An alternative approach in a traditional 'spelling test' context is to award 2 marks to each word, one mark for being able to spell the word phonetically correctly, or for spelling the first half correctly, and 2 marks if the word is perfect. 
  3. Stop using spelling tests for whole classes with lists of words, this is a nonsensical approach, considering the sheer quantity of words in the typical English dictionary, somewhere in excess of 400,000 words. The words that children learn should be unique and curated from their own literacy life, related to their own writing, reading and speaking, and viewing and listening experiences, or related to specific vocabulary that they are using/used will need to use.
  4. Wordlists curated by students should be seen as a source of vocabulary expansion, not just for spelling. Becoming a personal thesaurus/glossary that they should review regularly when writing to enhance the richness of their prose; use it or lose it.
  5. Listening matters just as much than looking (Riesenhuber, 2013). If you can see the word before you spell it, then you're not learning how to spell, you're practising short term recall. Listening is also essential for checking spelling, now computers have the option to speak any word you can type, select the word and have the computer read it out loud, is this the word you were trying to spell?
  6. Less reliance upon "spelling rules" which are very rarely consistent, and in many cases can lead to a great deal of confusion. Like when students are asked to note the position of a certain vowel in a word and its impact upon other vowels or consonants within that word, also using acrostics like 'big elephants can always understand...' you get the idea, and of course they only work for one word… Instead focus on more reliance on building familiarity with the way words look and the way words sound, so 'look say cover write check' still works well as a useful skill/drill practice, (or better still: listen say type look) but with fewer words, more often. This is strongly related to the student's reading life as a synergetic enabler in their spelling life. This becomes a context where students are encouraged to see words as 'friends' and building a large community of 'familiar faces' ie, the more they see these words the more likely they are to be able to spell them, or arguably just as important in the 21st-century, to recognise when the word is not spelt properly, ‘it just doesn't look right'. We see words like faces? Yes, believe it or not, this is exactly what neuroscience (McCandliss et al, 2003) has taught us, more on that phenomenon below... 
  7. Skill drill tasks (practise makes permanent) should also be related to an activity that reinforces their comprehension of the meaning of the word, so ideally students should also invent (not copy) a sentence that uses the word, or even better, more than one of the words in the same sentence, that clearly demonstrates that they can use the word/s with an understanding of it/them. After all, what is the point of learning how to spell a word if you don't know how to use it? For some students it might be better for them to make an oral recording of them speaking the sentence rather than writing a sentence, if the writing is a challenge to reluctant writers, as the focus is on understanding meaning, and oral recall can be just as effective for building meaning, this is especially important with homophones.
  8. More recognition of the kinds of spellings that are particularly tricky in a screen centred writing environment, this means a greater emphasis on distinguishing between words with similar sounds and different patterns, homophones, homonyms, homographs.
  9. Making smarter use of digital tools to facilitate this kind of practice, while spelling games that are built on skill drill using pre-set wordlists are useful, but you should also encourage spelling drills that are built on individually curated wordlists. However these kinds of Apps are not very common, but at least one that does this very well is Squeebles SP, more on this below...
  10. Use any text app or word processor to spell check, before using a teacher. This could be a simple as a notes app on a mobile device, this will enable students to check spellings without the tedium of using a dictionary. Then a far more appropriate use of teacher time is to review spellings for careless mistakes, or more likely mistakes resulting from misconceptions about phonetics/word structure, especially spellings that alter the meaning of a sentence. Students need to be empowered to build habits of capturing/collecting words that they know, but cannot spell in their curated lists. The point is, it is better for the student to attempt to type the word in a text application and have the computer suggest corrections than it is for them to try and search for it in a dictionary. While the latter is still helpful, the former is a better cognitive process for learning the spelling of a word, and is also more relevant/likely as an activity or skill set in the 21st-century. Very few adults look up words in a dictionary, most rely on the prompt given by the computer in a word processing environment. Even better, if this list is 'situated' or cloud synced (Google Doc, iCloud Notes) they can access, add to and augment that list from home or school. 
  11. Encourage students to learn how to use the "define:" search term in Google, effectively turning any Google search window into a handy Dictionary, eg - define:magnificent
  12. Digital technologies are changing which words are traditionally understood to be "tricky" words/sneaky spellings… so for example any word typed in a text environment will automatically switch the 'ie' in a word like receive, but will not be able to distinguish between homonyms.

Don't teach, facilitate

Neuroscience over the past decade* reveals fascinating insights into the way our brains learn words. Studies indicate that we use the same parts of brain (both left and right) to process face recognition that we use to process word recognition. So much so in fact, that as we move from early childhood into adulthood and become more proficient in word recognition, our capacity to recognise and process faces is diminished—such is the veracity of the connection. 

The parts of our brain (The Visual Word Form Area) that recognise and process faces are the same parts that recognise and process words. This emphasises the fact that spelling is primarily visual and aural, so a rote learning, rule based model is less effective than building an awareness of the unique formation of every word through familiarity, not drilling lists.

Even more fascinating, the VWFA area, "when volunteers listened to spoken sentences, all their brains showed similar responses." When we read, we recognise words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud, we literally “hear” written words in our head (Dehaene & Cohen, 2011).

Words are fundamentally processed and catalogued by their basic sounds and shapes, through visual and aural practice. Think of the way we learn to recognise faces, and pronounce words—certainly not by processing and practising lists of them, we learned them through exposure, and continued feedback, and it just so happens that screens are ideal for immediate, context specific feedback, in way that spelling on paper can never hope to provide. Provide lots of opportunities for students to learn how to spell through this kind of exposure, not through drilling them in lists that have little or no relevance to their own reading, writing, listening or speaking experiences. 

Squeebles Showcase

Squeebles Spelling - multimodal drill and practice
I'm not usually one to emphasise a tool, but from time to time a tool emerges that has affordances that are ridiculous to ignore, Squeebles Spelling is one of those. Digital tools like Squeebles can transform spelling practice by making traditional equivalents pale in comparison, consider the following:


Click to see Squeebles in action in 2BSc! 
Kids can 'masquerade' as a parent or teacher to curate their own lists, careless errors are mitigated by the built in spell check—obviously this feature is not activated when they are actually practising! Alternatively, there are a wide range of built in word lists to choose from that cater to all skill levels.

Multimodality and meaning

It's not enough to spell a word, they need to know how it sounds and understand the meaning. In Squeebles kids can record the sound of the word, as well place it in a sentence, eg "Pear. I like the taste of a pear better than an apple. Pear." Better still make it fun by having the kids make up silly sentences, as long as it shows they understand the meaning anything goes! This makes the activity aural and oral - this way the kids say the word, hear the word, and see the word. 

Immediate feedback - differentiated

No need to wait for a teacher to collect in all the spelling tests, then wait a few days to get them all back, even then, actually acting on the spelling errors is a chore, never mind tracking these over time. Squeebles provides immediate feedback, but even better keeps a record of any errors in a collection called 'Tricky Words' that reflect the words that this individual is struggling with.


Last and maybe least, Squeebles 'gamifies' the successes into mini games, so kids feels a tangible sense of reward, over and above the real reward—improved spelling.

Further reading

A summary of the neuroscientific research is available here, with links to the original sources.

Chevillet, M. A., Jiang, X., Rauschecker, J. P., & Riesenhuber, M. (2013). Automatic phoneme category selectivity in the dorsal auditory stream. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(12), 5208-5215.

Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2011). The unique role of the visual word form area in reading. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(6), 254-262.

McCandliss, B. D., Cohen, L., & Dehaene, S. (2003). The visual word form area: expertise for reading in the fusiform gyrus. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(7), 293-299.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

iPads, Radiation & Airplane Mode

From time to time articles or videos appear with alarming headlines that connect mobile devices with harmful effects on children. It is of course completely understandable that parents become concerned when they see these things. The College places the safety and well being of our students above all other considerations and we monitor official advice around all aspects of safety that affect our students. Most recently, a video has been circulating among our parents about the possible harmful effects of radiation from mobile devices like iPads.

When looking at any health or safety issue we need to make careful decisions about where we gather our data from. In this day and age it is an easy process for an individual to present a specific viewpoint and to easily spread that message via the Internet. We also need to bear in mind that there are reasons for people and organisations to do this other than a genuine concern for public welfare. An article with a dramatic headline or video with lurid claims, attracts traffic and that traffic can generate revenue from advertising for example.

As an example of how individual sources can easily contradict each other, consider this Forbes article and this article from Wired Science, which both offer a strong counterpoint to the video mentioned previously.

The underlying issue here is, given that individual representations or newspaper articles are not necessarily reliable or often contradictory, where does the College look for direction?

Two places:

  • Large bodies of collated research, generally called meta-analyses
  • Expert advice from leading health authorities such as Ministries of Health and the World Health Organisation

We are not aware of any large body of research that shows a causal link between mobile device usage and radiation that result in any negative impact on people’s health. Furthermore there is currently no advice from any world health body that we are aware of that advises that children be protected from such radiation emitted by wireless devices such as iPads.

We take this issue seriously and monitor the medical advice from recognised institutions around this issue. The welfare of the children in our care is paramount to us and we will respond appropriately in the event that the advice from the leading health authorities changes at any point.

As a college we understand why parents might have concerns about the potential negative effects of using mobile devices after watching videos like the one linked above. A parent's concern for their children's welfare is of course understandable, but please rest assured that we take this issue seriously and monitor the medical advice from recognised institutions around this issue. The welfare of the children in our care is paramount to us and we will respond appropriately in the event that the advice from the leading health authorities changes at any point.

Here are some further points that may be helpful in setting the overall context:

Screen time

The actual percentage of the school day our students use these devices is relatively small. A common misconception is that the provision of a device per child increased the amount of time our children spend using a device, but that is not why we have 1:1 devices. We use 1:1 devices so it is easier to manage student content, and so students don't accidentally delete the work of other students, for more about this please see this post.

Students certainly never use the devices in close proximity to their heads, which is one basis of the research that makes claims about damaging radiation from mobile devices, nor do our iPads contain mobile SIMs that generate GSM frequencies.

Airplane Mode

Having the College iPads in Airplane mode is not practical. We rely on wireless connectivity to manage and monitor these devices, as well as to share children's learning with parents via platforms like Seesaw. This will also have a minimal impact on the overall amount of waves in the air, given the large number of services being beamed around the island to support mobile phones, wireless, television, etc.

Ben Morgan & Seán McHugh

Monday, 27 February 2017

Coding, Integrated: Shape & Scratch

It won't come as a surprise to discover that there is a lot of talk these days about coding, and to hear the calls in panicked tones from some quarters, parents are often curious to know if or when we intend to drop everything and add this new subject (it's not really new, it was called Control and taught in IT lessons in labs in the 1980s) to the curriculum. This request is generally completely oblivious of the logistical nightmare that attempting to restructure the school day to find time for another subject would be. Understandably this answer doesn't necessarily satisfy parents especially if they have had difficulties getting a space for children to attend one of the Coding ECAs I facilitate, or more often by parents who are unable to get a place in the activity for their child.

I'm an advocate for coding, but not to prepare kids for a new 21st 'literacy' of programming, as I explain in this post, I think this is a myth; I'm not the only one. So I don't think, like TTS and the UK, that we should be trying to teach it as a discrete subject.

That said, I can see how it makes sense to enrich our curriculum where it makes sense using coding experiences, you can see an example of that from this week in Grade 4 here and here, we have lots of others. I am working with our Primary School Maths Coach to explore opportunities to do more of this within Maths, as that is the subject where the opportunities are most likely/authentic.

Coding Polygons in Grade 4

Coding Coordinates in Grade 5

Ultimately, I don't see coding as any more essential a tech skill than, say video editing, or working with spreadsheets which are also important tech skills that we try to integrate naturally into the curriculum. As with all of these, I'd like to see authentic opportunities to code every year, throughout the college from K-12, and hopefully one day we will!

Until then, we are working hard to provide many opportunities for coding (far more than for video editing or spreadsheets!) as part of the Activities programme, and there are also a host of opportunities being organised by the Ideas Hub, coming very soon. Melanie Tan ( has more details about opportunities to participate in coding activities for all ages if you're interested.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Should all Children Learn to Code?

That is a good question—one I am commonly asked by both parents and teachers, but mainly parents.

The answer is no; not all. Should all children have the opportunity to experience coding, and possible discover they have a gift for it? Yes.

Via "Please don't learn to code'. 

I'm not convinced that encouraging kids to become coders (actually computer programmers—coding is more of a slang term) is a great idea, I think they should learn to code, if they're keen, but only so they can understand it better, so they can be creative with it. You see you can employ coders, they are a dime a dozen, they're all over the web. It's the creative 'big picture' aspect that is lacking, ie what to code, not so much how.

That said... It's hard to know what you can do if you don't know how. Basically you don't need to be the best coder, you need to be good enough to really know what its potential is.
"Someday, the understanding of computational processes may be indispensable for people in all occupations. But it’s not yet clear when we’ll cross that bridge from nice-to-know to must-know."

"But is it really crucial to be able to code? Many content producers use technology virtually every waking hour of their life, and they don't know a variable from an identifier, or an integer from a string. Personally, I'm conflicted: I have a technical background, but for most people I just don't see how being able to compile code is going to prove useful."
"Coding is not a goal. It’s a tool for solving problems. [...] However, much of the “learn to code” frenzy seems to spring from the idea that you can achieve fame and riches by starting a tech company and you need to actually code something first. Programming is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Even if you do hit the jackpot, the CEOs of successful tech companies do not spend a lot of time coding, even if they started out behind a keyboard. There are simply too many other tasks involved in running a company. So if coding is what you really love to do, you probably wouldn't want to be a CEO in the first place.."

Please don't advocate learning to code just for the sake of learning how to code. Or worse, because of the fat paychecks. Instead, I humbly suggest that we spend our time learning how to …
• Research voraciously, and understand how the things around us work at a basic level.
• Communicate effectively with other human beings.
These are skills that extend far beyond mere coding and will help you in every aspect of your life. 

..."engineering and programming are important skills. But only in the right context, and only for the type of person willing to put in the necessary blood, sweat and tears to succeed. The same could be said of many other skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn to program than I would urge everyone to learn to plumb." 

Clearly there is no shortage of people that want to code, and those that have the predilection will. I mean, the point is it's not hard to act on it, to make it happen, and ... if you can't, then coding is probably not an option for you.

Compare that to say … learning the oboe, well that's not quite so easy to learn if you only have a computer and an internet connection. But there are millions of people out there who do, and are honing their abilities every day, and they don't expect to be paid as much for it as you might think.

So - how do we learn this stuff?

All the people I know who are competent users of IT and ICTs (yes, there is a difference) are those who basically taught themselves (including myself). It's almost a rite of passage. My instinct tells me that the kind of kids who can code WILL code, and if they can't find ways to teach themselves using the plethora of resources online, then... they probably haven’t got what it takes to code. Despite the glowing 'FUN, FUN, FUN!' messages that proliferate from some quarters of the web, the truth is, if you want to code, really code, you will need to work hard, you will need to persevere, nothing that is worth having comes easy, and coding is no exception. It is as simple as that.

"Top companies expect you to know what a recent comp-sci graduate would know, which could include SQL vs. NoSQL databases, the time complexity of some algorithm, or how to implement binary search. ... opportunities are few and far between."

"While there are some excellent companies willing to hire driven and intelligent self-taught engineers, they lie in the minority. Many companies pass over candidates without a formal degree in computer science before reading on; the stigma of low experience is a hard one to break in any industry but especially in those involving technical abilities."

I have never been taught 'IT' but I had to teach myself HTML to design web pages, and ActionScript to create Flash animations—at its best, that is what things like coding 'computer science' and subjects like DT teaches kids - YOU can solve your own problems, and you can teach yourself how to do it. It's all about the WWWHWW of getting from A to B, even if it means going through D, H and X to get there. The first time.

That's another argument for coding, not so much as a skills for the workplace, but the process, the rationale it demands, here's a quote from my colleague Helen Leeming who teaches IT in MS and HS, from an email exchange we had on this subject: This point about developing critical/analytical thinking through coding is powerful - (my emphasis)

"It isn't the coding… it's the critical thinking… they don't need to code any more than they need to be able to do quadratic equations - for most people either would be redundant the minute they walk out of school. But they do need to have stretched their minds, to have made their thoughts work in a different way, which both of those will. Almost none of them need to code (or indeed use a lot of what we teach them in school - oxbow lakes for example), but the ability to problem solve is essential. It could be taught through other things, it simply isn't in many cases… And people rarely choose to learn critical thinking unless they are an 'IT geek' and they are the ones that probably can already do it."

I don't understand why people question that this needs to be taught as people won't be coders, while we still do teach algebra and the periodic table to kids that will not be mathematicians or chemists. Education is not about learning a set of knowledge or practical skills that you can use later, it is about teaching you to think, to think in many different ways, to play with ideas in many different ways and to have a toolbox of techniques to address puzzles or problems you meet later. Abstract, critical thinking is one of the tools…"
It should be remembered that one the best ways to get to grips with the kind of logistical thinking skills demanded by coding is by using spreadsheet functions, such as google spreadsheets, right there in the browser, and then move on to writing your own formulae, to solve basic mathematical problems, that right there is the basis of writing code. Starting with a formula as simple as =A1+B1 to things like IF functions:

=IF(A1<B1, "awesome",IF(B1<A1,"amazing"))

So, my advice to potential coders would be learn to walk before you run, or more precisely, learn to walk (scratch) run (stencyl) jump (alice) then you can really get creative 'dance' with the source code:

All of the the tools below are free, come with great support materials, tutorials, and communities to get you from A to B, even if you have to travel via N and X.

Coding for kids

Some of the iPad Apps we use to introduce kids to coding

Here's a great set of Apps you can use to introduce our child to coding, even from Kindergarten, this is my suggested sequence of progression, from games that teach the kind of logical thinking needed for coding, to Apps that allow free form creation:

  1. Daisy the Dinosaur
  2. Tynker
  3. Lightbot
  4. Move the Turtle
  5. Hopscotch
  6. Scratch Jr 

Do it yourself...

  1. Start with iPads to learn the basics of control, computer programming thinking, Apps like Daisy the Dinosaur, Hopscotch, Move the Turtle. Apps like these use a drag and drop interface will intuitively grasp the basics of objects, sequencing, loops and events by solving app challenges. 
  2. Move to,  Scratch, or 
  3. Progress to Stencyl for iOS App coding using a similar 'block' interface, or alternatively App Inventor.

Coding vs Programming

Despite the hype that is common around this area, the fact is that no matter what you may have been told, the block interface that is at heart of most, if not all the apps that purport to be teaching coding, are not really. This article from Quartz clarifies this issue:
"The light and fluffy version of computer science—which is proliferating as a superficial response to the increased need for coders in the workplace—is a phenomenon I refer to as “pop computing.” ... This accessible attraction can be catchy, it may not lead to harder projects that deepen understanding.
... an important distinction must be drawn between learning “coding tutorials” and learning “computer science.” I think of it as playing with coding apps as compared to learning to design an app using code. Building an app takes time and requires multi-dimensional learning contexts, pathways and projects. One thing is for sure, it can’t be done in an hour or two, with a few simple drags, drops and clicks." 
American schools are teaching our kids how to code all wrong - Quartz

So to avoid any confusion, I refer to the control activities that rely on blocks as 'coding'—the blocks act as a code that represents the actual syntax you would normally use with a programming language. So let's call programming, programming; and while the block 'pop computing' 'coding' interface serves as a useful preliminary experience, the actual skill of programming is very different. When a student feels ready, here's a path they could take:
  1. Khan Academy has a great online course for introducing kids to programming (not coding), the introduction to JavaScript is a great place to begin.
  2. Apple have a fantastic app that teaches Swift coding, called Swift Playgrounds, but it only runs on recent gen iPads
  3. For developing apps, you can download the Xcode App for free from the App store if they feel they are ready to actually use Xcode, there are many online tutorials that can help with this, such as this one.
  4. Try for learning a range of programming languages. 
  5. Then possibly Alice 
By then you should be ready for the source code, this site hackerbuddies will help with this final stage... One-on-one mentoring for startup hackers.

… but even then, which language?


or Xcode for coding iOS Apps

And there are many more ...

But I would imagine for most kids the biggest motivator would be to create an app, using xCode (a free App from the App store). Which you can port to from Stencyl, but you have to pay $150 to enable that feature, so you can learn for free, you only need to pay when/if you're ready to put into the market place. Clearly it is the desire to create 'Apps' that is driving the current resurgence in interest in coding. For more on this phenomenon, read this article.

We now also facilitate the UWCSEA coding community through our ECA programme, for MS and HS students. If your child is in Primary and impatient to get going, learning Scratch and Stencyl will ensure they are more than ready by Grade 6, and of course from Grade 9 students have the option of choosing to follow a course in Computing, all the way through to grade 12 if they so choose. Middle school includes a module of coding through Lego Mindstorms in DT and we offer IGCSE Computing and IGCSE IT, and IB Computer Science in High School.