Hello, World! Nice HAT.

Hello World!
Hello World!
Hello World!

For those of you trying to get to grips with the Raspberry Pi’s Astro-Pi Sense HAT… wait, what?

The Raspberry Pi is the amazing, powerful and compact computer-on-a-board that has got children of all ages around the world coding and investigating computational thinking. For less than fifty bucks, this machine includes a fast processor, a decent amount of RAM and USB, Ethernet and HDMI interfaces that let you connect it up to a TV and keyboard and do almost anything you can do on machines twenty times the price (like write this post, for example). If, like me, you like things tidy, you can add a box to put it in and if, like me, you’re a physics teacher, you can add on a sense HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) that is exactly the same as the kit to be used by Astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station to conduct experiments in space using the many sensors on board the HAT.

The whole kit cost me £75 including power supply and SD card with operating system (Raspbian – a version of Debian Linux) software pre-installed.

The setting up is simple and step-by-step, I got it working as a stand-alone machine before installing the Sense HAT. I had to take a knife to the official Raspberry Pi box once the HAT was added to the Pi board – it almost fits but just needs a little adjustment near the corner of the lid to make it snap into place. There are plenty of resources on the web to help you get started but development has taken place at such a pace that some of the guides don’t quite match the installed software. The Getting Started with the Sense Hat page at raspberrypi.org is no exception. There is a simple “Hello World!” program:

from sense_hat import SenseHat
sense.show_message("Hello, World!")

On my Pi 3B, I got an error at this point:

Traceback (most recent call last):
 File "/home/pi/hw.py", line 1, in <module>
 from sense_hat import SenseHat
 File "/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/sense_hat/__init__.py", line 2, in <module>
 from .sense_hat import SenseHat, SenseHat as AstroPi
 File "/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/sense_hat/sense_hat.py", line 14, in <module>
 from PIL import Image # pillow
ImportError: No module named PIL

This was because there was a step missing from the sense-HAT installation instructions which should have read:

sudo apt-get install sense-hat
sudo pip-3.2 install pillow

The second line was omitted, leading to the above error. Once the pillow module was installed OK, running the test python script above produced the results I was looking for (see picture). There is a lot of decent documentation at pythonhosted.org that I hope to take a look at in order to get some ideas for physics teaching using the sensors in my new HAT. I’m loving the sense of really playing (and learning) with computers: those of you old enough will remember the same joy of getting a BASIC program to run properly on your BBC or ZX Spectrum. Suddenly, computers are fun again.

A rocky road to run

Out running in the pleasant countryside of Fife this afternoon, a friend passed some young gentlemen who seemed to be entertained by the lone female getting fit in the fresh air. A sudden sharp pain in her hip as she ran by brought her to the shocking realisation that these were not the well-bred, well-educated youth of her everyday experience: one had thrown a rock at her which struck its target. The lone female took a fright and ran back to her car to examine the damage and consider next steps.

The next step, on establishing that there was no bleeding, was to drive to the next cut in the path where she met them cycling on the wrong side of the road towards her. She stopped in a passing place and took a photograph of them and asked them to explain their actions. No satisfactory rationale was forthcoming but in the attempt at a justification, an admission was obtained. Initially indignant at the breach of their right not to be photographed in a public place, they became fearful as the lone female got into her car and drove away with evidence that linked them to the crime.

The really awful thing about this episode, aside from the fact that a lone female is not safe to run in the lovely Fife countryside for fear of assault, is that this lone female is a teacher and, if she were to publish the faces of these assailants or pursue redress or apology through the good offices of Police Scotland, it is possible that questions and accusations may be raised that challenge her professionalism. That’s a road not worth running down.

The Magic Physics Pixies

On Thursday last week, I gave a short talk on the background and operation of one of my other sites, sptr.net, and the components that make up what I called “a professional community resource”. The event was the Association of Learning Technology Scottish SIG meeting at Glasgow Caledonian University.

The presentation slides can be downloaded as a pdf by clicking on the image on the right. You can watch a recording of the event below. This post is also available on sptr.net.

SQA briefing event for ITE

Together with colleagues from teacher education institutions across the country, I attended a full day of workshops and briefings hosted by the SQA at the Glasgow Hilton. The event was opened by Teresa Moran, convenor of the Scottish Teacher Education Committee (STEC) whose short introduction showed the endemic blindness of many of our educational leaders to the significant independent sector and the important role they play in developing our teachers. In sketching the partnership of teacher education she, like others would throughout the day, mentioned only “Local Authority schools”. SQA and GTCS representatives use the same language consistently when talking about teacher development: it may be that their model only includes those who follow the teacher induction scheme (TIS, or one-year probation operated by LA schools) but this is only one way to achieve qualified teacher status in the Scottish system.

HMIE’s Elizabeth Morrison painted a picture of the support system that continues to be rolled out in support of curricular reform in Scotland. Key elements of this include:

  • The senior phase benchmarking tool, Insight. This is a tool for all teachers to use to inform their own practice and measure impact and performance. In responding to questions later in the day, Colin Sutherland, the government advisor on Insight, made it clear that giving ITEs access is not a priority and that when it is given, there would be a data anonymisation exercise to be done first.
  • The self-evaluation and inspection framework How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) version 4 is online in draft at the moment (although I can’t find it), to replace HGIOS 3 that was published in 2007.
  • The GLOW refresh of October 2014
  • Inspection Advice Notes are updated annually (2014-15 version here)

Similar questions were asked throughout the day by delegates about the access that ITEs have to key features of the support systems in place for teachers, such as GLOW, SQA Secure and Insight. Answers given were non-committal, going no further than “talk to somebody”. Personally, as an ITE tutor, I do have access to some of these through arrangements made by colleagues within Moray House.

Ronnie Summers of the SQA gave us a presentation that some delegates thought patronising, perhaps because it seemed to be targeted at people who have no idea what CfE is. One expects this, perhaps, if the intention is to provide a briefing on CfE, but there were a number of indications that the SQA assume that teachers – science teachers, specifically – don’t keep themselves up to date with developments in education. If this was gratuitous, then the suggestion that he made that “PGDEs don’t have pedagogical knowledge” deserved the hostile reaction it got from the delegates, forcing him to attempt a back-pedal, claiming “it isn’t a criticism.”

By the time we got to the coffee break it was clear that some delegates had decided to bail from the event and go and do something more productive. I took the opportunity to enjoy a professional conversation with some primary colleagues from schools in Fife who were there to share good practice case studies: I attended the secondary equivalent of this session which was frankly uplifting.

Two secondary head teachers shared how they are implementing CfE through highly appropriate curricular models that were well-crafted to meet the needs of their young people. This session was introduced by Fiona Robertson of Education Scotland who drew our attention to the emphasis being given to the importance of measuring the impact of curricular change. This is, to a casual observer of education, a no-brainer but lack of evaluation has characterised some initiatives in schools. Not so the two schools in the case study workshop: Karen Jarvis of Linlithgow Academy described her principled approach to curricular reform, founded on SHANARRI, the four capacities of CfE, the seven principles of curriculum design, the scope of the curriculum from BTC and the entitlements of the broad general education. Karen described her model in some detail including how learners progress within it, stressing strengths and some of the issues the school faces in the changes that have been made, and that will follow from the impact evaluations.


Steve Ross of Craigroyston CHS in Edinburgh followed with a description of a different model for a different context: one in which destinations of young people has been a concern for the local community. This model makes use of the extensive SQA vocational catalogue, local partnerships and the flexibility and commitment of teachers to cross discipline boundaries in order to deliver a rich and relevant curriculum that the children of this school can and do enjoy. Evidence of impact is clear: S4s making the transition to S5 have gone from about half the cohort to 86% in a year. Steve says that behaviour issues in the senior phase are almost non-existent – the young people clearly value the opportunities they are being given through this model. A key message for student teachers entering the workforce now is that you have to be prepared to be flexible: you can’t box yourself into your subject area and think that is acceptable. Personally, I find this encouraging: I brought a lot of experience in programming and project management to teaching and have often felt that it is not only of no interest to schools, it is about as welcome as a slideshow of “pictures of our grandchildren” at a dinner party. Finally, teachers who bring “something else” are being valued and asked to put it to good use.

There was a great question raised at the end of Steve’s presentation, which had focused, rightly in his context, on employment and destinations. The question was about the purposes of education: there had been evidence from a number of speakers that a belief is held that the purpose of education is to prepare children for employment destinations – and nothing else. Clearly, this goes against some very deeply held principles.

After a very nice lunch, those of us that remained were given presentations on Glow, Insight, and DSYW which told us about the national professional learning community, nothing new, and nothing, respectively.

The afternoon workshop was billed as, “New qualifications, assessment and quality assurance to support the senior phase of CfE”. It was given by John Allan and John Lewis of the SQA and was not really as advertised. There were group activities, the purpose of which was not at all evident. There was for me, absolutely none of the detail on assessment principles, frameworks, procedures or methods that I attended the conference to hear. Presenters and delegates seemed to lose patience with each other and neither really had much to share of value to the other.

The final talk was given to the handful of remaining delegates by Tom Hamilton of the GTCS who, like some of the other speakers today, seemed to have been given the wrong brief and spoke to a target audience that wasn’t us. Either that, or he, like others who spoke today, seems to hold the belief that ITEs had not yet started updating themselves and their courses in preparation for the launch of CfE.

The event was closed by Teresa Moran who, according to one delegate, encapsulated the tone of much of the day when she read, “have a safe journey home” from a piece of paper.

Was it a wasted day? Certainly not. I had the opportunity to speak with colleagues in the other ITEs, teachers and head teachers about the reality of how the new curriculum is being implemented in primary and secondary schools and how prospective teachers are being prepared for our Brave New World. I was significantly impressed and encouraged to have it re-affirmed that there are very many people who are dissident and principled enough that our young people are in good hands. I would have liked to have heard more of these people speak today.

One more leading nowhere, just for show

Something that exercises student teachers and old hands alike is multiple definitions of “things educational.” Similar-sounding terms are used to describe things that are, to different people, different.

An example of this came in an email from a PGDE student who, having witnessed a group of experienced educators (a) discussing the ignorance of those who don’t know, at the same time as (b) avoiding directly answering the question themselves:

“What is the difference between interdisciplinary, cross curricular and multi disciplinary?”

Great question. In Building the curriculum 3 – a framework for learning and teaching (BTC3), Education Scotland (ES) states:

Effective interdisciplinary learning:
> can take the form of individual one-off projects or longer courses of study
> is planned around clear purposes
> is based upon experiences and outcomes drawn from different curriculum areas or subjects within them
> ensures progression in skills and in knowledge and understanding
> can provide opportunities for mixed stage learning which is interest based.

Notice the carefully avoided definition. If you go to ES’s page What is interdisciplinary learning? there is another paragraph not telling you what IDL is, together with a link to the wrong page in BTC3. It says:

Interdisciplinary learning enables teachers and learners to make connections across learning through exploring clear and relevant links across the curriculum.

If you find any of those (clear and relevant links across the curriculum) in the Es and Os, let me know. Two broad types of IDL are described in BTC3, “which, in practice, often overlap”:

  • Learning planned to develop awareness and understanding of the connections and differences across subject areas and disciplines.
  • Using learning from different subjects and disciplines to explore a theme or an issue, meet a challenge, solve a problem or complete a final project.

According to Ivanitskaya et al, (2002), the characteristic of IDL is the integration of multidisciplinary knowledge across a central theme or focus. So IDL is MDL? And it goes across a theme? So they’re the same thing? Dictionary time.

interdisciplinary: adjective
relating to more than one branch of knowledge. (So, BioPhysics is interdisciplinary.)

multidisciplinary: adjective
combining or involving several academic disciplines or professional specialisations in an approach to a topic or problem. (Like building a house: Plumber, brickie, joiner, electrician.)

cross-curricular: adjective
involving curricula in more than one educational subject. (Speed, distance and time is in Maths and Physics)

Got it? IDL relates to more than one subject and may take a multidisciplinary approach and is probably cross-curricular. Cross-curricular doesn’t necessarily mean interdisciplinary. IDL might not be multidisciplinary.

Comments welcome!

Computing: how young is too young?

TCHow does a child open a door in the modern world? Children’s worlds are increasingly driven by algorithms. At what age are they able to understand these, and use their own? We need to consider how young children learn about computing:

  • Who has the responsibility and how do we support them?
  • What resources do we have and what else do we need?
  • When is too young, when is too late?

On Wednesday 12th November at 5.30pm, the University of Edinburgh will be hosting a forum in memory of Tom Conlon which will engage with these questions through expert perspective and interaction with participants.

You are invited to join us, either:

Dr Tom Conlon had a rare ability to make an impact in many diverse arenas. As a teacher, and as a lecturer at Moray House School of Education, his influence in the field of Information Technology is widely acknowledged. This forum commemorates Tom Conlon’s unique contribution by continuing to tackle relevant and important issues in education and computing.

For more information, visit www.children-and-technology.ed.ac.uk/tomconlonmemorial2014 or download the flyer here.


Acts of Defiance in the Back Channel

Continuing an act of defiance by taking time out of my work schedule this week, I attended a second lecture by George Veletsianos at Edinburgh University, entitled “MOOCs, automation, artificial intelligence, and pedagogical agents”. This seminar was a special event put on by DICE – the Digital Cultures in Education research group.

The lecture and subsequent discussion was rich and well-informed, as there was a good range of expertise and engagement in the room and from the online participants accessing via the streaming feed. George’s lecture was stimulating and provocative: without overdoing the detail, he managed to tackle MOOCs as a socio-cultural phenomenon. He described the usual rationale for MOOCs of costs and the perceptions that drive their explosion onto the educational landscape but he also gave us new (to me) truths about their origin and the assumptions underpinning their popularity.

Moving on to the automation of teaching, George treated us to a quick history, again, touching the nerves of the implementation of human-computer interaction in education. There was much discussion of this with the final topic of pedagogical agents: perhaps misnamed “bots” in the debate that ensued in the question session and on the twitter back channel.


I can’t do justice to the scope of the issues raised and picked over in today’s two-hour session, not least because of the richness of them. Also, perhaps, for fear of misrepresenting the nuances. I resorted to my comfort zone of scurrilous tweeting, suggesting first that rather than choosing a gender or cultural stereotype for my preferred pedagogical agent, I would choose Brian, the Family Guy dog. This got me followed by Peter Griffin. When I started another cartoon (above), Marshall Dozier outed me with a tweet.

Surgeons Tweeting

I was at a talk given by George Veletsianos today, under the title of “Acts of defiance and personal sharing when academics use social media”. This was a thought-provoking session and not the first of his I’ll be attending this week, hopefully. I’ll not report the details of the talk here, but I will point you towards George’s Networked Scholars open course and this little scribble I made as I thought about how pervasive the use of social media has become.


La vie d’Adèle

lVAI was loaned a DVD over the weekend as a distraction from an untidy pile of work which has been bugging me lately. The film seemed to be a bit long for a single sitting – 3 hours – so I kept the last hour for Saturday breakfast.

La Vie d’Adèle (Chapitres 1 et 2) is a Palme d’Or winning film written, produced and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. The story is based upon a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Le bleu est une couleur chaude (Blue is the warmest color, the name of the film in English). The story is one of growing up as the eponymous Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, left in the picture) concludes her school career before embarking on teaching. The crucial role of the teacher in bringing alive literature in particular and interest in the world generally is played out as a sub theme to the synchronous plot of Adèle’s coming to terms with her sexuality. She makes mistakes – I thought her career choice was lazy – and suffers the consequences. The character presents as gauche and naïve despite her raw passion. Emma (Léa Seydoux, right) finds a muse for her art in Adèle but always remains the grown-up in their relationship.

The storytelling in the film is masterful, with Kechiche taking his time to bring out the nuances in each scene, never taking the procedural approach to capturing the moment, always letting it run. For some this may be irritating but if you can, watch this film and take your time to feel the moments as they unfold. If this film doesn’t make you sob, you haven’t been paying attention.

Interview: Radio #edutalk

George Smiley, apparently

Last night, I was interviewed by John Johnston of Sandaig Primary fame, digital educator and edu-technology guru whose wisdom is now informing our Scottish Executive. As any of my students will know, I talk too much. Our nominal 30 minutes extended beyond 50 but I think it made for interesting listening. I am thankful to John for not adopting a Paxman persona (or taxman, as my autocorrected text to him pleaded). The consummate radio show host, he quickly put me at ease, pushed a couple of buttons and off we went.

We talked about the changing structure of education and what schools might look like in 2020; professional networks and the Cambridge tutorial and other “inverted” models of teaching where the learning takes place principally when the teacher is not present.

If you’d like to hear the show, you can find it here. Links to some of the sites mentioned in the programme are below:

My stuff: