On a Delta Airlines flight a number of years ago, I was lucky enough to be sat next to the author Richard Ford. This must have been shortly before he picked up a Pulitzer for his novel, The Sportswriter. Neither of us probably recall the conversation during the flight but what I do remember is that (unlike me) he made no excuse of the environment and got on with writing: scribbling in a little notebook, staring out of the window, scribbling some more, in a cycle of what I have always presumed to have been the creative process.
Personally, I find it too easy to make excuses for not writing. Wrong environment. Too noisy. Any time slot less than an hour is not enough. Must check email. Need a biscuit. Text message. Look at that dust.
I was remembering Richard’s brilliant short story collection, Rock Springs, dug it out to read again and looked him up on the web to see what he was doing. I came across a short work that he had reviewed called Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This is a little treasure of advice for the writer: you dip in and pick up some important little nugget that will make you feel better about yourself and gently encourage you to get back to the task you’ve quite possibly been avoiding.
At least, that’s how it worked out for me.
Over fifty years ago, my father was a US Air Force signals operator: he, like any other professional in communication, had to learn the languages of communication, command and control. I still have the LP (long-playing record, what the kids call “vinyl” now, although these weren’t vinyl) record set that he listened to as he learned Morse Code.
Today’s young people live in a world of communication and it is increasingly important for them – and all users – to at least have an appreciation of the languages used by the systems that pervade our modern lives. Learning to code – and the computational thinking that goes with it – is fun and interesting as well as being intellectually good for you. It’s also potentially lucrative: coding skills are at a premium, wherever you are in the world. While there is still a need for certain people to know Morse Code, there are many other languages to know about: from the languages of data to the logic of a sick (sic) 3D immersive games experience.
I have carried a link to CodeCademy on this site for some time because they offer some excellent resources and courses for people to learn how to code. I have used some of them myself and recommend them highly. If you’re not sure where to start, there is a visual overview of the main programming languages and possible benefits of learning each one to help you make an informed decision. You can find it here: http://wiht.link/learncodeguide.
DISCLAIMER: I am not connected with Codecademy and have received no financial or other incentive to write this post. The infographic is not Codecademy’s and includes links to other free online places where you can learn. It’s just a good idea and a good place to get started. Get on with it!
I have a project I’m working on that requires the use of a data analysis tool like IBM’s SPSS but at about six thousand dollars per year, it’s a little out of reach. There is an open source project, fortunately, that provides all the functionality I need for a lot less.
PSPP is, according to the project website:
“…designed as a Free replacement for SPSS. That is to say, it behaves as experienced SPSS users would expect, and their system files and syntax files can be used in PSPP with little or no modification, and will produce similar results (the actual numbers should be identical). The number of variables and cases is limited only by the computer architecture.”
There are a number of ways of getting PSPP depending on your operating system: I am a Mac OSX user running 10.10.5 Yosemite so installed it using MacPorts. As this is a brand new machine I’m installing it on, I needed to install MacPorts first: download and run the install package from the download page, update and then run the install (you need super user privilege):
$ sudo port selfupdate $ sudo port install pspp
This will give you a working PSPP from the command line. If you want to use the graphical user interface over PSPP, known as PSPPIRE, you’ll need to update your X11 DISPLAY driver by downloading and installing XQuartz which is a community produced X-window server assisted but not supported by Apple. Once you’ve installed Quartz, you’ll need to log out and in again to update the DISPLAY environment. Once this is done you can launch the GUI version of PSPP from the command line:
$ sudo psppire
This allows you to work with your SPSS data sets and command files almost without modification.
I had intended to offer a short talk at Teachmeet – Scottish Learning Festival 2015 this week but had to cancel due to work commitments. Instead, and so as to still put it “out there”, I recorded a podcast of the talk which you can find over at AudioBoom:
The presentation text can be found on Evernote. What do you think? Comments welcome.
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=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.
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.
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.
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.
This week’s TES Scotland was accompanied by a separate mailing containing a flyer that in bold, red print announced ATTENTION! Action Required. The flyer went on:
AS YOU ARE AWARE, TESS SUBSCRIPTIONS ARE EVOLVING. AS PART OF THIS, YOUR CURRENT TERMS AND CONDITIONS HAVE BEEN UPDATED. THESE MUST BE ACCEPTED BY FRIDAY, 5 JUNE IN ORDER TO CONTINUE RECEIVING TESS.
I wasn’t aware, actually. Following the link to the website, there are a lot of new terms and conditions that seem to be binding me into a new contract in which I:
… agree that we at our sole discretion, without notice to you, may: (i) terminate or amend the General Terms or these Additional Terms
Er, no. Not acceptable. I will not write a blank cheque. All I want is a magazine, through my door every Friday, that I can read and throw away. I don’t want anything else, thank you, least of all an open-ended commitment to your corporate insensitivity to your customers’ needs.
Frankly, I’ve not enjoyed the changes to the TESS that have taken it from a well-staffed, relevant and useful newspaper (remember those?) to something that’s over-commercialised, London centric and off the pulse that I now merely skim and recycle. The great writers are all but gone: Douglas Blane, Liz Buie, Gregor Steele: what’s left is the best efforts of the last man standing, padded out with material from another jurisdiction. If I want to keep up with the news of what’s happening in education in Scotland, there are plenty of alternatives in the mainstream, social media and networks.
There is a real gap in the market for a regular news journal for education in Scotland. Here, there are plenty of engaged and articulate teachers, lecturers and leaders who could contribute relevant, critical commentary and shared experience for the rest to enjoy and benefit from. Anybody out there fancy taking that forward?