Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Teach Me How to Teach NOT What to Teach

Today is the last day of ISTE and I’m not there. I am following a lot of conversation from there on Twitter though. One thing that is coming up is that a lot of the computer science related professional development there is for beginners and/or for K-8 teachers. Now this is wonderful but it is not what I need.

Sarah Judd had a couple of wonderful tweets that sum things up for me.



Some of us have a lot of content knowledge. This is especially true for career changers from industry such as myself. It is equally true for many teachers who have been teaching for some number of years. What many of us need is more about how to teach. In a word pedagogy.

I don’t mean “here is this robot and here are some example projects and code” and that sort of thing. I mean that is nice and all but it is usually a lot more about the tool and not the pedagogy. We are finally seeing some real research in how to teach computer science better. I’ve personally learned a lot from papers submitted to the SIGCSE conference and I’d really like to attend in person again.

The problem with SIGCSE for a lot of teachers is it at a tough time to get away for a lot of us. And there is that whole perception (not 100% wrong) that it is for higher education educators.

ISTE is going to be highly focused on beginners for some time to come. I don’t have a problem with that. I think ISTE can have a large impact on generating awareness among school administrators and technology integrators and teachers who are really serious about preparing students for a modern world that includes computers.

CSTA is the group I think should really increase their focus on training teachers how to teach. I would love to see a pedagogy track at the 2019 conference. 

Let’s hear about people using Parsons Problems, sub goal labeling, and other techniques. (BTW maybe take a look at How To Teach Computer Science where I talk about some of this) How about some case studies of project based learning? Not with a focus on the projects but with a focus on evaluation, maintaining student progress, and what does and doesn’t work about them?

I am reminded of a conversation with a peer when I was an undergraduate. Someone asked him why he was a business major when he grew up on a farm and planned to stay in the family business. Why not agriculture? He replied that he knew how to farm. Modern farming is also a business and that is the peace he didn’t learn growing up. Those of us who “grew up” in the computer science field know about computer science. Now we need help becoming bettor teachers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Facial Recognition, Augmented Reality, and Teaching

Summer is a time of reflection and learning for me. I really want to be a better teacher and summer give me a chance to read more and to think more. This week I have been thinking a lot about facial recognition and augmented reality. One of the things that I know from experience and from research is that knowing students, especially their names, is a powerful thing for a teacher. Faces are hard for me. I don’t know if it is the way my brain is wired (there is a thing called prosopagnosia or face blindness that I would like to blame) or if I am just not working hard enough at it (as my son who knows every student in his elementary school – he’s the principal – suggests) but I would really love augmented reality that would let me know each student’s name.

I also think “wouldn’t if be nice if a computer scanned the class room and took attendance for me?” On the other hand if we take that to a (perhaps) logical conclusion were get computers that track every student’s face to see who is paying attention. They are trying that in China (link below) and that scares me. It especially scares me if it gets tied into a ‘social credit’ ranking system like China is setting up. (Link below or search for China social credit) Oh boy! I can’t see a lot of students liking that one! Below you will find a link to an article about the CEO of a company that develops facial recognition who warns about how ready it is – or is not! Are we really ready to have it judge people? I think I’d rather see people doing the evaluations.

BTW, there are schools experimenting with tracking students with RFID chips. Does using facial recognition take this to a new level or is it just a logical next step? Do we really want to normalize this level of tracking? I’m a little uneasy with the idea. Maybe more than a little.

But to keep this positive and closer to education and making teaching better, Vicki Davis is seeing a lot of artificial reality and augmented reality at the ISTE conference (link to her recent post below) and seeing some positive things. As well as some risks. Could artificial intelligence replace teachers? Maybe the bad ones but what about the good ones? She doesn’t talk about the costs of teachers vs AI though. You and I know that some people would rather have poor to average “teacher” who are inexpensive than spend more money for the best.

I see artificial reality and augmented reality as being very different. Later this week I am getting a demo of the VR system my wife’s school has installed. I may blog about that after. But for now, augmented reality.

Things that lead to more and better interaction between students and teachers is a good thing. Imagine if every teacher in the school could address every student by name the first time they saw them. My gut tells me that is a good thing. Students want to be known and a name is a powerful part of that.

What if a student showed up at my desk and asked me what they got on the recent test? They do that you know. Somehow they think you remember every grade for every one of their students. A AR system could pop that information up for a teacher. That would be good. Right? Potential for abuse? Sure. There is a fine line between deciding to call or not call on a student based on their grades as a good thing or a bad thing. A reminder that a student is on a concussion protocol might be a good thing though.

So both risk and benefit to facial recognition and AR. How we balance that determines if we use it to improve education and learning or just become control freaks who limit student options. Do we use it to build relationships or to hand off everything to computers? Do we use it to share excitement and new ideas or do we just use it to make education inexpensive at the cost of quality?

So much to think about!

Recommended reading

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Autonomy, Motivation, and Teaching Computer Science

Of the several courses I teach, my favorite course is call Honors Programming. Its a one semester course that is the first real programing course for my students. Its my favorite course because it is the one I have the most autonomy teaching and because I am very prepared to teach it. I extend this autonomy to my students as much as possible. I find that the end of year semester wrap up project is the best learning experience of the course. In large part that is because the students select their own projects and seem very motivated to learn what ever they need (and somehow missed during the semester) to get their projects to work.

My biggest frustration with the course is that students get a solid base, do one pretty interesting proj3ect and then they are done. At least for a while. Many take Advanced Placement CS (some AP CS A and some AP CS Principles) but both of those courses tend to be pretty constrained. They don't really allow for really big projects that as self selected.

What I really want to do is teach a follow on course that is purely project based. I want students to pick a major project that they are really interested in and commit to learning, on their own, the things they need to know to complete it. Yes, I want a whole classroom full of students learning different things and working on different projects. I've seen amazing projects come out of classrooms run this way over the years. I am tired of grading simple easy to create programs that are only mildly challenging.

I'm working on a proposal for this sort of course. My friend Doug Bergman runs some serious project based courses and is partly the inspiration for this. As are a couple of other teachers I have learned from over the years. It seems that students really get motivated to work on big projects, even scary projects, when those projects are meaningful to them. A motivated student will really put in a lot of work. They also pay attention when a teacher points them in a direction.

One plus about Doug is that he has written the book on this sort of thing. I'm learning a lot from Computer Science K-12: Imagining the possibilities!: Bringing creative and innovative Computer Science to your school  It really has me excited. (I recommend Doug's book BTW for anyone looking to create or expand a computer science program. Lots of good stuff there.

I'm looking for more ideas as well. Grading is a concern especially for administrators and parents. Doug has some stuff on that in his book but I'm always open to more ideas. I know that giving students too much autonomy scares some people. Keeping them on task and making steady progress can be an issue. Students often think they can goof off now or change priorities for what they think will be temporary needs and still get everything done at the end. They often guess incorrectly so keeping track is important.

In the long run, I think that this sort of opportunity with motivated and interested students can result in a lot of learning. It can also help build interest in computer science, help students learn to learn, and result in benefits for all concerned.

BTW, earlier today I heard an interesting, and I think related, report on NPR. A Lost Secret: How To Get Kids To Pay Attention

One key quote.

“Many studies have shown that when teachers foster autonomy, it stimulates kids' motivation to learn, tackle challenges and pay attention, Deci says. “

That’s what I am talking about!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Congressional App Challenge 2018

One of my students won for her district last year. She found it a very valuable experience. I highly support this challenge. Share it with high school students you know.

What is the Congressional App Challenge?

The Congressional App Challenge (CAC) is a congressional effort to encourage high school students to learn how to code. Last year, 200+ Members of U.S. Congress in 42 states conducted an App Challenge in their respective districts. Nationally, the contest inspired 4,956 students to code in 2017, and over 8,800 students cumulative in past 3 years.

Students (in teams of up to 4) code applications for the chance to:

  • get recognition from their Member of Congress,
  • win prizes,
  • display their app in the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

How can your students get in on it?

Here's a 3-minute "explainer" video:

We would love to see a diverse range of students shine on the national stage!


In the first 3 years of the Congressional App Challenge, the program has yielded 605 App Challenges across 42 states. Over 2,400 apps have been created by nearly 9,000 students, and participant demographics surpass all industry diversity metrics, with young women representing 30% of all competitors. This year, the CAC initiative aims to reach even more constituents.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Reflections on Programming and Teaching

Mark Guzdial has an interesting post called Reflections of a CS Professor and an End-User Programmer in which he compares end-user programming and professional programming and how.if/what we teach for the two. I started a comment but decided it didn’t really fit there.

I'm pretty much in the same boat Mark is in. While I have been a professional programmer, these days I mostly write code to use as examples or to solve my own little problems.

I like to think that I bring some of what I learned and did as a professional into my little projects but it's hard sometimes. I was talking to another teacher today about a program that he wrote that we both use to track our course schedules. He gave me a new version and said to let him know if I  found anything weird because he was so used to it that he probably subconsciously ignores some things. That is why a lot of end user programs are only usable by the programmer. I know that some of my projects are the same -  not usable by anyone but me.

I'm starting to think that is a problem. But do I really want to spend the time to make them usable by others when the problems they solve are so personal and individual? Perhaps the best I can hope for is that they don't embarrass me too much if someone else sees the code.

I teach beginners. Real beginners who usually have no prior programming experience. I am not turning out professional developers. Oh sure some of them go on to internships with what they learn in my classes but I would not call them profession ready. I can’t teach them all that in a semester or even three semesters of high school. That doesn’t mean I can afford to teach them to be sloppy.

The basics I can deal with. Good naming, planning ahead, top down design, breaking down problems into small, manageable chunks, and some good error handling. I’m pretty careful about the code I show them. Some of my personal code I wouldn’t show them while others I would. I remember showing a game I was working on to some students once. One of the students remarked to the other “look at that! He’s already coding preparation for expansion.” That I can teach.

So where do I come down on this? Well, I think I can lead by example if I am careful. And maybe I should take my own code more seriously.

Monday, June 11, 2018

School Year is Over, Time to Get Ready for Next Year

It is teacher wrap up day at Bishop Guertin. The warning bell for homeroom just rang but of course the students were done on Friday so there are no students coming into my room. It feels a bit off.

I started planning for next year already. Over the weekend I got about half way through creating my day by day schedule for Advanced Placement computer science principles. Oh who am I kidding. I got a lot of it done but probably not half way. And I'll spend a lot more time reading through all the lesson plans and will probably make more adjustments. I learned so much teaching it this past year.

I've got to do the same for Mobile Application Programming and I have less to start with there. At least I have last year’s experience to build on. I didn’t really have that last summer.

Honors Programming is probably the easiest to plan for but I have work there. I have already organized a lot of that but want to write some new things. This is my favorite course to teach so I may leave working on it as my reward for finishing the others.

I feel like I have plans better laid for my summer organization than ever before. We'll see if I can follow the plan. I really want next year to be the best year of teaching ever.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Thoughts on Textbooks in Progress

My first published book, Microsoft Visual Basic FUNdamentals, came out 18 years ago. It was for Visual Basic version 6 and what I did was to take what and how I taught and turn it into a textbook. It was a good book. It didn’t sell a ton of books but I was able to take my wife out to dinner a couple of times.

I wrote several others after that. Both of them were new editions of a book someone else first wrote. But they were good books and I am proud of that work. Honestly though I haven’t used textbooks in class for a number of years now. They just don’t fit my style of teaching. What I have done is supply students with  copies of my PowerPoints (with speaker notes) and some short one or two page documents on various language features. Plus the occasional video presentation.

I've been working on a couple of reference books to use in my programming classes since the first of the year. They're getting close to done. I decided to bring home a real C# textbook to look at as I work.

There are 17 chapters and over 700 pages. I cover things from about 9 of them in my one semester course. This might be a good book if I were teaching university students. Maybe. For high school and the limited time I have no way.

Obviously it has a lot of depth and that is great. The problem is that I really need to make projects interesting to hold student attention. So I teach things like simple file handling, timers, adding images dynamically, collision detection (essential for a lot of games), and a few other things that are in my books under "Fun Stuff." I find very little of that in the real textbook. What I do find is hard to find and it is not obvious how they lead to fun stuff.

And then there is that whole 700 pages thing. Your average high school student is going to put that in their locker and never look at it unless you assign questions from the book.

Well forget that! Homework sucks! Besides I can come up with my own quizzes, projects, tests, and other evaluative instruments and they will be far more tailored to the needs of my course.

My VB book is currently at 76 pages including table of contents and index. My C# book at 80 pages. They're not going to get much longer either. They've got everything I cover in class and more for the real go getters. Short and to the point and things are explained in context and directed at high school kids.

They're designed to be a reference, a study guide, and something like advanced notes. That is really all most students really need. They should not have to dig though 700 pages to get what they need in a very first programming course.

Students seemed to get real value from the drafts I gave them this year. I don't know if they'll work for anyone else. The work is worth it if it helps my students.

Computer Science Teacher as Unicorn

imageThe t-shirt image here showed up on my Facebook feed the other day.  My first thought was “Yes, computer teachers are the coolest.” Of course I know a lot of teachers who teach other subjects who are every bit as exciting as any computer science teacher but there is another thought here.

Unicorns are both magical and rare. I would argue that all good teachers have a bit of magic to them. Computer science teachers are more rare though. And frankly, computer science feels a lot like magic to a lot of people.

Today is the last day with students at my school and what I’m thinking about is “did I make magic this year?” and “how can I make more magic next year?” Maybe being the unicorn is the goal.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Looking Back At APCS Principles–My First Year

During a conversation with my dean, he said it takes about three years to really get teaching an Advanced Placement course down pat. I don't know if that is the right number but it is surely more than one. This past school year I taught APCS Principles using the curriculum from Code.Org. It was a life saver. I had four preps this year and two of them were first time for me. Well one of them wasn't completely first time but I was doing a complete starting from zero rewrite of it. So there was a lot of work to do.

The tools supplied online were really quite good. The simulators were amazing and let me do some things I could not have done without them. Code's videos, some of which I used in other courses as well, are just outstanding. High production values, outstanding and diverse presenters, and just the right length to not lose kids. In all honesty, a properly motivated students could probably use it as a self-passed course. They would not get as much out of it as being part of a class but they would do ok.

We had some great discussions in class which I think were very valuable. I had three students from China which made talking about issues like censorship and government control of the internet, among other things, extra interesting.

There are a few things I know I need to do differently next year though. The performance tasks are a big part of what I need to do differently. I gave the Explore task in the start of the second semester. That has to get moved to first semester. That will give me some more flexibility in the second part of the year.

Like a lot of people I made the Create task due at the official “drop dead” date set by the College Board. Huge mistake as panic set in and only an extension owing to system glitches on the College Board site made it possible for all the students to submit. Next year, we’re doing it earlier. No midnight deadlines on a system that will be overloaded.

I also need to work on making sure the students understand the requirements on the performance tasks better. Now I had to be teaching to the test and that is what I’d be doing. At the same time they REALLY need to learn to read and follow requirements. That is an important lesson. That makes me feel better about it.

My students all come in with previous programming experience but what I found this year was that was somewhat uneven. I have to be more aware of the students who are not as into coding as others. APCSP is about a lot more than programming but I don’t want students to miss out on that piece. I may reorder some things in the course around that as well. I need to get more programming in before I assign the Create Task I think.

I still have a bunch of processing to do and I hope to talk to other teachers at the CSTA Conference next month. I figure that knowing I have to do things differently is half the battle though. If you taught APCSP, with the curriculum or with something else, I hope you’ll share what you learned about teaching it in the comments. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Programming Projects–The good, the bad, and the ugly

End of the semester project time for me. All of my programming students have been finishing up[ their self-selected projects and I have been grading. It’s always an interesting ex3ercise. None of the students have much experience designing and writing programs. One thing that is clear is that they don’t always spend enough time planning before they start.

Students often seem to think in small steps without thinking about what steps will follow. Sometimes this results in user interfaces that look great and are fairly sophisticated. Unfortunately, they often haven’t thought about how to implement more of the code behind the user interface. Other times they do think further but not far enough. In either case they run into road blocks because the initial design is just not complete. As ugly as these designs can get it is interesting and challenging to try to develop workaround for them. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. I only wish we had time to restart from scratch and redesign the programs.

Some of the mort popular projects are easy enough to design and code but can be tedious with the limited background in programming the students have. These designs require a lot of code. That takes time to write and to debug but is usually manageable. What concerns me this year is the number of my advanced students who don’t use language or features that they have taught and should know to use that they don’t use.

No matter how many times I tell students that a list of variables that are differentiated only by a number should probably be an array some students take what they think is a short cut. They are almost always wrong about that. I’ve got  to work on that next year.

On the plus side, some of my students take it upon themselves to learn features, methods, and functions that we don’t have time to cover in class. this year students found a couple I didn’t know about. Modern programming libraries have far too many features for anyone to know all of them. Some of these features will get covered next year as they are more efficient than what I have been using. Others I have to think about how or if I cover them. Sometimes features make things easier for programming but harder for a teacher to instill an understanding of concepts.

Students seems to learn a lot from this end of semester projects. That is great. It’s a real plus when I can learn things from them as well.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Micro:Bits and Teaching Networking

This year i taught advanced Placement Computer Science Principles with a mix of high school juniors and seniors. Because of the schedule I had the juniors for several days after the seniors were done. The challenge was to come up with something useful and interesting to keep them busy and learning.  I looked at the classroom set of BBC Micro:bits and thought – networking! Obvious right? OK maybe not but I had been thinking about the ability of these little devices to communicate using radio signs and this seemed like a good opportunity for some experimentation.

I broke the students in to groups of two and three and asked them to create an app that used communication between two of the devices. Other than pointing them to the MakeCode for Micro:bit app for Windows (in beta - requires Windows 10 though there are also iOS and Android versions) and the MakeCode web site I didn’t give them more instructions. Hey, it’s an AP course!

A few students decided to use the Python editor from the Micro:bit web site but most used MakeCode. The MakeCode students used a mix of the block editing and the JavaScript editing. I think having options was a plus as students worked with what they were most comfortable using.

On one hand the students didn’t quite get to the level of application I had hoped for. I wasn’t any help there so I think I need to dig deeper into this myself over the summer. Time was an issue as well since the end of the year brings a lot of interruptions.

On the other hand, they did learn a lot. Several students told me they learned more sending between actual devices than using a software simulator. The APCS P resources I used have an outstanding simulator which the students did use. The devices made it more real, dare I say solid, to the students. One student suggested starting with the simulator and moving on to the devices for deeper learning.

As I listened to them talk about their projects under development they discussed things like throughput and bandwidth as well as how to encode information. These are all topics we had discussed during the year of course. Here though was a practical application and visuals that really brought things home. There is something about pressing buttons and seeing lights on another device light up that brings extra meaning.

My thinking now is that I will be bringing these little devices out earlier next year. We’ll do some networking with them for sure. Maybe some other projects as well. They seem motivating and interesting. Finding thinks that students want to use, want to learn more about, and which reinforce concepts is a wonderful thing.