Posted in Digital Technologies, Minecraft, Teaching and Learning

Getting started with Digital Technologies

Partly in response to the new New Zealand Digital Technologies curriculum, my school is offering a Year 7 module for Digital Technologies for the first time this year. It almost didn’t run as it fell prey to the beast that is secondary school timetabling, but I am super glad it did. We (Kevin and I) did a little bit of planning last year, but of course things change (we got yr 7 instead of yr 8, and about 20 lessons rather than 30). It has been a really good learning experience for me, trying to keep abreast of the changes in the New Zealand Digital Technologies curriculum, watching with interest the changes happening at NCEA level one so that we can try and tailor our program so that students can have a pathway to those qualifications, and we want to do a good job so we can get a yr 8 digit tech course into the timetable, and then on up through the senior school. I have an interest in coding and Computer Science, where as Kevin teaches L2 Robotics and has much more experience than me with coding etc, although I’m pretty sure I could kick his butt in Minecraft. We are both fairly good at driving the microbits, although Kevin has an advantage as he is better at coding in general. We are also using Microsoft Teams, which is new to the school this year. It is also my first go at co-teaching a class, which has (so far) been fabulous…. because we both have different skills sets, terrible senses of humour, and have helped each other out.

So, before I go too much further, I do need to acknowledge Kevin Knowles. He and I are co teaching this module and (between you and me) I think we have been ROCKING it. Being our first go, there are off course some things we will change next time, and I have learned loads (Kevin was kind enough to say he had learned one or two things).

Getting started

Our first lesson had a very simple objective – get everyone logged into Office 365. Because it was the first lesson, we had less time than usual as it took a we while to get all the kids where they needed to be. And we learned for next time we need to print off a sheet with all of the log ins and passwords 🙂 Going through Kamar for pretty much every new student took a wee while…. but also hopefully by module two this won’t be such an issue as the students will have had 5 weeks to get used to logging in. Once logged in, students sent us an email, so that they knew our email address and so the very few who didn’t know how to do this could learn how.

Next we focussed on algorithms – how do you make toast (an idea poached from the fabulous Cathy). We did this as a class, then the students had to do an algorithm to get dressed in the morning – which lead to an introduction of if this, then what type questions (eg, if Monday-Friday – wear school uniform, if Saturday go back to sleep). The students where surprisingly passionate about little details – what order to put on socks and shoes, or top half then bottom half first – which gave Kevin the opportunity to talk about (and me to learn about) the fact that sometimes order in programs is important (eg socks then shoes) and other times it doesn’t matter (sweater or pants)

Getting started with Microbits

We then hit a bit of disruption with some students going to camp – so we had 1/3 of the class absent over the next 5 lessons. But by the end of it, everyone could (and almost everyone DID)

  • Do some coding with the makecode microbit site
  • Download the code and get it onto their microbit
  • code a microbit to say spell out the letters of their name
  • Take a screen shot of their code and put it into their onenote
  • Get the microbit to do something else (some did AMAZING things with no input from us)


Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 3.17.37 PM.png
Kevin 3d printed all the cases last year – colour coded for 1) easy grouping of students and 2) easy to check we get them all back

Then when we had everyone back together again, we covered loops/repeats – trying to get Santa to say ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’

Thinking about Data representations

Once everyone was back, we doubled back a little I guess to go over data representation. I have to say it, Kevin NAILED this. The kids did maths without knowing they did maths!! And it got kids thinking about what number and letters are actually representing….

Kev started with counting in base 10, with a ‘ones’ column, a ‘tens’ column and so on, which got the students thinking about what the number represent. Then he moved onto binary using the same table…. and away we went. Kids just picked it up.

Kev did share some tricks, eg 15 is 1111…. you don’t need to count it up, because it is just one less than 16, which would be 10000. and so on. And if the last number is a 1, you know the number must be uneven. Some of the kids who have brains that like patterns picked up a few more, and I spend some time helping less confident kids go through adding up the different numbers.



Kevin had found a scratch game for the students to do for the remainder of the lesson, and they were SO keen on it we started the next lesson with it too.

Which then lead into ASCII coding…. a brief demo on the board and then we gave the students a code to solve and then asked them to write them names in ASCII in their section of the onenote


Where to next?

We have about 2 more weeks to go… and are still tossing up about giving the code builder in Minecraft education edition ago using some of the ideas from the introduction to comp sci course. Because of timetabling issues, we haven’t been in a fixed room yet, and on different laptops each time, so it is only now that I can get minecraft up and running on them all. So tomorrow I am going to try and install everything to get it going, and then off course I’m out on tuesday for a cricket tournament…..

Alternatively, we will carry on with the microbits, we have some speakers we can attach so we can explore the concept of inputs and outputs. And there are LOADS of cool projects we can do with the microbits. (You can see some HERE). So Kev and I are sitting down on Monday to talk it through.


We do need to report on progress made…. which is one reason we have encouraged students to put their work into the OneNote we can gather a portfolio of evidence of the code they have built and the tasks they have completed. We are also going to make a couple of Microsoft forms to check students can 1) read an ASCII code and 2) interpret simple program commands such as loops. So we will have evidence on understanding of data representation, algorithms and programming to report to parents about. Which only covers 3 of the 6 ‘themes’ I guess, but is not too bad for a 5-6 weeks module we hope.

For next time

Next time we will make some subtle changes. Hopefully students will be already confident at logging into office 365 and using teams and/or classonenote, which will save us some time at the start. We are also going to rejig the onenote slightly, we started with sections for each of Minecraft, microbit, ASCII etc… which lead to extra clicks for the students. So we will just have one section, with pages for each, which the students can then add to (also means less clicks for marking). We will also make the front page the place were we put the links for students… we started having them in the conversation but they got lost in the chatter, and then having them as a tab in the team means they open in the team, which is rather a small window/space.

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The teams interface works well to keep the students in the one browser window, but it does reduce the size of the usable space for coding… The expand tab does give you some more space, but still not a full window (and Yr 7’s struggled to find the 2 little arrows on the top right….)

We will also survey the students (using forms) at the end of the module and use their feedback to tweak the second module through. At which point I think we would make any bigger changes if they were needed.

Successes and challenges

I think every teacher in New Zealand right now is probably desperately wishing for a ‘normal’ week. It will be week 7 before I have a full week at school with no disruptions… and then I am away on camp in week 8, and then hit the 2 short weeks around easter. So juggling the disruptions when we are trying to introduce a new course has been a bit of a challenge, but also a relief because it has given us a bit of breathing space to think about what the best next step is.

Something I didn’t expect was the typing skills (or lack there of) that the students have. A number of students were turning the caps lock button on and off to capitalise one letter, and didn’t know to hold down the shift button. While I’m not a ‘touch typer’ (and I have terrible spelling both in my handwriting and typing) I can use more than 2 fingers. So we might need to include some sort of upskilling process so the students are not slowed down by their typing speed.

A real success (I think, Kev can speak for himself) has been how Kevin and I have worked together. As we move throughout the year, we will definitely be more confident and so maybe need to communicate less, but we really have worked together quite well. We have taken turns at being ‘good and bad cop’, and we are both able to reach different students at different times. We have pretty much both been in the room for the whole time, but it hasn’t felt crowded. Kev has definitely got more expertise, but I now feel confident that I could tackle all of the concepts myself next module. As we move through the year, we will probably be in the room together less, but it has worked really well for starting out, especially as I grasped some of those programming concepts.

And another success was the absolute buzz in the room after Kev introduced binary numbers. It was maths, it was abstract, I was worried it would be ‘hard’ but the kids nailed it. And seemingly LOVED it. The cheers around the room as the worked their way through the levels of the binary game where awesome, I kind of just stood and stared as the kids just nailed it. You don’t always get those moments as a teacher, so it was worth savouring, even though Kev had done all the work for that lesson.

The biggest challenge I think for us will be getting this option carried forward into yr 8, 9 etc. Or finding some room for it among another curriculum area… so we will press on and try to get it fitted in to the timetable one way or another.

Reach out

If you are teaching a digit tech course, or using the code builder in minecraft, I’d LOVE to hear from you. Either on twitter or flick a comment on the blog and I will be in touch (probably late). If I have made a mistake you have spotted, please let me know so I can fix it and learning from it. Or if you are wanting any more info, please don’t hesitate to get in touch, I’m definitely learning as I go, and am happy to help out as much as I can.

Posted in random ramblings, Teaching and Learning

Thoughts on Computational Thinking

I’m not super sure when I first heard the term Computational thinking, but the first time I took proper notice of it was in March this year when I was fortunate enough to hear Lisa Anne Floyd speaking at E2 this year. Even then, I thought, this is nice, this is a way to get people thinking about thinking and problem solving, rather than, this is life changing. But as I have delved a little deeper and been planing our digitech module for next year, I’m really liking the ideas behind computational thinking, and the links I can make to multiple other ‘thinking’ thunks, like Nature of Science, or using taxonomies. To my mind, the ‘computational thinking’ strategies seem a little more visible, maybe because they are based around problems and finding solutions, rather than just meta cognition and thinking about thinking. I then read this fabulous paper about a pedagogical framework for computational thinking which got me onto other papers and other ideas.

So what is computational thinking? There are lots of fancy definitions, like this one

‘an approach to solving problems, designing systems and understanding
human behaviour that draws on concepts fundamental to computing’
Wing 2006″

but to my mind, it is breaking a problem down into a flow chart, and working through the steps to solve it, with some iteration or corrections. A bit like this

Core education also has a nice page and video with Tim Rice talking about Computational thinking… and I have shared this video before but it is still a good one


So, how can I link this to my ‘Science lessons’? Lets say I want to know how the pH of an acid effects how quickly a piece of magnesium corrodes. There are various ways I can measure this . -how long it takes for a piece of Magnesium metal to disappear. Or how long it takes for a jar or test tube filled with water to be displaced by Hydrogen gas. I would need to ensure both of these measures were ‘fair’ so I could need to use pieces of Magnesium that were not only the same mass, but they same surface area. i would need to start the stopwatch at the same time and stop it at the same time. I would need to use the same gas jar or same water displacement to measure Hydrogen production. I would need to do a test run to check I could accurately measure the timings or that the volumes produced where sensible.

And then you get to the fun stuff of how do you accurately measure the pH of a solution anyway? In junior school we use universal indicator, but when you get into the senior school this isn’t specific enough – both HCl (a strong acid) and CH3COOH ( a weak acid) turn red in universal indicator. Yet CH3COOH has a lower pH because not as many Hydrogen ion dissociate, which you can pick up using a pH probe or different indicators. So while 10mL of 1 mol/L HCl and 10mL of 1mol/L CH3COOH will make the same mass of magnesium metal corrode and disappear, and the same amount of Hydrogen gas to be produced, the HCl will happen much faster, due to the lower pH/high concentration of reactive particles in the solution. Or do I just use different concentrations of HCl and test the impact of decreasing pH that way?

If you don’t teach Science, chances are the above 2 paragraphs make no sense at all. Even though I am pretty confident that every student in NZ in the last 60 years has put some magnesium metal in some acid and maybe done a pop test, you are definitely excused for not following

So if I put these steps into a flow chart, they become clearer…. and the steps required to determine each factor that might impact the conclusion become more explicit. And like the friendship algorithm above, it can be amended or changed if the process doesn’t work. The ability for iteration to be used and not perceived as a failure is massive.

Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 1.49.41 PM

So while this might not have been the best or clearest example to use, it is one that came to mind. A simple junior science experiment that is actually a lot more complex than it appears, or we even teach it. And when I ask my yr 13 chemistry students to do this, they get a bit a stumped. They have been taught fair testing in terms of nature of Science, but not how to go back and find a solution is the results are inconclusive, or what processes are available to find solutions.

I think these also applies to writing frames and other tools we use to organise our students thoughts, and try to get them to think about their thinking. Perhaps I have been using aspects of computational thinking all along with out realising it, but this now just means I can refine it and make it more explicit when I am trying to get my kids thinking ‘scientifically’ and following a process.

And this isn’t to say that computational thinking is the answer to everything. One thing I really like is the idea (to quote my colleague Kevin) if you can put a problem into a flowchart, a computer can solve it. If you can’t, then the problem needs a person (or several people). People have the ability to think creatively, which is also so important to problem solving, but only if you have a robust system in place to identify the problem.