Friday, 12 June 2015

Can class blogs improve writing?

Could blogging be the answer to engaging all children in developing their writing skills – even the most reluctant? Myra Barr and Sarah Horrocks describe the surprising benefits of a more spontaneous, laid-back approach to writing.

With the new primary accountability system now counting reading and writing as two separate subjects, the need for engaging all pupils in developing and improving their writing skills is greater than ever before. But what to do when students are unenthusiastic about writing?

Many teachers are launching class blogs as a way of giving their students the space to share their work with parents and peers, and an incentive to improve. On the flip side of the coin, we have the students who already enjoy writing and developing their skills. Blogs benefit them too, by giving them the chance to share their talent with the whole world! The students in between all benefit as well, as school ‘work blogs’ (blogs set up for educational purposes, as opposed to ‘play blogs’) allow teachers to establish learning dialogues with the pupils and give them another way to document and share their learning, other than creating classroom displays and writing it all down in their books.

The extent to which pupils are involved in organising a school blog and posting their contributions generally differs. In some schools, pupils write their blog posts only in school time, while in others, they blog and post from home – which does raise issues about access to computers and the internet. The extent of teachers’ contributions, as well as the control they choose to exercise over blog content, also varies.

Before now, no research projects have considered whether there are differences between pupils’ digital writing and their regular school writing on paper. There is some evidence to suggest that blogging sparks pupils’ interest and enthusiasm for writing, but little attention has been paid to its effects on the quality of writing in general. It was in light of this that CfBT Education Trust’s London Connected Learning Centre (London CLC) undertook a piece of research to investigate the differences in pupils’ writing on blogs compared to their other writing.

The project also aimed to explore the potential for using blogging to develop pupils’ writing skills, and to identify good practice in blogging. All but one of the four primary teachers in this project had been blogging for more than a year and had taken different routes into blogging. 

The story of Harvey, told in this post, provides one account of how a teacher became involved in blogging and what he saw as the potential benefits for his Year 6 class in this new approach to writing.

Starting up a blog
For Harvey, it was the London CLC’s conferences and professional development opportunities for ICT leaders, alongside the contacts he made with other schools involved in blogging work, that suggested to him that blogging could have real potential for improving children’s writing. He also followed other blogs, particularly that of Ferry Lane Primary School, whose Year 6 teacher had posted some very helpful videos and guidance about blogging. Harvey set up a WordPress blog for his own Year 6 class, with the help of London CLC staff, in January 2012, and chose Primary Blogger as the platform for the blog in September 2012. 

He says: ‘I felt the blog would be a good way of showing what we’d been doing in literacy. Writing was no longer in the SATs – teacher assessment was now the only way of assessing. This freed up the teaching of writing. Our literacy coordinator suggested that we should use class reading texts as the basis for all of our writing work and I chose some texts (The London Eye Mystery, Trash, Holes, The Man Who Walked Between The Towers) which seemed to have potential for generating interesting writing.’

Harvey did not use an ICT suite, but had six computers in his classroom. For blogging, he instituted a system where the class was divided into five groups, each of which had a blogging session once a week during guided reading sessions. At the beginning of most weeks, he put up a blog post for the class to respond to, often – but not always – linked to their class reading. He also sought out short films on particular themes for the class to view and respond to. In their blogging sessions, the groups had to post their responses to these ‘invitations’. 

In the course of the project, these short films included animations (The Lonely Robot, Galileo Galilei), and short films about social and environmental issues (a trailer for An Inconvenient Truth, a film about children who live on dumpsites in Manila related to the reading of Trash). Children were also invited to create their own radio adverts and record them for the blog. They frequently posted their own suggestions for blog posts. In addition, they kept up with the blogs of their QuadBlogging partner schools.

Improving writing
Even though their blogging time was relatively restricted, Harvey noticed some differences between the writing that children did in their literacy books and what they did on the blog. One student, Krzysztof, who had English as an additional language, was ‘very careful’ when writing in his book. His sentences were ‘truncated’ – he would keep it really simple, preferring to get it exactly right. But now he writes on the blog, ‘his writing is … much freer and it’s much better writing.’

Harvey was very clear that one key role of the blog was as a way to improve writing. ‘Writing is the main thing for me,’ he says. ‘It's my focus in the school to improve writing through blogging. Children in my class were way below expected levels when they started in September. Writing on the blog being part of everyday learning will have a real impact and will improve attainment.’

Interestingly, among the schools and classes that took part in this study, only Harvey’s class had permanent computers in the classroom. This enabled him to incorporate blogging into his guided reading sessions or other class-based activities. Harvey saw this as a real advantage, not least because it enabled him to moderate pupils’ blog posts through the week rather than in one go. Although the pupils in this classroom got no additional timetabled provision for blogging, they had a lot more informal access time within the school day. Evidence from other classes suggested that the timetabled use of ICT suites did seem to be holding back developments in blog-writing.

What do the pupils think?
Harvey’s Year 6 class was at home with blogging though many of the class said they liked writing in their books more than writing on the blog. 

One pupil summed up her complex feelings in this way: ‘The reason why I prefer [writing in] books is because it just does its own thing, it’s like the pen has a mind of its own. But in the cyber world, once something’s there it’s there for good. When you think you have edited it, the non-edited bit is still out there somewhere... I enjoy the blog a lot. Because you can show the whole world how articulate you are. It encourages me to take my writing to the whole next level.’ 

Another of the pupils in the class had a similarly mixed response to these different contexts for writing. Shafia was a high ability pupil. Harvey described her literacy writing as ‘ambitious in scope, always interesting and sometimes surprising’. She only blogged from school. The aspect she liked best about the blog was having a big audience, but she actually preferred writing in her book. She compared blog and book writing in this way: ‘Sometimes we write in our books first but usually we go straight to the blog and write. In writing in the book, you’ve already thought about your ideas and pluck ideas from that. On the blog, you go straight to it without thinking so much about it before.’

This quotation highlighted what Shafia found unsatisfying about writing on the blog – it calls for less reflection and less preparation. Shafia liked writing in her book because she liked to be able to ‘think of ideas, how I can change it. Sometimes I plan in my head, sometimes I make notes. I feel more comfortable in a book.’ 

Yet many children in the project schools, responding to the end-of-project students’ questionnaire, said that they enjoyed writing on the blog more than writing in their books. One commented: ‘On the blog you can write about anything you want, but in the book the teacher asks you to write down similes. Sometimes you write as a post, sometimes as a comment. Anything fun you've done. On the blog, I feel that you don't expect the teacher to say “use all your adjectives” – you can write freely without adding in similes. You can easily upload a photo, but you can’t in your book.’ 

This comment reveals one of the attractions of blogging – it was not subject to the same constraints and the same detailed assessment as writing in ‘literacy books’. There was not the same emphasis on the need to include ambitious vocabulary (‘wow words’), or ‘good sentences full of adjectives’. 

The blogging paradox
Among the many interesting findings raised by this project were three paradoxes relating to writing within, and outside, the class blogs:

1. Blogging improves writing despite a more laid-back approach to accuracy

In general, blogging seemed to teachers to have contributed to a general improvement in pupils’ writing over the course of the project, even when their writing on the blog was not seen by their teachers as being as careful or as accurate as their writing in their books. Blogging had been a ‘game-changer’ for pupils – it had made writing fun, even for reluctant writers, and had also given them valuable writing practice as well as a sense of a wider audience for their work. 

2. Teachers are less concerned with editing and revising students’ posts despite the potential global audience

Blogging was viewed by both pupils and by teachers as more informal than writing in literacy books, and was judged by different standards. Teachers were aware that there was a difference between the way they approached writing on the blog and their approach in literacy. One teacher explains: ‘In their books, I pick them up more on punctuation and spelling. It’s more open ended on the blog.’

Pupils were aware that their work on the blog was not being marked or judged in the same way as writing in their books. ‘There’s a massive difference,’ one pupil wrote. ‘In the book, she comments on handwriting, punctuation – “You forgot this, you forgot that”. On my blog writing, her comments are much more positive. ’

Both teachers and pupils emphasised that one of the key features of blogging was that the audience for the blog was potentially ‘the whole world’. And yet, somewhat illogically, there was little emphasis given to editing and revising blog entries in these classrooms. Teachers from Canada and Australia replying to the project’s international questionnaire stressed that publishing on the blog for a global audience routinely involved their students in editing and revising. For the London teachers and pupils in the project, however, blogging had become an area of relative freedom and experimentation.

3. Despite the possibility of reaching people all over the world, students are more concerned with what their peers think of their work

The literature about blogging  constantly emphasises  the importance of the wide audience that blogging can provide for children’s writing; however, it was clear from this project findings that, for the children in these classes, one of the key audiences blogging gave them access to was the audience of their own class. 

Blogging had made the pupils in all these classes much more conscious of each other’s writing. They rarely read the work in each other’s books, but on the blog they did. They would also comment on it, and were sometimes influenced by how each other wrote. 

The commenting function enabled them to communicate with other writers and respond to their writing directly – not everything had to be channelled through the teacher. Consequently, they became more aware of their own writing and more interested in how they might improve it. The blogs had established an area of sharing and a writing community. 

An overwhelmingly positive response
At the end of the project, teachers shared their overwhelmingly positive response to their experience of blogging and taking part in the project:

  • ‘I think the blog is a great way to document learning and a great documentary of the year.’
  • ‘If you can get children to write without any negative connotations, it’s a very magical thing to hold onto. They enjoy it in a way they don't other writing.’ 
  • ‘I know that my blogging teaching has progressed through the ideas we have shared.’
  • ‘Digital literacy gives writing a whole new dimension which primary children must be exposed to.  It is, after all, their future.’

Myra Barrs is a freelance author, consultant and teacher. Sarah Horrocks is the Director of London CLC, part of the CfBT Education Trust.

You can read their full report on the findings of this project here

Images © CfBT Education Trust

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The magic of computer coding

Is teaching computing in schools just about training programmers for the future, or is it something more? Adam Lipecz considers the liberating power of technology.

"Programming is infiltrating loads of different traditional areas, … Learning how to code allows kids to do their own thing, be creative and secure a job in an area where there will be a huge shortage."
Rachel Swidenbank, Codecademy's Head of U.K. Operations (here)

"I view computer science as a liberal art. It should be something that everybody learns, takes a year in their lives, one of the courses they take is, you know, learning how to program. Because it teaches you how to think."
Steve Jobs in 'The Lost Interview', 1995.

These are visionary people speaking from deep understanding and experience of an aspect of life, and because they feel this is something that they must stand up for.

Last September, teachers of all age groups were thrown in the deep end of teaching computer programming as a mandatory part of the new curriculum. But how confident do you feel about this subject? Could you explain to a fellow teacher why computing is important in the classroom? How can you teach it efficiently and interestingly? What tools should you use? In this article, I will shed light on some possible answers.

The importance of interaction
There was a teacher who shadowed two students over two days in order to experience what it's like to learn in schools today. She wrote of her experience: “I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had and change a minimum of ten things”.

At one point, she describes what it's like to sit all day listening to lessons, saying: “...Students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class, for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn't believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of science, just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.”

And as a child's body, so is their mind. If they are forced to sit, passive and motionless all day, how on earth do we dare expect their mind to be active, creative and proactive?

Kids have to be challenged in the classroom - they have to be moved. Why are virtual games and smart devices so irresistible to children? It has nothing to do with screens, buttons or ones and zeroes. First and foremost, they are interactive. They let the kids decide the path of their discovery. For every action (which they can make freely and without any fear of public retaliation), there is a reaction from which they can learn. Second, virtual games are often professional products, meaning they are visually appealing, build on core genetic impulses and operate with subconscious triggers.

This is a great opportunity which lies unused by some teachers - kids love and have grown attached to technology. With the guidance of a tutor, this can be turned to the advantage of both teacher and pupil; a perfect tool to engage and have attention advantage.

Why teach programming?
Technology is all around us - it’s here to stay - and we not only have to get kids ready to use it, but build it too. They might already be digital natives, but teaching them the principles of coding helps them grasp how technology works 'under the hood', and the ultimate goal is to explain how the building bricks of technology come together to create the world we live in.

Programming is a creative, highly interactive process, providing instant and clear feedback - a cornerstone of how kids function, and how they like to learn and discover. It promotes 4C skills (Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking and Creativity) and helps in learning how to build efficient mental models.

But should every child learn computing? I quote Simon Peyton Jones, an honorary Professor of Computer Science at the University of Glasgow to answer this question: 

“Should every child do it? From primary school? Let me ask you this: Why do we ask every child to learn science from primary school? Not because they are all going to become physicists. It’s because science teaches us something about the world around us; and if we know nothing about the way the world around us works, we are disempowered citizens. Even when you switch on the light, you know that the light doesn’t happen by magic, it happens by electricity that comes along wires, the wires can be dangerous, the electricity comes from a power station, the power station burns fuel, it may cause global warming… all of that is underpinned by the science knowledge you gained at school, whether or not you’re a scientist.”

Computing lessons are not only to train programmers for the future. Sure, that’s also a welcome by-product, as the UK will have a shortage of 249,000 workers for technologically skilled jobs by 2020. But programming, whether a potential career route or not, is an essential asset for our newest generations. 

And that's something the government has come to realise. Just glance through the main goals of the very curriculum now mandatory in every UK school, which aims to ensure all pupils:
  • Can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation
  • Can analyse problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems
  • Can evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems
  • Are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology.

What can you do?
As a teacher, you are the one expected to introduce children to the digital world of computing. This responsibility of a first impression is both powerful and potentially dangerous. You can make them love or hate it. So I would like to suggest some ideas that can help you.
  • Encourage children to tell their parents about what they learn in computing lessons, and motivate parents to be interested. As Bill Mitchell at BCS says: “I suspect children will be delighted to tell parents something they don’t know about!” 
  • Be open and motivated. Speak to fellow teachers about their ideas and methods, organise meetings on this topic or join an existing movement like CoderDojo or the UK initiative Coder Club.
  • Be prepared to accept help and be lectured by people whom you never thought you would get advice from. Even from pupils.
  • Be innovative. You don’t need pricey iPads to introduce computing ideas to kids. With some clever games, like 'How to train your robot', developed by Nikos Michalakis (aka. Dr. Techniko), basic concepts can be easily taught in a fun way. Also there are affordable tools like Codie - robotic toys which work with a smartphone app, and allow children to interact and make codes in just two minutes. 
  • Do your research. There are plenty of online tools, tablets and other touch-screen based apps, as well as educational toys and packages that you can integrate into your computing lessons.
And remember, at the end, the most important player in this game is you, the teachers, who are actually in the classrooms, helping kids to reach their dreams.

By Adam Lipecz, co-founder and CEO of Codie, making robotic toys that teach the basics of programming. Find more information on Codie at:

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

What does it mean? Scratch terms you need to know

A brief guide to some of the key terms and features of popular coding tool Scratch.

Scratch is swiftly becoming one of the most popular tools for teaching coding in the classroom. We definitely recommend it - it's great fun and simplifies the programming process really well - but it does come with its own lingo, which teachers will need to know before they start using it with pupils.

The techno-whizz need go no further. This guide is for anyone who thinks hats are for heads, stages are for theatres and Sprite is a fizzy drink of lemon and lime.

Scratch user interface - Includes everything needed to create a project. On the left is the stage and sprite list, in the centre the blocks palette (filled with click-and-drag code fragments called ‘blocks’ - see below), and on the right the scripts/costumes/sounds editors.

Blocks - Puzzle-piece shapes which snap together to create code. There are 12 categories of blocks, including motion, looks, sound, pen, control, sensing, operators, and variables.

Sprites - Objects which are used to make up Scratch projects. They can be user-created, uploaded, or found in the sprites library.

Costume - Images used to define how a sprite looks. Costumes may be of these image formats: JPG, BMP, PNG, or GIF. Each sprite as at least one costume, but can have more – for example, the position of the arms and legs of a dancing sprite may change as it moves.

Stage - The term for the background of the project. It can have scripts, backdrops and sounds. No sprites can move behind the stage - the stage is always at the back layer.

Backdrop - Costumes for the stage. Backdrops are used to change the appearance of the stage.

Script - A collection or stack of blocks that all interlock with one another. They determine how the sprites interact with each other and the backdrop.

Hat block - The block used to start a script – for example, the hat block may program a game to begin when the green flag is clicked. Hat blocks are designed to sit at the top of a script, and no block can be place on top of them.

Green flag - A button which, when clicked, will start all scripts in that project that are hatted with the ‘When Green Flag Clicked’ block.

Stop sign - A button which, when clicked, stops the running project immediately.

Project sharing - Allows others to view your projects, look inside them, and remix them. To share your project, click the ‘share’ button in the orange bar above the project screen. Sharing a project shares it with users all over the world, so avoid including any personal information.

Project notes - Notes that accompany a shared project, explaining to others what the project is about and how to use it. They appear to the right of a shared project’s webpage, and are visible to all users.

For more information, visit:

For ideas for using Scratch in the classroom, see Dylan Ryder's article, Starting from Scratch, in the most recent issue of Creative Teaching and Learning magazine.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Take your class on an Arctic adventure

Journey beyond the Arctic Circle and find out what life is like as a scientist working in one of the harshest environments in the world - all without leaving your classroom! Digital Explorer returns with 2015's virtual adventure to the frozen north.

The Arctic is one of the most challenging environments on the planet - a frozen wilderness which many scientists believe holds the key to the future of the planet.

“On a still day, the air is... fairy dust, like walking through a cloud of speckled diamonds,” recalls ex-teacher and explorer, Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop.

Jamie, who was part of both the Catlin Arctic Survey team in 2011 and the Catlin Frozen Oceans expedition in 2014, is returning to the Arctic to share not only the spectacular beauty of this unique ecosystem with thousands of young people across the UK, but to also connect them with the polar scientists that work in such an extreme environment.

Digital Explorer, in partnership with Catlin Ocean Education and the British Antarctic Survey, is inviting students to discover the secrets of this remote and extreme environment. From 4 to 15 May 2015, schools will be able to connect and interact live via satellite with Jamie or a member of the expedition team based at the UK Arctic Research Station at Ny-Ã…lesund on Svalbard. At 79°N, the station is the most northerly permanent settlement in the world.

This is a fresh teaching experience which has shown that learning need not be confined to textbooks. Last year, Jamie and scientists working at the research station on Svalbard spoke with over 50 classes around the world. The overwhelming, positive response from both teachers and students to the live lessons from the Arctic provided the impetus to make this learning experience an annual education event.

“It is amazing what 30 minutes can do! The children were honestly blown away by the fact that they were speaking to someone actually up there, past the Arctic Circle, and someone who is using science in their job. We, as a school, have had a real big push on showing the use of science in everyday life, so this has really added to all the efforts we have put in this year!” said Mariana Binks, a teacher at Culvers House Primary School in Sutton.

“We have this vision of the Arctic as a permanent expanse of white, but the environment is changing fast. One of our hopes for Arctic Live is that we can engage students in what is happening in this amazing region, so that we can keep on studying the frozen north in science and geography rather than in history,” said Digital Explorer’s Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop.

The Arctic Live! Education Event and accompanying Frozen Oceans classroom resources allows an innovative and engaging approach to educating young people. 

To sign up for a free Skype lesson or daily photo updates from the expedition team, go to the Arctic Live! page on the Digital Explorer website.

Signing up will also give you access to a range of free classroom resources for both primary and secondary teachers. These enquiry-based resources incorporate the Catlin Survey scientists’ experiences and research, and include booklets with structured lesson plans, activity and experiment sheets, and an interactive media player with videos and images from the expeditions, along with posters and other related resources.

Keep up to date with Jamie and the team!
Throughout the expedition, Digital Explorer will be keeping their social media sites updated. To follow the expedition or to Tweet/comment support or questions, follow Digital Explorer on:

All images: Catlin Group Limited

Monday, 30 March 2015

Magic does the trick for classroom confidence

Few people, including adults, can perform magic. Any child who learns how has a rare skill – they can do something amazing that their peers cannot.

Award-winning trainer and close-up magician Robert Newgrosh realised what a boost this can be for some children psychologically. In 2008, he established Magic Skills for Schools, a high-quality developmental programme for children in Years 4, 5 and 6. The underlying concept at the heart of the programme is simple – learning how to do magic increases a child’s self-belief. When a child learns how to do something amazing and unusual, it has the potential to change their whole outlook!

Does it work?
Since inception, hundreds of children from 18 schools across the North-West have taken part. Evelyn Community Primary School in Prescot, judged Outstanding by Ofsted on three occasions, has run the programme seven times.

Evelyn's headteacher, Carole Arnold, said: “Robert worked in our school with groups of children from each key stage class. Not only did the children thoroughly enjoy the sessions, but their confidence and communication skills were much improved.

“Children were selected from those highlighted in the PASS survey (Pupils Attitude to Self and School) as moderate to high risk. Several children came out with a lower risk when retested after the sessions, and the others were more self-confident as witnessed by the class teacher.”

Aside from the boost in confidence and self-esteem, the programme also helps to develop other skills such as manual dexterity, co-ordination, memory, presentation, reasoning, numeracy and verbal skills.

Carole Arnold adds: “The experience enabled rich learning to take place, such as problem solving and development of concentration, in an imaginative and stimulating way.’

How does it work?
All the tricks in the programme are very high calibre – easy enough for a child to learn but good enough to entertain and amaze family and friends. This is often a big surprise to adults who make the assumption that a child would not be able to fool them. Based on professional card magic, the methods and secrets taught ensure the children can perform confidently, knowing they won't be caught out.

At the end of the programme, the children perform a show for classmates and parents, further boosting their confidence and self-esteem. This provides a tangible end-result, plus a real sense of achievement. As well as performing great magic in the show, the children also demonstrate professional-looking card displays. This often produces audible gasps from the audience, which is further confirmation for a child that they really do have an amazing new talent which few people possess.

Another headteacher commented: "All the children who took part gained a great deal from the experience. It has increased their self-confidence and instilled in them a ‘can-do’ attitude. 

“At the end of the four sessions, the children were able to take part in a performance to classmates and family in a wonderful exhibition of skills, flair and confidence. I was very impressed by the standard the children were able to achieve in such a short time. 

“The feedback from staff and family has been positive, and I would highly recommend the programme to any school wishing to develop children's self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as numeracy, memory and concentration skills. We will be holding these sessions again in the future. In fact, we have a waiting list for them!" 

Could magic do the trick for your pupils?
Magic Skills For Schools delivers high impact in just a few weeks, and the cost per pupil is classified as ‘very low’ by the Education Endowment Foundation. Outcomes are well-matched to the government's concept of a ‘targeted enrichment activity’ making the programme ideal for Pupil Premium investment. Children are highly motivated to participate, and really enjoy taking part.

The company also offers a Magic Day format, which is for a whole class rather than selected children. Here the emphasis is on reasoning, lateral thinking and fun. This makes a great reward or treat, and since the tricks are different to the developmental programme, it doesn't matter if a child has already participated.

For further details, please call Robert on 0161 428 1069 or email

Friday, 13 March 2015

Have you cracked the code of the new computing curriculum?

The new computing curriculum came into force back in September, so the pressure is now on to deliver outstanding results. Here, primary deputy head Anthony Sharp explains the steps his school has taken to successfully deliver new terrifying topics such as algorithms, logical reasoning and debugging.

In a recent survey from CPD for Teachers, 52 per cent of headteachers who responded said that they felt their school was not successfully delivering the new computing curriculum.

And it's not surprising. There have been seismic shifts in what we expect from teachers to deliver the new computing curriculum. ICT used to focus purely on computer literacy, teaching pupils how to use software packages - for example, creating PowerPoint presentations or producing documents in Word - and e-safety. With the new curriculum, the focus has changed to understanding how computers work, including how to program them.

We have good teachers here at Midfield Primary who are competent and can teach ICT to a more than acceptable standard. However, when we reviewed the new computing curriculum and compared it with our current teaching programme, clear gaps emerged. Quite quickly for example, we saw that there was a gap in programming skills in our school, as well as a lack of confidence from our teachers who were concerned that they would not be able to deliver parts of the new curriculum.

My suspicions were confirmed by the results of the aforementioned CPD for Teachers survey, which showed that we were in the same boat as many others. Forty-four per cent of schools who felt they were not delivering the new computing curriculum effectively had also not received any face-to-face training.

First steps
It was clear that our teachers needed more guidance. We needed to prioritise computing curriculum training to re-set teachers’ thinking, eradicate the fear of programming and give them further information on how to deliver it effectively. We selected a course that met our needs in terms of being practical and hands-on from the start. It covered the fundamentals of computing programming through exciting tasks such as drawing computer graphics, creating simple games and interfacing with the real world.

Resetting thinking
When you talk to someone who doesn’t like maths, there’s often no particular reason they don’t like it - they just don’t. The same applies to a lot of teachers and adults with computers. The approach taken in the training course really helped to break down those feelings and reset their thinking.

Now, for example, the teachers explore how they can engage the children in programming, rather than the preconceived idea, which was along the lines of opening up a computer and looking at wires. This gave them the confidence to approach it. Now, far less concerned about what they don’t know, they focus on what they do know. The cross curricular content from computing compared to science, English and maths is quite extensive, so using the skills and working with these experts to help deliver programming was a great starting point for our school.

Bringing coding to life
Much to our surprise, we didn’t even go near a computer at first! The course instructors had us push all the tables and chairs to the side of the room and literally walk through a program.

One of the methods we used was to create an obstacle course which was navigated by answering/asking questions. The responses to the questions determined the player's next step. This brought programming to life and helped us to understand the way that coding works. It was a simple way of demonstrating binary logic, and we will use this to introduce basic programming to our primary pupils.

In the afternoon, we applied the knowledge from the activities of the morning to digital situations. Overall, the face-to-face training was great and broke down any aversions teachers may have had about how to engage the children. It was fun, engaging and very motivational.

One tricky area for us in teaching the new curriculum to primary school children was making it engaging and fun for children of a young age. The course gave us some really innovative methods of delivery, which has helped us engage children so that they enjoy it.

Confidence to deliver
The feedback so far has been very positive. We now deliver and prepare for lessons as teams so that we can share the knowledge and use a collaborative approach. It has made our teachers less nervous and has increased confidence in the classroom, as it gives them ways to approach it and they are far less concerned about what they don’t know. The focus now is on what they do know and what other existing skills they can draw on to help them deliver programming.

Embrace the IT geniuses
The fear at our school for many teachers used to be that once you set children on their way, it’s possible that they will steam ahead of the adults. This is natural, as adults are scared to press the wrong button, whereas children don’t have that fear so are free to explore. We’ve learned not to fear this situation - in fact, the opposite! We are embracing the possibility of this as a positive outcome, and we can use those skills and even channel them into our own teaching.

We are still at the start of our journey but, I believe, in a good place to move forward in delivering the new computing curriculum with confidence.

Five top tips for delivering the new computing curriculum:
1. Focus on what the teachers already know.
2. Explore curriculum crossover from maths, English and science.
3. Invest in face-to-face training to give teachers confidence.
4. Team up in a collaborative effort to engage your class.
5. Focus on making it engaging and fun for both teachers and pupils.

Anthony Sharp is deputy headteacher at Midfield Primary School in Bromley, Kent. Midfield chose to prepare their teachers for the new computing curriculum with the CPD for Teachers 'How to teach programming' course. Find out more at:

Looking for a short but thorough introduction to programming? In this free training video and accompanying article, Chris Thomas explores the basics of programming and two tools that will make teaching it a lot simpler.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Bring the colourful coral reef to your classroom with Digital Explorer

Explore an underwater world, question marine scientists, and discover the impact humans have on this fragile ecosystem with Digital Explorer's latest online expedition  Coral Life 2015.

If you dive on a coral reef today and you are over 36, you are doing something that a child born today might never be able to do.

“It was the abundance that was most striking. Sheer abundance of life. I have never experienced anything like it. So much movement, so many colours, it was like an underwater Eden,” remembers ex-teacher and explorer, Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop.

In 2012, Jamie was working with the Catlin Seaview Survey on Agincourt Reef, a part of the Great Barrier Reef, and experienced the reef for the first time. With some experts estimating that the world’s coral ecosystem may be in terminal decline by 2050, this first experience was particularly poignant.

“The loss of coral could mark the first example of total ecosystem collapse. No more coral reef - a complete world destroyed. And then there’s the knock-on impact on the 500 million people who rely on the coral reef for food and livelihoods.”

Two years after this first dive, Jamie is returning to the reef, but this time is taking classes round the world with him. As part of the Catlin Oceans Education programme, Digital Explorer is inviting thousands of students to join an expedition to Timor Leste in South East Asia’s Coral Triangle to investigate the awe and wonder of the coral reef. The expedition team will be specifically investigating the fragile habitats and ecosystems of the reef, the impact of human activities, local conservation efforts and the future of the Coral Triangle.

“Our vision for Coral Live 2015 is that as many classes around the world as possible have the chance to speak live to a marine scientist or expedition team member about this unique ecosystem and the diversity of life that depends on it,” said Digital Explorer’s Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop. 

“It’s so important that young people can experience some of the reef, if only by satellite link-up. I can’t bear the thought that some of the classes that I am speaking to may never be able to see the reef for themselves.”

According to a recent report by the Asian Development Bank and the Coral Triangle Initiative, effective marine management could hold the key to protecting coral reef systems such as establishing ‘no take’ zones, managing the issues of land run-off and the rehabilitation of mangrove forest. So, Jamie and team will also be speaking to communities, scientists and government in the region as the basis for an education programme on the sustainable management of coral reefs.

From 20 to 29 January 2015, schools will be able to connect and interact live via satellite with Jamie and the expedition in Timor Leste from the comfort of their classrooms. There is also a full education programme available to accompany the expedition on the Digital Explorer website based on the research and journeys of explorers and scientists taking part in the Catlin Seaview Surveys since 2012. 

The Coral Live! education event allows an innovative and engaging approach to educating young people. To follow Jamie’s journey, check out the Digital Explorer blog for daily updates of the expedition. You can find more information on booking a Skype lesson with Jamie and the team here.  

The beautiful and fragile ecosystem of the coral oceans is dependent upon the protection of future generations so it is more important than ever to engage students from a young age in the protection and preservation of our environment. 

All images © Catlin Seaview Survey

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Teaching inferential reading

Simple comprehension of a text isn’t enough. To be high-level readers, children need to be able to infer meaning that goes beyond what the text explicitly tells them. But how can we teach them to do this?

In this blog post, you'll find an outline for a session on inferential reading for use with Key Stages 2 and 3. There's also a free worksheet for you to download from our website and a number of suggested starter activities. 

But first, what is inferential reading, and why is it so important?

An essential reading skill
Inferences are the conclusions we draw based on what we already know and judgements we make based on given information. When reading inferentially, students use the information the text provides, combined with prior knowledge, to make assumptions about meanings which are not directly stated.

In a blog post on inferential reading for P@WSLeanne Hegarty says: 'Inference can be as simple as associating the pronoun "he" with a previously mentioned male person. Or, it can be as complex as understanding a subtle implicit message, conveyed through the choice of particular vocabulary by the writer and drawing on the reader’s own background knowledge.'

The ability to make inferences is important for reading comprehension, but also more widely when analysing and critiquing texts. Inferential reading is vital to understanding the aims of a writer and the impact of their work on its audience, which, in turn, are crucial to the study of literature  at GSCE and beyond.

How to teach inferential reading
So we've established the importance of inferential reading  but how do we teach it?

It's best to start early, in Key Stages 2 and 3. A session on inferential reading with pupils of that age group might progress as follows:

1. Introduce the notion of making inferences from text. You can do this through an example text or poem (such this one here); a brief, sentence level activity (such as ‘Cucumber Cues’ or ‘Simple Sentences’ – see 'Activities to introduce inferential reading' below); or a discussion on the inferences students make in everyday life.

2. Hand out the text or section of the text you will be working on. Give each student the activity sheet ‘Reading and discussing texts together’ - download this for free here (download begins straight away).

Before reading the text:
3. Encourage students to discuss their prior knowledge about the topic. They will need to think about their experiences, background knowledge, what they have heard and seen, and other books they have read, then record their ideas in box 1 on the worksheet.

4. Students make predictions about what they might learn from the text or what might happen in the text, filling these in box 2.

5. Students record any questions they have about the text in box 3.

Reading the text:
6. Ask students to read the passage as a whole without interruption.

After reading the text:
7. Have students review their written predictions about the text.

8. Ask students whether they needed to modify their ideas in light of the text, and how the new information changed or reshaped their prior knowledge. They write this down in box 4.

9. Students complete the activity with a summary of the text in box 5, filling in the most important facts from the text in chronological order.

Activities to introduce inferential reading

There are many fun and simple games and activities to introduce the concept of inferential reading. You can find a whole list of them in this article by Dale Pennell. One example of his is the game ‘Cucumber cues’. This is how you play it:

1. Write a list of sentences on the board. Replace one word in every sentence with the word ‘cucumber’. Examples include:

  • I like to eat peanut cucumber.
  • A dog has four cucumbers.
  • I clean my cucumber with a toothbrush.

2. Students work individually or in pairs to write out the sentences, changing cucumber to a word that makes better sense.

3. Students share their responses with the class and identify words that gave them clues to the word they substituted. Ask students to relate the clue word to their background experiences and explain how this background information helped them find an appropriate substitute word.

An alternative to this activity is ‘Simple sentences’. Give students a list of sentences to practise making inferences. Each sentence should contain two facts, which, when combined with prior knowledge and context, can give the students further information about the characters or situation in the sentence. Examples include:

  • Sue blew out the candles and opened her presents.
  • John went running out into the street without looking.
  • We bought tickets and some popcorn.

Roy van den Brink-Budgen explores ways teachers can develop the critical skill of inferential reading and the research behind it in our upcoming issue of Creative Teaching and Learning. Watch this space for more information!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Science fiction to science fact: Today's children will see invisibility cloaks, time travel and more

Scientists say Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility will
be available in real life by 2030!
British children believe many popular elements of science fiction may become science fact before the century is out – and it seems top scientists agree!

The Big Bang Fair UK compared results from a panel of top British scientists and a study of 11 to 16-year-olds, and found that both groups think invisibility cloaks (similar to the cloak used by Harry Potter) will be available before the end of the 21st century, with scientists setting the date for 2030 – just 15 years from now. 

Teleportation will come next, the panel of scientists claimed, becoming a regular feature of life by 2080. The polled children were just two years out on average, predicting that this would happen within 63 years.

Time travel was the one area where the youth panel got ahead of themselves. While children think that time travel will be possible by 2078, scientists believe it may take a little longer. 2100 was the date they set.

Paul Jackson, CEO of Engineering UK, said: "The amazing and seemingly impossible things young people see in films and television are acting as a stimulant for them to think about what they could be capable of doing in the future. Almost a fifth (19 per cent) of young people said they dream of becoming a lightsaber developer, and 22 per cent want to be a teleporting instructor. More than a quarter (27 per cent) even said they would consider a career as a time travel engineer, so we will need to think carefully about how we could provide useful careers advice for that 27 per cent!"

He added: "Although adults may be constrained by what we believe to be possible, the imagination and creativity of schoolchildren knows no bounds. This is so encouraging to hear, because ultimately it will be the younger generation who make these sci-fi dreams a reality – and it’s crucially important to spark their interest now to supply the next cohort of scientists and engineers that Britain desperately needs to continue this research."

The Big Bang Fair is the UK’s largest single celebration of science and engineering for young people. It will take place at the NEC, Birmingham, from 11-14 March 2015.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The trip that will change your life

Do you find yourself complaining about the photocopier jamming again? Or perhaps the appalling coffee in the staff room? Or the gridlock on the way into school?

We know that every school from the UK to Uganda has its problems and we would never belittle them. But we would like to invite you on a trip of a lifetime - a ten-day adventure to the rural primary schools Build Africa supports in Uganda.

It's a trip that will "touch the roots of your soul":

“As I scanned each classroom, the cramped, dingy conditions left me in a state of shock. Eighty six children, sardined onto wooden benches lined the room, and my mind began flashing up images of our spacious, vibrant classrooms with resources lining the perimeter of the walls. It was then that something happened that touched the roots of my soul.” Cara, a teacher (after visiting a Build Africa supported school in Uganda in 2014)

What's on offer

Build Africa’s ten-day trip to the rural primary schools it supports in Uganda will open your eyes and heart and change your life in all sorts of ways. And you will be able to make a huge difference to the Ugandan pupils and teachers you meet. Using your experience, knowledge and skills as a qualified teacher in the UK, you will inspire and be inspired by the attitude of pupils, staff and parents at Ugandan schools who operate with woefully inadequate resources but enormous enthusiasm.

Uganda in Africa - Click to enlarge
“I have seen parents taking real pride in their local school, particularly when they have come together to form their own schools, because their children would have had to walk over 15km to the nearest alternative. Fifty parents came to meet us to talk to us about their school. I would certainly like that kind of parental support at my UK school.”

There are so many benefits for you and the Ugandan schools you will visit. It’s a cliché, but it really is a win-win situation. You will be part of a group of like-minded, qualified UK teachers who will be there to share and enhance your experience. And our exceptional Build Africa Uganda team will accompany you throughout your trip and help you make the most of every opportunity to learn about this very different culture.

Making a difference

It is one thing to read about exposed and dilapidated classrooms crammed to the rafters with up to 150 pupils at a time, classrooms with no computers and not enough desks or text books, but it is a very different thing to experience it first-hand. It is something that will really hit home when you witness it for yourself, we can guarantee you that.

“As I stood in the shell of a brick-built classroom with the children sitting on the dirty floor, perched upon stones or having to stand at the back in order to see the handwritten lesson held up on the wall by a small piece of masking tape, I truly appreciated how incredibly lucky we are within our schools at home and just how much we take for granted.”

People often chat about ‘making a difference’ but never actually do anything about it. Well this is your chance to do more than just imagine what it would be like. It is an amazing opportunity to exchange ideas on teaching methods, to experience a completely different culture and witness the daily raft of challenges that Build Africa’s Ugandan schools face. Perhaps you will become an advocate for our work as a result. We certainly hope so.

A unique insight into another life

“At lunch time, the children whose parents have contributed towards it will eat a meal of maize and beans, but the majority of pupils in the school will forage amongst the mango trees for fruit and, failing success, go without food all day.”

You will be getting a unique insight into a very different world, but you will be surprised to find that in spite of all the obvious differences between the two countries (particularly in terms of resources), there are also many challenges in common. The long hours and heavy workload may be depressingly familiar, but that does mean that you will be able to share your experiences of these problems with the Ugandan teachers - like-minded professionals who are deal with the same day-to-day issues as you.

You will have helped improve the lives of schoolchildren in a desperately poor part of the world and that experience cannot fail to enrich you too. When you return home to your centrally-heated classroom with its internet access and a mere 30 pupils, you’ll probably still have gripes about your life as a teacher. Of course you will – you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. But having witnessed first-hand the challenges in our Ugandan schools, hopefully your perspective will have changed and the little things won’t grate quite so much.

Your help would be enormously appreciated and one thing you are guaranteed of is a warm welcome:

“The headteacher was incredibly welcoming and clearly very proud of her school and the education that her team were providing. The children giggled as we shared photos with them. There is a massive culture of music and we were subject to many beautiful welcome songs.”

Where do I sign up?!

The Build Africa Uganda Trip is self-funded, but by raising your own funds for the trip you not only help us to continue our vital programmes within Ugandan schools, but also those who sponsor you or help you raise funds for the trip will hear about and have an emotional investment in both your trip and our work.

Details of this once-in-a-lifetime trip are available on the Build Africa website, but if you have any further queries whatsoever, please contact the trip organiser, Deirdre Bruce-Brand on 01892 519619 or email and she will be happy to talk through any questions.

So what was it that touched the very roots of Cara’s soul – our teacher quoted right at the start of this article? We’ll let her finish the story: 

“In spite of all the deprivation, the deeply upsetting lack of resources and the 86 pupils crushed together in the shell of the classroom, the man teaching the class transmitted his love of learning to the children through his voice, facial expressions and hand gestures. Every child was engaged and then without warning, on a signal from their teacher, they turned to me and sang the most moving song of welcome. In the sea of little faces turned up towards me, I could see the light of hope in their eyes, but also something else, the fear … the fear of hunger … of a life of constant struggle, and I was moved to tears. I knew, I for one, would never be the same again and I was so glad I overcame my fears and came on the trip.”

So if you have a spirit of adventure… if you would want to escape the same old, same old… if you are ready for a profoundly rewarding experience that will change your life and the lives of those you meet, then please don’t hesitate. Get in touch with us and together we will get you started on the trip of your lifetime.

That staff room coffee will never taste the same again!

All images © Build Africa unless otherwise stated