@yallsop @roehamptonedu Festival of Computing 2016 Computational Thinking thoughts

Friday was both the final day of this year’s PGCE, and the Festival of Education, both taking place in/around the lawns of Grove House. Sadly this meant I only got to see half of each of them.

Teaching Computational Thinking through marble runs / Unplugged

I was very unsure how my morning session would go. I’ve spoken at dozens of conferences before, but this was the first public talk I’d given since the intense experience of a year of teacher-training. I had a small but perfectly formed audience of ten – all teachers, all currently teaching (gulp!). Some of the feedback:

  • “Best session of the conference”
  • “Everyone should have come to this”
  • “It’s a shame you could only give the talk once”

As conferences always do, the first sessions started late, so we were still finishing up when the next speaker arrived to give her talk in the same room. But some of the audience refused to leave! “You can’t start, we’re having too much fun” I think were the words :).

I made the deliberate decision to structure my talk more like a lesson than a traditional academic or industry “talk”. Not quite a three-part lesson, but I went for a provocative starter question which deliberately opened a can of worms (more below), a bit of contextualisation and theory, and then we adjourned to the back of the room to all build marble runs.


Leading question: describe Computational Thinking in layman’s terms…?

I had a few simpler yet still tricky ones, and finished up with this. What is Compuational Thinking? How do you describe it to a non-expert/non-practitioner? Children are more accepting of jargon and new concepts than many adults, but I was deliberately implying the extra question: how do we explain this to them?

My answer, of course, was to give the audience marbles, plastic marble runs, and a bunch of challenges and a lengthy Question and Answer session. All of it leading back to showing how Computational Thinking can be explained in generic, non-language-specific ways using the toys as an excellent prop.

This is far from the only way, of course. But after three years of doing this, it’s still the best I’ve found for anyone who’s not already an intermediate or better Programmer. (Pace Mr Hassabis and Ms Prime! Intriguingly the two (very smart) adults who got nothing from it, out of a thousand or more who’ve tried)

Informing my future practice

As some of you may know, I’ve technically been selling these marble runs since last year, to a handful of Primary schools. James and I have designed, tested, and manufactured them, charging only cost (nearly bankrupting ourselves in the process). That’s completely unsustainable, and I was resigned to running the business as a tiny loss-making thing that I would continue to bankroll for as long as I could, doing my best to earn a high enough salary elsewhere that I could afford this.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction from teachers at the conference has me reconsidering that. The simple fact is that if I’m to get this out to thousands of teachers I need millions of dollars of funding – unless I can find a less loss-making price, or a more effective revenue model, we’ll never be able to scale it up. But with my PGCE complete, I think this is the best thing I can try to do to help the largest number of teachers and students, so I’ll be focussing on it for the rest of this year.

…or as much as I can, around finding other sources of money to keep afloat :).

Thanks to Yasemin, Roehampton, et al

I’m not really of the caliber for speaking at this conference, so it was an honour to be included on the schedule. Overall, it seemed a very positive event and I hope it’ll continue s a regular, recurring thing, for a long time to come.

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