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#LEARN computing HTTCS teaching and learning Uncategorized

Two chances to win #htLEARNCS!

My new book “How to LEARN Computer Science” is out now, at Amazon and JohnCattEd, and you have a two chances to get hold of a free copy…

  1. Like and Retweet my tweet here or Like my Facebook post here or here, or my LinkedIn post here. This will enter you into the prize draw and SIX winners will receive a free copy.
  2. BOGOF! Send proof of purchase of my first book “How to Teach Computer Science” dated today or later, and I will send you a free copy of #htLEARNcs (limited to the first SIX applications).
Screenshot of Amazon web page showing book for sale "How to Learn Computer Science"
Book now available in Amazon and at the publisher John Catt Ed

I’m very excited about this book, and hope your students are too. It will be available soon on the Hachette store too, thanks to JC’s deal with them, and bulk discounts for your class will be possible. So why not get a copy for yourself now? The foreword is written by my good friends Craig Sargent and Dave Hillyard of Craig’n’Dave and I am very humbled to have had their support during the creation of the book, and their wringing endorsement on page 1.

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Thanks for your support!

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htLEARNcs book imminent, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

How to LEARN Computer Science is now in copy-editing. This means it will be ready for the new academic year, YAY, go me! I have taken all the good stuff from the first book (How to Teach Computer Science, available here) that is relevant to an audience of GCSE students themselves, and added lots of new content.

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Instead of pedagogy, the book contains a collection of solid study skills I have had success with over the years. You can see a sneak preview here.

Sneak preview of the opening chapter of htLEARNcs

Then the book follows the same format as the original HTTCS book, with one chapter per typical GCSE topic. But again, where HTTCS included pedagogy for effective teaching, htLEARNcs includes lots of bite-sized study advice, with suggested activities linked to the topic.

Sneak preview of the Data chapter of htLEARNcs

I have kept the new book as faithful to the old book as possible, so teachers can use HTTCS for their own benefit, while recommending (dare I say buying 🙂 ) htLEARNcs for their students.

Teachers can set a chapter of htLEARNcs for homework, or just one of the activities each week. A few copies in the classroom could be used as “stretch” activity resources, and aspirational parents can buy it for their children.

If you are grateful for my blog, please buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com/mraharrisoncs, thanks!

I’ll keep you posted on the progress towards publication. But it’s great to see this second book coming together! If you haven’t got hold of the first book yet, it’s still just £11.55 on Amazon at time of writing.

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#LEARN computing HTTCS

Stories, skills and superpowers

The launch of “How to LEARN Computer Science.”

The student book is being printed as we speak, and is available for pre-order on the John Catt website and on Amazon. The story of the book is told on my earlier blog post here.

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I am delighted to share that the book’s Foreword has been written by my good friends Craig’n’Dave, who have been very supportive throughout this project, and inside the book I very much recommend their products especially the course companion SmartRevise, not because they paid me (they haven’t!) but because I use it myself with great results.

The book is not a textbook nor a curriculum primer, but hopefully a riveting read for ambitious students, illuminating the topic and suggesting some stretching activities.  I have taken all the good stuff from the first book (How to Teach Computer Science, available here) that is relevant to an audience of GCSE students themselves, and added lots of new content.

Here are some highlights, I’m proud of how it turned out, see for yourself from these extracts, and pre-order at the links above.

Screenshot from PDF of the book, including the heading "Question It" and the question "Why are there so many programming languages" and 5 other questions.
Extract from Chapter 4 of “How to Learn Computer Science” available for pre-order now.
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Screenshot from LEARN book, showing some activities for students including "research real-life attacks mentioned above" and six other tasks.
Extract from Chapter 10 of htLEARNCs
Screenshot from book showing a "hinterland" story entitled "Inside the black box" about AI in hospitals, and subsequent "fertile question" prompt: "Is AI a force for good?"
Extract from Chapter 11 “Issues and Impacts” showing a “hinterland” story and subsequent “fertile question” prompt.

Currently the book is scheduled for availability on 9th Sep and costs just £12. I asked the publisher to keep the book affordable for students, and I’m glad that’s been possible. There may be bulk discounts available in time, I’ll update you on this blog if that happens.

Don’t forget, this book is the student companion to my original “How to Teach Computer Science” also available from John Catt, Amazon and all good online sellers, links available from the main page of this blog, so why not order both ready for the new school year?

If you are grateful for my work on this blog and the books I have written (remember my royalty is less than a quid of the cover price!) then feel free to show your gratitude here. Thanks!

If you are grateful for my blog, please buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com/mraharrisoncs, thanks!
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Prize Draw winners

The winners of a free copy of “How to Teach Computer Science” are:

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Please direct message/private message me on Twitter or Facebook or email alanjharrison@bcs.org with your address to claim your book!

If you were unsuccessful this time, make sure you follow me on Twitter for future promotions, or buy a copy now for under £15! If you won, consider helping me out with a coffee. Thanks!

If you are grateful for my blog, please buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com/mraharrisoncs, thanks!
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Slide into summer with a free book…

It’s coming… that time we all catch up with family and friends, have a well-earned break, and put our feet up with a brew and a book. That book could be on me, if you enter my prize draw for a copy of “How to Teach Computer Science” Simply reblog this blog, RT my tweet here, or Like this post on Facebook to enter the prize draw. Three winners will get a copy in the post after the competition closes at Noon on Sunday 24th July. Thank you for spreading the word!

BREAKING NEWS: How to LEARN computer science, the ambitious student’s guide to studying computer science, will be out this September!

Book covers, How to Teach Computer Science and How to Learn Computer Science
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Stop expiring your passwords.

The title says it all, please for the love of children, turn off password expiry on your students’ accounts. Here’s why…

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I was an Information Security (Infosec) consultant before I was a teacher. The prevailing wisdom up in the 20th century was that passwords should expire regularly, so that any compromised password quickly became useless. The password-thief would lose access once the rightful owner changed their password. This made sense at the time, most users had only one or at most a handful of passwords. They could cope with changing them once a quarter or so. That was then.

Forward to 2022 and we all have dozens, even hundreds of passwords. If they all expired quarterly, not a day would go by without one changing. But they don’t. We have access to password keepers, and most browsers offer to save passwords in an encrypted database. Our sensitive data is kept behind two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA) processes. We don’t have to remember a password that changes every 90 days or less. So why do it to the pupils?

I teach Year 7 upward, that’s aged 11 plus. Some of the pupils I teach arrive in with a reading age of 8 or less. My colleagues in upper primary who begin teaching pupils to use Office or Google Docs are teaching pupils with a reading age of 5 or 6. This is before we consider SEND needs such as visual impairment, motor control issues and ADHD to name but a few that are relevant here. So you can imagine the challenges they face. When password expiry came around, the conversations often went like this:

  • Ah, your password has expired. Right let me help…<sigh>
  • In those two boxes you have to type a new password.
  • No it can’t be the old one again. Oh, you already tried that? Right well now you have to type in your old password again.
  • No, I know I said you needed to type a new password but that comes next, first you need to type your old one in again, or it won’t let you type the new one.
  • Now, the new password needs to be at least 8 characters long, include a capital and a number, and be different to all your old ones.
  • If didn’t work again? Did you follow the rules? Ah, I see you didn’t use a capital, you need to press Shift for that, remember?
  • Right, maybe you didn’t type it exactly the same in both boxes.
  • No you’ll have to type your old password correctly again to have another attempt at choosing a new one.
  • OK so we’re ready to choose a new password again, can you remember the rules?
  • No those two passwords are not the same length, I can see from the length of the asterisk strings. Can you go back and do it again?
  • Oops, you hit Enter and it’s asking for old password again. Just do that first then try to get the new password the same twice this time.
  • Right two passwords the same length, are you sure they are the same?
  • Oh dear it’s still rejecting the new password. Did I mention it cannot include your name? You included your name? We can’t do that.
  • Yes, you need to type your old password again to try again.
  • One capital, at least eight characters, and a number.
  • Yes, they look the same length, are we ready to go?
  • Great job! you changed your password. Now write a hint in your planner, something to remind you what the password was, but not the whole thing, OK?
  • <writes hint>
  • <1 week later>
  • You can’t remember your password? Does the hint not help? OK then I’ll reset it. You’ll need to choose a new one, it will need to be at least 8 characters long, include a capital and a number, and be different to all your old ones….

repeat for at least half of every Year 7 class for half of the year and more than a handful of students every week, back when passwords expired in my school. But that was then…

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I successfully used my prior experience as an Infosec (Cybersecurity) consultant to persuade my IT team to turn off password expiry. Because it’s not necessary on student accounts, and strongly discouraged on staff accounts too. Who says? The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). In an advisory article entitled “Password policy: updating your approach”, the UK government’s dedicated Cybersecurity unit wrote this:

Snip from the NCSC website (full text posted below this image in the blog).
NCSC Article “Password policy: updating your approach”

“Forcing password expiry carries no real benefits because:

  • the user is likely to choose new passwords that are only minor variations of the old
  • stolen passwords are generally exploited immediately
  • resetting the password gives you no information about whether a compromise has occurred
  • an attacker with access to the account will probably also receive the request to reset the password
  • if compromised via insecure storage, the attacker will be able to find the new password in the same place”

I could add other reasons to the above, regular password expiry causes users to write down their passwords, or just forget them. Now they no longer expire I don’t have the torturous “password expired” lessons and pupils no longer use “I forgot my password” as an excuse for missed homework. I gave them some skills to choose a strong, memorable password and introduced detentions for forgotten passwords after a while, as explained on this blog post. And nothing terrible has happened.

Please. Stop expiring your passwords.

My book “How to Teach Computer Science” is available for just £15 or less, see httcs.online for details. Tweet me @mraharrisoncs with comments.

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computing teaching and learning

htLEARNcs. OUT THIS SEPTEMBER.

Cover Reveal…

How to LEARN Computer Science is coming soon. Publication date is set for September 1st. htLEARNcs contains all the good stuff from the first book (How to Teach Computer Science, available here) that is relevant to an audience of GCSE students themselves, and I’ve added lots of new content. You can read all about the content on my previous blog here.

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As I said earlier, I have kept the new book as faithful to the old book as possible, so teachers can use HTTCS for their own benefit, while recommending (dare I say buying 🙂 ) htLEARNcs for their students.

Teachers can set a chapter of htLEARNcs for homework, or just one of the activities each week. A few copies in the classroom could be used as “stretch” activity resources, and aspirational parents can buy it for their children.

If you are grateful for my blog, please buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com/mraharrisoncs, thanks!

I’ll keep you posted on the progress towards publication. But it’s great to see this second book coming together! If you haven’t got hold of the first book yet, it’s still just £11.55 on Amazon at time of writing.

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“It’s a duck!, obviously”.

I work at this youth club where the children turn phones off and put them away at the start of the club session, and don’t turn them back on again until they leave. I love how this means they are present, engaging with others: their peers and the club leaders, for the duration of the session.

“It’s a duck, obviously!” I’m looking over the shoulder of a 14 year old girl. There are a group of them sitting around a picnic table. They are playing Pictionary, without the board game. Just choosing things to draw for others to guess, on an A4 sketch pad.

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There is a group of mostly boys playing basketball and another group playing football. I go in goal for a minute. I make a show of diving but I’m rubbish. I shoot a basket. It drops short of the hoop. I’m rubbish at that too but the boys don’t mind: “good job you’re good at computers, Sir!” one of them jokes.

In a moment we will go inside and I’ll teach two dozen of them to write computer programs. They will find it easier to concentrate on my instruction because they don’t have the distraction of pinging mobiles: the collected might of YouTube and TikTok, with their designed-in, completely a feature-not-a-bug, industrial strength addictive charms.

By the time they get their phones out again they will have spent six hours off them. They’ve had a long break from their social media, free of the need to check “Likes” and get dopamine hits from repeated sub-15-second trending videos. UK’s Mind charity recommends finding a balance between online and offline life for the benefit of mental health. The kids that come to this youth club get 30 hours per week offline, giving them time for really positive, face-to-face interactions with their peers and teachers.

Oops, the cat is out of the bag. Of course I’m not a youth club worker, I am a teacher. The youth club is my school. But the rest is true, the game of Pictionary and the basketball and football all happened, and is typical fare at break and lunch.

So. Does your school give your kids a solid 6-hour phone break every day? If not, why not?

Buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com/mraharrisoncs or buy my book at httcs.online

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general

The curse of knowledge and the giant Skinner box

This piece in the Guardian last month caused a stir in Education social media.

Perhaps spending more time learning how we “do” science – what’s called the scientific method – is more valuable than simply “knowing” stuff.

Jim Al-Khalili in The Guardian

Jim Al-Khalili is undoubtedly an accomplished scientist and communicator, and I’ve enjoyed his books and TV appearances. But his article is misguided, and ironically shows a lack of scientific method in his thought process. Most notably he doesn’t seem to have discussed his ideas with anyone who currently works in education.

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A science teacher would have quickly confirmed that we do indeed teach the scientific method in schools. I could have told him that we also teach research skills, spotting fake news and judging the trustworthiness of sources from various angles in computing and many other subjects. Indeed, here is part of the national curriculum for computing, at Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11):

– use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and be discerning in evaluating digital content
– select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information

DfE – Computing Programmes of Study, KS2 – my emphases

What’s more concerning though, is Al-Khalili’s rejection of “facts” and “knowledge”:

Why spend so much of the school science curriculum loading up children’s brains with facts about the world that they can just look up anyway? Wouldn’t it be more useful teaching them how to find reliable scientific knowledge – which these days inevitably means online rather than in books – and how to assess and critically analyse and absorb that knowledge when needed?

Jim Al-Khalili, ibid

Unfortunately, Jim appears to have succumbed to the “curse of knowlege“, in short, the failure to see a domain as a novice, and understand their needs. Jim forgets that he himself learned a vast amount of knowlege (those pesky “facts”) about science before he was able to find out new facts about the world. His huge and complicated mental schema, built up over decades of study, opened up new discoveries to him that the novice is simply unable to see, as they do not have the decades of learning behind them.

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Children are not small adults, when it comes to learning. At school they need to learn as much as possible of the knowledge that has been acquired by humanity before. This store of knowledge will then enable them to think critically about the world, make sense of new experiences and tackle advanced learning. Without this base level of facts they can not integrate new ideas, and learn new skills that require domain-level knowledge. We cannot think critically about a domain we know little about.

There’s a nice clip of Barak Rosenshine explaining the importance of knowledge that did the rounds last year, and you can find it in this post by Greg Ashman. Rosenshine gave the example of expertise in a specific branch of medicine not being a skill that is transferrable to other branches of medicine. As Greg put it:

Rather than possessing general purpose higher-order thinking skills, cardiology professors know a lot about cardiology. When asked to solve endocrinology problems, they stumble.

Ashman – What even is a domain?

David Didau goes as far as to say “we cannot teach skills, only knowledge” here. Didau even gives us a clue in this blog just how Al-Khalili came to his fallacious position:

Eventually, we may start to believe the skill which for us has become so natural and straightforward can be taught to others as a complete edifice. […] The idea that skill can be taught without the hard work of teaching all the requisite knowledge is an illusion born from the curse of knowledge.

Didau – Skill = knowledge + practice

The curse of knowledge is a terrible thing. How often have you been to a talk, lecture or presentation and the speaker has assumed knowledge you don’t posess? We all do it, I refer to computational thinking as “CT” when talking to computing teachers but have been guilty of failing to explain the abbreviation at times. My own children’s school gave a talk on GCSE options that referred to the modern foreign languages department as “MFL” for 45 minutes before a parent asked what it meant.

Al-Khalili makes the case for a scientifically literate society being better able to make sense of the world, but his boldest claim comes later in the piece, that scientific literacy can make the world kinder:

Adopting the scientific method could help us all become more tolerant and less polarised in our views – to disagree without being disagreeable – particularly online. 

Al-Khalili, ibid

Sadly, this is naive because it assumes good faith on the part of online participants and a willingness to seek truth and reject our biases. Cognitive bias is the enemy of critical thinking, even those of us that claim to be critical thinkers are not immune from it, and that’s before we bring in those that are not interested in truth, or not interested in challenging their own biases and conceptions.

And we must understand the sheer power and range of these biases, studies have shown repeatedly that confirmation bias, anchoring bias and the halo effect are extremely powerful, and lets not forget that the filter bubble imposed around us by the algorithms that drive our social media feeds creates the perfect conditions for the false consensus and bandwagon effects. These biases are stronger than we know. Indeed Jaron Lanier likens social media to a “Skinner box”, after the behaviourist who proved that we could be conditioned to act in a certain way through external stimuli. Pinning our hopes on critical thinking is misguided when large swathes of the media we consume is curated deliberately to misguide and feed our biases.

ko-fi.com/mraharrisoncs

In short, Al-Khalili’s blog is well-meaning but misguided. Educators do indeed teach the scientific model. But our pupils are not researchers. They need knowledge to become experts, and only then can they discover new knowledge. And critical thinking is important, but as a defence against the spreading of “toxic opinions” and “disinformation” it is no match for a trillion-dollar manipulation machine: the giant Skinner box that is the modern internet. Fixing that is a whole other ball game. I recommend you start with this TED talk from Jaron Lanier, but that’s a blog for another day.

Read more about the impacts of Computer Science including algorithmic bias and the power of big tech in my book:

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“Educated” – a book review.

“Every human should read this” – first posted on Goodreads. Links below.

Educated by Tara Westover

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book will stay with me for a long time. SPOILERS AHEAD and TW for DOMESTIC ABUSE.

I am a teacher in the UK and was going to open my first Goodreads review in years with something like “every teacher should read this book” because so much is about the power of education to transform a damaged soul. Then it occurred to me that “every parent should read this book” because so much of the book is about (bad) parenting. Then I pondered some more and thought “every lawmaker should read this book” because the Westover children were so badly let down by everyone in authority who had the capacity to help them. Then I realized that despite all the pain and suffering Tara recounts so eloquently, it’s a story of redemption, of recovery from domestic abuse and will therefore be a beacon of hope for anyone undergoing struggle. So after much consideration, my opening statement has become:

Every human should read this.

Did I say there were spoilers? You have been warned. Also this is another trigger warning for references to domestic violence.

I listened to the audio book, in ten hours over a few weeks. The first half of the book recounts Tara’s disturbing childhood as the youngest of seven children of a radical Mormon “survivalist” who believed “the abomination” was coming and spent most evenings terrifying the children with Old Testament verses about the end of the world. The parents denied Tara any schooling or healthcare, forced her to work in the insanely dangerous family junkyard and turned a blind eye to Tara’s brother Shawn’s cruelty and violence. (Later we learn that older sister Audrey had also been a victim of Shawn’s violent bullying, and that when Shawn married a girl ten years his junior, he manipulated and bullied her too).

The house was filthy, Tara had no friends or social life, and few books. Her father refused her requests to go to school and as brother Shawn got older the violence became more serious. Tara’s Father’s reckless attitude to safety extended to driving – they stayed with Grandma in Arizona when the Idaho winter closed in – and twice the deathtrap family car, without seatbelts, crashed on the way back, not once but twice. The first time, brother Luke was forced to drive through the night until he fell asleep at the wheel, crashing into a telegraph pole and causing a brain injury to Tara’s mother, but sickeningly she was not taken to hospital (Tara’s mother was a “herbalist” and they shunned modern medicine, Father claiming it was a “tool of the illuminati”). Tara’s father was driving during the second accident: way too fast on icy roads claiming “I’m not driving faster than the angels can fly!” before pitching the van into a field. The father’s belief in divine protection seemed to absolve him from any responsibility to protect his children, and this would be an infuriating theme throughout the book.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how long ago this happened? Surely this is frontier stuff, 19th century America when it was every family for themselves? No, Tara was born in 1986 in the richest country in the world. That the children were forced to endure such pain and terror in modern times is unconscionable, and it will make your blood boil. But redemption will come in part two, of sorts…

Tara found solace in books. Her kind brother Tyler taught her to read, and she studied voraciously after that. Somehow, having not attended school at all, she passed the entrance exam for Brigham Young University, graduating in 2008. Her tutor recommended her for Cambridge and she gained a Masters and, eventually, against all odds, a PhD in 2014.

The book is expertly written, treading that fine line between recounting sufficient detail of horrific acts that we can understand and empathise, but without so much horror that we are repelled. We hear her thoughts, Tara’s emotional trauma comes across painfully well, and we completely and wholeheartedly empathise with her. We are in her corner for the entire book and feel like cheering when success comes her way.

The book has left its mark on the teacher in me. It’s impossible to go to work and see the children in front of me and not wonder… is there a Tara among you? Is your home life wracked with misery? Do you have a protector at home, or an abuser?

Before reading this book I already believed in the power of education to change lives, it’s why I am a teacher after all. But I would not have believed, if you had told me, that someone could live seventeen years without any formal education, and then gain a doctorate within ten years. Let alone that someone be the victim of seventeen years of child neglect and physical and emotional abuse.

It is on this that I must dwell a moment because I should not have had to write that last sentence. I would like to think that here in the UK our systems are tighter, that “homeschooling” means just that, we allow precious little of it in the first place, and we monitor homeschooled children closely. Our social services, stretched though they are, often (but don’t always) pick up child neglect. But we must never take this for granted, another Tara is possible anywhere if we all look away, if we trust a “godly” father and don’t listen to the child.

Tara talks passionately in the book about moral philosophers, Hume and Mill and it’s fabulous to sit alongside her as she discovers feminism for the first time aged seventeen, and is enraptured with Wollstonecraft and Greer. We feel her deep shame as she finds out for the first time in the college library why the lecture theatre had gone deathly, glaringly silent, as she earnestly asked in class, “Sir what’s this word here ‘holocaust’?”

Tara writes “Educated” like a PhD of moral philosophy, she examines her innermost feelings and philosophises about them, she analyses her struggle for emotional stability through the lens of first wave feminism and the works of John Stuart Mill. That she eventually has to disown her family is sadly inevitable, especially as they come to Harvard (where Tara was a visiting fellow between first degree and Masters) to offer “a priests blessing” to “save Tara from Satan” (which is really a demand that Tara stops telling the truth about her violent brother). I am aware the family have disputed Tara’s account, but crucially not the part about Shawn’s cruelty and violence.

The book is maddening and uplifting by turns. It’s not an easy read by any means. But it was well worth it. Hopefully it’s given Idahoans pause: that seven children living amongst them could be so neglected and abused. It’s given me fresh desire to be a good teacher, a powerful advocate for my students, and a good father. And a little part of me feels like somehow, travelling this highway of heartache and hope in lockstep with Tara, I gained inspiration, insight, and a new friend.



View all my reviews