coaching general leadership teaching and learning

Out of Control.

Teaching is hard. But not for the obvious reasons, those that are well-known to novices and non-teachers like long hours, excessive planning and marking, dealing with behaviour that detract from its many joys such as seeing young people grow, develop, experience “lightbulb moments” of realisation.

Teaching’s hard because we always have a nagging feeling there is something more important we should be doing, and usually there is, but we can’t get to it because of all the planning, marking and behaviour management. We know there is higher-value work, and work that would be more enjoyable or fulfilling such as really thinking deeply about curriculum or planning a bespoke lesson based on serious analysis of some assessed work. Making those positive calls home you always promised you would do, or properly watching some training videos that improve your pedagogy, observing other teachers or being coached and putting into practice everything you learned.

But we rarely get time for any of this. As teachers we are constantly living a fiction: that we will eventually get time for the good stuff. Every single week, we fool ourselves that “next week will be less busy”…

Sadly this nagging feeling of rummaging around in the weeds and finding occasional sparkly gems, but wishing you could rise above it all and live in the sunlight is what eventually causes burnout: unmanageable stress, anxiety or other mental health issues, and then good people leave the profession.

Studies show that autonomy is important in job satisfaction:

Teachers’ perceived influence over their professional development goal setting is the area most associated with higher job satisfaction and a greater intention to stay in teaching. The average teacher reports a lower level of autonomy compared to similar professionals.

NFER Research, link

Last year the UK’s social research app TeacherTapp reported that only 1 in 3 Primary teachers reported having enough autonomy. And the TES reported in 2020, pre-pandemic, that teachers rank second-lowest (just above healthcare professionals) out of 11 professions for autonomy.

Which is a round-about way of saying: I understand why a colleague left this note on my laptop last September, why I am not bitter about it, and why it made me reflect so deeply on my own autonomy.

A yellow post-it note sits on a laptop keyboard with the words "There is a pencil missing" and a sad face emoji written on in pencil.

I had been covering a lesson in his classroom, and realised I was on playground duty immediately afterwards, so I collected in the pencils, tidied up as best I could in 30 seconds and ran out to do my duty. Just 25 minutes later I returned to gather my things to find this accusing note. Of course I was cross at first: I’d not stopped all day at this point, lost a “free” to a difficult cover and not yet had my lunch, and I thought it was a bit unnecessary: could he not be a bit more understanding? Nobody really wants to cover lessons but we know it’s part of the job and we do our best to look after our colleagues’ classrooms, but nobody’s perfect (don’t get me started on the mess my Computing classroom has been left in previously).

But then I remembered the importance of autonomy, and how lacking in it most teachers are. I remembered this scene about autonomy from “You’ve Got Mail” (which is worth watching just for the banging Cranberries track “Dreams” playing as Joe enters the coffee shop…)

The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.

Nora Ephron’s script for “You’ve Got Mail”, Starbucks scene, Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox speaking.

My pencil-counting colleague was “doing a Starbucks”. In a job severely lacking in autonomy, one thing he can control (most days) is the equipment in his classroom. He can count out the pencils and count them back in. I’m sure there are many other aspects of his job he has control over, but just maybe, returning to find a box of pencils with a gap where an HB should be was the last straw that day. I forgave him but the incident sparked reflection.

Possibly the pencil-missing-post-it cover lesson acted as my toothpick instructions moment. Douglas Adams’ marine biologist character “Wonko the Sane” retired to a house in California he called “Outside the Asylum” upon reading instructions on a pack of toothpicks…

‘It seemed to me,’ said Wonko the Sane, ‘that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.’

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

It’s certainly true that I handed my notice in four weeks later. What my post-it-author colleague felt that day I’ll never know, I simply dropped off a couple of similar pencils on his vacant desk at the end of the day and we never spoke about it. (Sure, I wrote and deleted several emails, but never sent them, which I was glad about soon after).

So if you’re in a position of power in school, and you wish to improve well-being, maybe stop doing “surface-level” things like cake in the staffroom or yoga sessions (and do not make any “well-being” sessions mandatory). Deliver on autonomy, which in turn means cutting things out of the calendar to make room for middle-leaders to do high-value stuff. Stop mandating lesson structures and slide layouts (but do share good practice around this that others can learn from). Ask your staff what they think, they are all graduate professionals after all, let them bring themselves into the job.

And just maybe, with more autonomy, teachers won’t feel the need to write passive-aggressive notes to colleagues, or feel the need to leave, and go live Outside the Asylum. 😎

If you like this blog, my books are available at the home page here. Or…

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computing HTTCS programming teaching and learning

Bitesize PCK sessions.

Tweet from @ComputingHubFT

Coming soon from me, three short, online sessions focussing on some really powerful techniques you can use in the computing classroom, on behalf of TeachComputing, Cheshire and the Wirral hub.

Mon 27 March, 4-5pm online:
Storytelling and analogy.

In his book Why don’t students like school? Daniel T Willingham says stories are treated as preferential information, they help with retention. Learn how to bring stories and analogy into your computing teaching to improve retention. Book here: CA303 F79

Cross-topic teaching…

Learners understand a  subject much better if the links between concepts are made explicit, and they are encouraged to make their own links either within the subject or across the curriculum. We discover some links that you can make, and activities that make these links explicit.

Wed 29 March, 4-5pm online: Cross-topic and synoptic teaching:

Book here CA303 F80

Thu 30 March 4-5pm, online: Misconceptions:

Misconceptions can seriously hinder learners’ progress, and studies have shown that teachers who are aware of common misconceptions and actively seek to address them are more effective. Join us to become more misconception-aware.
Book here: CA303 F78

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AI computing general teaching and learning tech

ChatGPT will change everything. No, not like that.

A lot of column-inches and a bazillion frantic tweets have been bashed out recently about the AI tool ChatGPT: the public, text interface to a Large Language Model (LLM) created by the OpenAI consortium. Originally a not-for-profit body which boasted Elon Musk as one of its original investors, OpenAI is now unashamedly for-profit and in November 2022 launched ChatGPT, a language model built on GPT3, the third iteration of their “generative, pre-trained transformer” software. This tool can process natural language text and respond with natural-sounding text back. It also remembers conversations, hence the “chat” element, and this is what makes it more powerful than previous iterations: you can refine your query over several inputs to get better results.


AI services like ChatGPT join a long line of technologies to have been described as both “dangerous”, downsides from its use as a class cheat’s superpower, to a phishing and identity fraud weapon. it’s “the end of assessment as we know it’ because “many of the problems we set in secondary school can now be solved by apps… It is not a good sign that we still teach and test mathematical material in such a routine way that free off-the-shelf systems like these can handle lots of it with ease’ – economist Daniel Susskind in his book A World Without Work.

Image taken from Washington Post website. Shows a chatbot conversation. First speech bubble says "Rephrase: Laura is you in Wednesday - got pics for you - ben" and chatbot speech bubble shows a well-formatted, semi-formal letter style message that begins "Dear Laura, Hope you're doing well. I wanted to check if you'll be in on Wednesday as I have some photos... Best Regards, Ben".

But we’ve been here before. The internet was going to spell the end of academic assessment in the 90s. In truth it didn’t change much, except for democratising information so you didn’t need to be in school to learn. If we’re honest with ourselves, outside of controlled conditions such as the exam hall, there are a myriad ways to cheat already: copying from others, searching online or using an online service to do your homework for you, sometimes called an essay mill. If a piece of work is important (such as assessed coursework or “controlled assessment” work) then the teacher should already have some skill in plagiarism-checking. Online services such as Turnitin are widely used, but I’ve always found simply asking a student to explain their work, called a “viva voce” interview in academia, does the trick. You may not need to do this with 100% of submissions, just a 10% check might be sufficient to deter serious plagiarism.

And if you absolutely must have confidence the submission is the students own work, then conduct a test in controlled conditions with no devices allowed. But only a small number of pieces of work (often just a summative test of required knowledge to progress to the next stage, e.g. the GCSE’s and A-levels in the UK or the college-entrance-assisting AP tests in the US, and the final exams of a degree course) over a student’s lifetime should require this level of scrutiny. Everything else should be treated as formative and afforded a lesser degree of validity and therefore require less strict control.

Most of my students work is either self- or peer-assessed. A mixture of online self-assessment using platforms like Quizlet (most subjects) or SmartRevise (Computing and Business only at the moment) get the bulk of the feedback done cost-free, and the rest is largely done by the students with lots of guidance from me. I’m glad the UK never adopted the American high-school system of grade-point average (GPA) scoring, not least because it penalises poor early performance which is unfair to immigrants and those with health issues, and is linked with self-esteem issues, but because it makes every piece of work high-stakes and high-cost to the teacher. When both teacher and student are stretched to the max by tests every semester, there is no space to relax and enjoy the journey. And pity the student who gets a C during the grief of a bereavement which prevents them getting the required GPA for their college of choice no matter what they do next. (If you’re in the UK, thinking “glad we don’t have the GPA system here”, count how many controlled tests and data drops you must do each year, and ponder a moment).


Let’s remember the purpose of assessing work. All assessment is a surrogate for what we want to know: what is in their heads. Assessment is not an end in itself, the mark should reflect some measure of achievement that helps both teacher and student understand how to make progress. Let’s not forget that what we want to achieve is an improvement in learning, what’s in their head when they leave school, not what they wrote in a paper when they were eleven or fifteen. As Tom Sherrington writes:

If testing is going to have an effect on the learning process, it needs to have an outcome that will help students to develop a sense of themselves as learners and an awareness of what else there is left to learn. 

Tom Sherrington’s TeacherHead blog, link

As Daisy Christodoulou writes, the struggle, not the end product, is the point:

If a student struggles for an hour over an extended piece of writing and then finds that a computer has surpassed it in seconds, it is entirely possible they will feel demotivated. What they need to hear from adults is don’t worry, your work is of value, you’re on a journey and you are developing your own writing skills. 

Daisy Christodoulou’s No More Marking blog, link

Design your assessments so they create actionable feedback, not just test scores. Furnish the students with marking rubrics ahead of the assignment, and get them to mark themselves against the rubrics before handing in. If they’re using ChatGPT at home to write essays, they might be short-circuiting part of the process, so have the class critique each-others essays in class afterwards. Create model answers or “what a good one looks like” WAGOLLs they can mark themselves against, or choose a student’s answer that is high quality and work with the class to determine what makes it so. Joe Kirby’s seminal 2015 blog post “Marking is a Hornet, Feedback is a Butterfly” is still my go-to article for in-class feedback ideas that can be re-purposed in the ChatGPT age, even to make the most of so-called “plagiarised” work.

Back to ChatGPT and the “plagiarism panic”. Too often we forget the upsides of a new technology in all the swirling panic about its dangers. For LLMs like ChatGPT these include levelling the playing-field for people with disabilities or assisting people for whom English is an additional language. Make sure your EAL students have access to it and know how to use it. Discuss with your SENCO how students might use it to overcome learning difficulties like dyslexia and dyspraxia. As this article explains, it’s already helping a landscaper with low literacy write professional-sounding emails to customers (see image above), and writing assertive letters to a landlord on behalf of a shy tenant regarding a water leak (the leak was fixed in 3 days). We demonise this technology at our peril.

And with any luck, ChatGPT might bring down the GPA system and its pale imitations in the UK, with all the inequities those systems perpetuate. Which can’t be a bad thing.

If you enjoy my blog, why not buy me a coffee? And I talk much more about AI in the context of the Computer Science GCSE in my book.

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#LEARN computing general HTTCS programming teaching and learning

I Love Computing 2023

Updated with slide PDFs!

Last Saturday, 25th February I spoke at “I Love Computing 2023” a FREE Festival of Computing CPD in London, details at

I was honoured to be among some of the biggest names in Computing education today, including Jane Waite, Sue Sentance, Miles Berry, Paul Curzon, Phil Bagge and Elli Narewska.

My two talks were on the following (after the ad break…) NOW WITH PDF LINKS TO THE CONTENT.

The Computing Ofsted Research Review and preparing for a Deep Dive

Understand what OFSTED are looking for. What are declarative and procedural knowledge anyway? How do I deliver the National Curriculum at KS4 if they don’t all take the subject? Alan served on the working group that created the Ofsted Research Review and has interviewed successful OFSTED Deep Dive recipients. Attend this talk to help prepare for OFSTED and be relaxed about their next visit. UPDATE – PDF available to download below.

Beyond Mnemonics – teaching for mastery through PCK – a GCSE Computer Science booster

Do you feel you are teaching for “surface learning”? Are you using tricks and schemes such as mnemonics to get them through the exams, and would rather teach for mastery but don’t know how? Alan’s book “How to Teach Computer Science” is all about the hinterland, the background knowledge that illuminates the subject and helps you teach it with confidence, and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) – the “how to teach” knowledge that helps you succeed. Alan will explain why this “hinterland” is important and what PCK is and how to acquire it, and how to use both for mastery learning. UPDATE: PDF available to download below:

Offers and freebies

All attendees go into the prize draw for a copy of my book, and there are other, far more desirable prizes available too! At the event I will also reveal a discount code for 30% off either of my books, generously donated by the publisher John Catt Educational (part of Hachette). Update – read my PDFs for the code, available for one more week!

Video recordings of my talks from last year’s online conference are saved here, where I spoke on the “hinterland” and on demystifying computer networks, and if you enjoy those, I hope to see you in Tottenham this Saturday.

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computing programming teaching and learning

Block Model

Learning programming has several challenges:

  • It is concept-rich, leading to cognitive overload
  • It balances comprehension with coding experience
  • It demands persistence and resilience
  • Learners need a secure mental model of computation


If you haven’t done so already, you should study the “PRIMM” model of programming instruction, which suggests five stages of interacting with new code: Predict, Run, Investigate, Modify, Make. You can read more about PRIMM in the Teach Computing quick read at and on the blog

The block model

During the “I” phase of PRIMM, while investigating the code, students should be encouraged to ask questions about it to deepen their understanding. You can prompt them with questions such as:

  • What would happen if you swap lines 2 and 3?
  • What would happen if you give it input of ___?
  • What if you change the symbol on line 5 from > to < ?
  • Line 5 shows a condition-controlled loop, why do we call it this?
  • What will make the loop end?

We can check we are encouraging valuable thought across the whole range of programming skills using an approach called the “block model”. Devised by Carsten Schulte in 2008, the block model has a grid with two axes, one showing the size of the programming element under consideration, and the other the distinction between the structure, execution and function of the program:

If we map our questions and activities onto the block model, we can then identify any gaps. Adding more tasks in those gaps will ensure that we cover the whole grid. In this way we ensure students are thinking hard about the full range of skills required to thoroughly understand a program.

Find out more

Visit to find out more about fostering program comprehension, or read the other principles at And subscribe to Hello World to read much more about computing pedagogy every two months:

The block model is also explained in “Computer Science Education” edited by Sue Sentance and the new version is available now for around £25 here I summarise this principle and many other programming pedagogies in my book “How to Teach Computer Science” available for under £15 here:

computing physical teaching and learning tech

Physical Computing Intro

Physical Computing provides engaging, relevant, and inclusive learning experiences and helps develop programming skills while being creative and collaborative. Code makes something happen in the real-world, not just on a screen. Learners (particularly girls) find physical computing engaging.

Two Year 9 girls are, sitting near a wooden rectangular arena containing a BitBot microbit buggy. They are in a classroom. One is smiling while wears a facemask but is making "jazz hands"!
The Bit:Bot buggy allows code to make something happen.

Physical computing devices take some time to set up, and can add complexity and behaviour challenges to a lesson, so take some time to think through these before using them in class.

Getting Started

  • Start small. Focus on a small cohort, maybe an after-school club, until you get up to speed.
  • Use the training and support available, there are physical computing courses on and help is available from your hub
  • Choose a device and activity based on context, setting and need.

There are five main categories of device, and the most common are listed below:

Close up of a Crumble - a small white circuit board - with crocodile clips connecting it to a Sparkle - a smaller board with a neopixel LED on it. The LED is lit up red.
Crumble is an “Embedded Board”
  1. Packaged Electronics such as “Snap Circuits” – these require a lot of electronics knowledge and are best suited to DT projects.
  2. Packaged programmable products: Sphero, Bee-Bot, Lego WeDo/Mindstorms and VEX are simple to set up and get you straight to the programming, good for Primary settings.
  3. Peripheral boards such as the MaKey MaKey connect to a computer to add interactivity, but cannot be unplugged and run standalone. Simple and fun!
  4. Embedded boards like the Micro:Bit, Crumble and Raspberry Pi Pico have a microprocessor onboard that you program via a computer, but they then run the program independently, so can be disconnected. Use these to control buggies, create musical instruments, name badges and weather stations…
  5. General purpose boards like the Raspberry Pi 3, 4, Zero W and W2 are actually whole computers that run a full Linux-based GUI operating system. You connect one to a monitor, mouse and keyboard and use it like a computer, but it has lots of interfaces for connecting electronic equipment. You can do almost anything with a Pi, but the learning curve is steeper than the above devices. They run Scratch, Sonic Pi and Minecraft with a Python interface, so you can write “mods”, or connect a camera to make a digital photobooth, the possibilities are limitless!
Screenshot of Raspberry Pi showing a Python window on the left and Minecraft on the right. The code says "mc.PostToChat("Hello World") and in the Minecraft world the chat message "Hello World" is visible.
Minecraft Pi comes with a Python interface where students can write their own Mods!

Next steps

  1. Book onto some Physical Computing CPD at
  2. Choose a device and an activity – see the or the Raspberry Pi projects website:
  3. Contact a nearby Computing Hub to request a loan of a physical computing kit
  4. Try it out in a small group like your own after-school club, a Code Club or Coder Dojo, then introduce to your classes!

This blog was based on material from the NCCE. Visit to find out more about physical computing, or read the other principles at And subscribe to Hello World to read much more about computing pedagogy every two months:

And if you like this post, remember to thank me with a coffee, and then go and buy one of my books, “How to Teach Computer Science” is packed with teaching ideas like this. Thanks!

If you are grateful for my blog, please buy me a coffee at, thanks!
#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.


Thanks for your support!

computing teaching and learning


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.


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, 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.

teaching and learning

Computer Science “Hinterland” Book

Prompted by this post by Tom Sherrington on Twitter and after much discourse about Cultural Capital and its importance in raising attainment of disadvantaged pupils, I got to thinking… maybe I could pull together a “Hinterland of Computing” book to assist teachers and curious students alike understand the history, implications and future of the fascinating topic of Computer Science. 

So I have started. This blog post will evolve and may be followed up by others, but it’s a starting point for my thoughts on the subject. I really need lots of help, so comment below or on my Twitter feed if you have anything to contribute.

I see this being completed in the Summer of 2020 so hopefully published by Christmas 2020, but that may change as I have not published a book before 🙂

My plan is to write a chapter on each topic, based on typical GCSE specifications. In each chapter I would discuss the history of the topic, with interesting stories, discuss the current status and how real-world experiences link to the topic, cross-curricular links and cross-topic links, then cover the future direction, implications and ethical issues, and finish with some inspiration for the classroom, suggested lesson plans and further reading.

For example, the topic on Systems Security might discuss the history of Cryptography from the Caesar Cipher to Elliptic Curve, stories of computer viruses from Creeper to WannaCry, why passwords are the worst way to authenticate yourself (apart from all the others). Everything will link back to GCSE specs and be clear on what students need to know, but the reader will now have lots of background knowledge with which to illuminate the content and hopefully make lessons more interesting, and pass on that Cultural Capital we are all now aware is so important.

Please let me know if you want to help, feedback is very welcome. I’m gathering background reading at the moment so post comments below or message me on Twitter thanks!

behaviour teaching and learning Uncategorized

Loyalty Card for positive behaviour management

I took this idea from my teaching coach, and I’ve started trying it this week. Basically they get a stamp for a good lesson. Targets are on the form, all three must be met for a stamp. Lesson 1 today saw around one-third of the class get a stamp, but they all wanted one, so maybe lesson 2 will be different! Feel free to adapt and share onwards with no restrictions.  Download link is below. NB the headphones mentioned are from Poundland, don’t tell the kids! 🙂 loyaltycardimage

loyalty card v1