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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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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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“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.



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What is “Heath”? The importance of representation.

“What is Heath, Sir? That question really threw us”

They were referring to this question, from an Edexcel past paper:

Past paper question that begins "Heath is researching..."
Past paper question that begins “Heath is researching…”

I hadn’t expected that challenge. I realised that not one of the class in front of me would have met a “Heath”. I later looked at all the names used in the past paper questions I had been setting: William, Julie, Kerry, Xander, Hamish, Fiona, Kirstie, Byron, Grahame, Marian, Victoria, Johnny (there’s always a Johnny).

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I looked at the register: Yahya, Bilal, Naziba, Tahira, Adedeji, Mohamed, Manas, Caoimhe, Abdullah, Chandan, James, Sufyan, Nathan, Harry, Jamiha, Aseel, Isla, Zoya*

I had a think about this. I read some stuff on the importance of representation and cultural relevance. And I changed my mocks and test papers to include names from all the cultures of the children in front of me. It’s a small step but the right thing to do.

More importantly perhaps the exam boards have started doing the same. OCR’s recent (since 2020) papers have included the names Hope, Daniel and Rob but also Ali, Naomi, Iqbal and Amir.

That’s why I was a little frustrated to read a post on Facebook a few months ago that read “I’ve made this exam paper, with all the ‘politically correct’ names changed to Star Wars characters!” I wonder if that teacher had an Ali or a Naomi in his class, and what joy they might have been denied, not seeing their own name (or a name popular in their culture) in the materials in front of them.

It’s fine to try to add a little fun to proceedings and jump on the kids’ current interests, but please don’t do it at the expense of representation. Also I appreciate this might seem trivial, but every little counts as we try to make our curriculum more inclusive.

* this is a fictional register using students first names I have once taught, not a current register of any class, but it is representative of a typical class in my school.

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“Love Computing 2022”, free CPD 10-14 Feb.

Update – scroll down for the slides I presented at these sessions. If you enjoy this content why not buy me a coffee?

I was delighted to present a couple of sessions at this event alongside a wealth of talent, including…

Brochure cover showing vintage picture of woman looking at computer with heart graphics over eyes
Love Computing brochure front cover
  • Marc White, Ofsted National Computing Lead
  • Sue Sentance, Raspberry Pi Foundation
  • Dr Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, The Learning Scientists
  • William Lau
  • Isaac Computing
  • Raspberry Pi
  • CAS
  • BT
  • Ellie Narewska, Guardian
  • Code Club
  • STEM Ambassadors
  • Quafaro, Cyber security
  • The Centre for Computing History
  • The National Centre for Computing Education plus lots more

See the brochure here, and book here. My two sessions are as follows (scroll past the ad which helps me maintain this blog!):

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  • Computing Pedagogy: Hinterland, Misconceptions and Semantic Waves – powerful tools for progress. How reading around the subject can improve your delivery, how “Semantic Waves” improve student understanding, and how misconception-aware teaching gets great results. I explore these pedagogical tools with a focus on how they can be used to great effect in GCSE Computer Science teaching. – Slides now available here and recording below:
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  • Networks and System Security for GCSE success. A detailed look at the GCSE Networks and System Security specification and how to teach it. Demystifying client-server and P2P models, network protocols, security threats and countermeasures, helping you confidently teach these topics. – Slides now available here and recording below.

Enjoy, and remember to tip me a couple of quid for a Cappucino with an extra shot… 🙂

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What pub quizzes taught me about MCQs

Consider these three questions:

a. What is the highest mountain in Africa?
b. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in which continent?
c. Where is the only place in Africa can you find snow all year round?

I enjoyed pub quizzes in my 20s. I used to do three a week, but some were more enjoyable than others, and this was usually down to the quality of the questions. Anyone can take a fact like “Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa” and turn it into question a, above. But there’s no fun in that question for the participants. You know it or you don’t.

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Example b at least opens the question to everyone on the team, we’ve all heard of continents, right? And we can use what we know about language to have a stab at the origin of the name. It’s an “all-play” question.

Example quiz question
Example quiz question

Example c however is more fun. Now we have to think laterally: where can we find snow in Africa? Is it cold at the extreme north or south? Is there an island in the Southern Ocean that counts as part of Africa? Oh wait, high altitude. And so we have a fun team discussion about geography, and possibly some debate before arriving at an answer, and hopefully the obligatory “told you so” when the answer is revealed. Pub quiz gold.

Why is (c) more fun? We enjoy low-stakes quizzes. As humans we like to test ourselves, and when there is nothing to be gained except maybe a voucher for a round of drinks, then there’s no pressure. But questions like (a) are dull, they don’t test anything except facts. If you don’t know, you can’t guess. The other two allow us to take part and make an educated guess. They also get us thinking quite hard.

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This act of “thinking hard” is exactly what we want to generate in the classroom, see Adam Boxer’s blog on ratio for more on this. Low stakes quizzes are a good way of doing that, and many schools now incorporate daily and weekly recap quizzes at the start of lesson. But there are good questions and bad questions. A question should be sufficiently challenging that it causes meaningful thought (Bjork’s desirable difficulty) but achieveable for most students (Rosenshine’s high success rate).

Before I was a teacher, I was enjoying pub quizzes and occasionally creating them for my friends and family, and discovered these principles through trial and error. (It still irks me when a friend writes a quiz full of type “a” questions, but I bite my tongue). Now we have the research to back up why type “c” questions (my characterisation only) are more enjoyable and more valuable.

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If you want to see what I did with all of this research, I wrote the verified GCSE Computer Science content for Quizlet, including 800 multiple choice questions, available for free here. Use these in your classroom. And stop asking “Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of which band?” and start asking “Which seminal Seattle rock band, whose singer tragically died by suicide in 1994, shares its name with the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation?”

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Alexa didn’t tell a child to electrocute herself, and why it’s important.

You can’t have missed this story:

Image from BBC News page for Alexa "coin challenge" story
BBC News page for Alexa “coin challenge” story

I’ve read this story on several websites now and become enraged at the lack of technology insight provided. Why? Because how we discuss technology and its impact on our world matters. It really does. Tech is changing the world in ways we are yet to understand, so we really need to explain it well in news stories like this, and in the classroom.

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So let me start with the headline of this blog. Alexa did not “tell a child to touch a live plug with a penny”. Alexa outsourced the query to an internet search, having found no adequate response in its database. The girl will have heard the following: “Here’s something I found online…” before Alexa proceeded to read a web page published by someone else, not Amazon.

In this way, the girl has basically performed an internet search. Nothing more, nothing less. The girl and her family, and the journalists who love a good “tech gone bad” story, lapped it up and reported it as a “fault with Alexa”. Amazon was quick to claim it had “quickly fixed an error”, which just means it changed the heuristic for web pages that mention the coin challenge, so they will no longer be selected as an appropriate response.

There are two issues with this reporting… (scroll down for more…)

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  1. The only popular web pages about the “penny challenge” or “outlet challenge” are those warning parents about the challenge, such as this one from CBS News. Like the “Tide pod craze” of 2018, this is largely an attempt by teens to freak out other teens and adults, the actual numbers of children and young people putting themselves at risk is probably vanishingly small, which is why as adults we must be careful we do not amplify the risks by unnecessary overreaction, which causes more children to take risks, through the Streisand effect.
  2. Blaming Alexa here is shooting the messenger. Alexa simply relayed the content of a popular web page, but because we have learned to trust algorithms to make better decisions than humans in so many aspects of our lives (which is a big issue, too big for this column), we are more likely to take advice from an AI such as Alexa than a static webpage we found ourselves (or at least we believe we found ourselves!). Alexa also divorced the content from its context, which was almost certainly the CBS webpage or one similar that gave a warning of the dangers of the “challenge”.

I gave a talk at a recent CAS meeting about the dangers of too much specificity in online safety. We need to stop talking about individual cultural phenomena and platforms, and start talking about behaviours. In this case, what actually kept the family safe was a basic understanding of the risk of mains electricity, but this would have been a non-story if the family had understood Alexa’s role here as a mere messenger, relaying web content that was itself potentially unsafe, and Alexa was not endorsing the content in any way.

Read the excellent UK gov doc “Education for a Connected World” also explained here from SWGfL, and see how a focus on behaviours changes the narrative around online safety, and keeps us all safer.

Image from Education for a Connected World doc, summarising the content
Education for a Connected World focuses on eight behaviours (flipping the narrative from external risks to human behaviours).

As for the “journalists” reporting this as an “Alexa told my kid to do something bad” story… do better. And if you’re a teacher, I urge you to use this blog content in your classroom to have a discussion around the dangers of trusting AIs. And if you want to understand more about the issues and impacts of Computing for GCSE / High-school level teaching, read my book.

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“Big church.” “Nice church.”

“Big church.” “Nice church.”

Typical comments perhaps from someone with few facts in their long term memory, when visiting a famous cathedral, according to blogger and primary teacher Solomon Kingsnorth in this tweet thread from 2018.

Kingsnorth suggests that with the benefit of a knowledge-rich curriculum, you might hear these comments instead: “Looks gothic, different to the baroque cathedrals I’ve seen.” or “I’m metres away from a tomb containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart. My own heart is racing.” Because as Kingsnorth explains: “To have facts in long-term memory is to have a private tour guide to the universe LIVING IN YOUR BRAIN, ready at a second’s notice to give you a plethora of information which will enrich your experience of everyday life.”

One might counter that the first person is still able to read a guidebook to learn about the cathedral, however the second person will still have the richer experience, because the guidebook will make more sense, its content triggering even more connections to existing knowledge which are recalled and enjoyed. Knowledge is both what we think with and think about according to English teacher and author David Didau, therefore more knowledge in long-term memory means richer life experiences.

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I first encountered the idea that we “think with knowledge” in my second year of teaching (2017), when I first read “Why don’t students like school?” by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. Until then I had been a fan of constructivist thinking, very much beloved of Computer Science legend Seymour Papert, famous for the phrase “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” My attempts to replicate Papert’s alleged success with “learning through creating” were ineffective, however, which was unsurprising when I learned that “unguided or minimally guided learning is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance that is specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning.” (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark).

Over the next year I read more on cognitive science and became convinced of its importance to my teaching practice. I moved schools from one where constructivist pedagogies were common, to a school which embraced “cognitive load theory” (CLT) including the illuminating notion that “understanding is remembering in disguise” (Willingham). The school values a knowledge curriculum too, and since joining my practice has developed considerably.

Back to our cathedral, and we can understand why the second visitor enjoyed a fuller experience if we listen to E.D. Hirsch who explained that “Learning builds on learning” and that existing knowledge acts as “mental Velcro” which allows new knowledge to stick to it. (Hirsch, 2000) Hirsch goes on to claim that “knowledge is the great equalizer, schools have … a responsibility to provide more equal life chances for all students [through transmission of knowledge]”.

Michael Young went further in 2014 to describe the types of knowledge that provide opportunities to succeed in life. Young (2014) explains that knowledge is powerful ‘if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables you to envisage alternatives’. Robbie Burns explains in his MA thesis (summarised in Impact here) how powerful knowledge gives “students the knowledge they need to go beyond their own experiences towards greater social mobility.” (Burns 2020).

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I do believe that learning knowledge empowers our children to succeed in life and improve their life chances. But even if we sometimes fall short of that lofty aim of social justice, I also believe, despite the clunky nature of the phrase and it’s problematic origins, “the best that has been thought and said” is every child’s birthright. As Ben Newmark put it so eloquently in his book “Why Teach” and on his blog here: “We teach because … our children are the heirs of all that has gone before them and by teaching them well we gift them their birth right to the fruit of our civilizations”. Let’s give that gift, to the best of our abilities.

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Passwords or pens: preparedness is a vital habit for life

I give sanctions for forgotten passwords. A C1 the first time and then a 15 minute detention for a second offence. Password resets are reasonably rare in my classroom as a result of this, and positive support for good password choices and habits – more on which later.

This tweet has 98 likes at time of writing, which means I am not alone in having trouble with passwords being “forgotten”.

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In the tweet, like the above paragraph, I have put speech marks around “forgotten” because that’s the claim they make, yet often it’s not the case. Firstly, sometimes the error lies elsewhere – a mistyped username, for example. Students forget the username convention (how many letters of each name, what numeric prefix, whether we have included the hyphen or apostrophe in their name, something as a school we are not consistent about despite my best efforts), and therefore a password reset won’t help.

I find that this strategy works well:

  1. No password resets before the register. (This requires a DO NOW that either needs no computer use, or has an alternative activity that does. I have textbooks on the desks so they can pick one up and read about todays topic while I take the register). This rule gives the pupil more thinking time, and an incentive to remember the elusive password, and often they magically remember it, during this time.
  2. No password resets until I have watched their attempt to sign in. I often spot the error, such as a mistyped username. I also discover misconceptions here: we use Microsoft 365 and students often forget that if they have had their “365 password” reset, this will have synchronised to Windows also.
  3. If this support doesn’t result in a successful login, I will reset the password at the cost of a C1 and potential detention. I write the C1 and a note in their planner, and also get the student to take ownership of their error, by saying “I have forgotten my password”. I ensure they are disavowed of any notion that this just “happened to them” and that they made a mistake and must try harder. Passwords are, like a pen, exercise book or PE kit, a vital piece of school equipment and pupils must take responsibility for remembering it.

Good password choices

I get about one or two resets a week by this time in the year (December), out of over 300 students I see weekly. I think that’s a good rate, I know in the replies to my above tweet that other teachers have it worse. Maybe my September teaching and sanctions regime is working. In September’s first lesson I teach good password “hygiene”, basically:

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  1. Choose a strong but memorable password. I insist on the adjective-noun-pad method, resulting in easy to remember but hard to guess combinations like Redgoose12 or Fluffyrat96.
  2. Write username and a password hint in your planner. A hint for Redgoose12$ might be r.g.phb$ (because BFF Phoebe lives at number 12).
  3. I give a second-lesson no-C1 grace period for forgetting passwords in Year 7 but remind them it will be a C1 next time.

I show this on the board to help with password choices, what would you choose from this list?

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Preparedness

Whether it’s a pen, PE kit or password, if it’s an important piece of equipment, the pupils should get into the habit of coming to school with it. As shown above, once I have taught the necessary skills of choosing and remembering a password, sanctions are a vital extrinsic motivator to ensure they use those skills. Today it’s a pen or a password, tomorrow it will be (as I said on Twitter here) steel-toecapped boots, a security badge or, well, a password. We’re in the business of inculcating skills for life, so let’s get on with it.

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HTTCS on tour – major update!

“You should do a book tour” said Allen Tsui on #caschat last night. I replied that I am doing a virtual tour! Scroll down for the evidence…

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I recorded a series of YouTube videos with Craig ‘n’ Dave over the summer, the first of which is here. I then recorded the Learning Dust podcast with Andy Colley and Dave Leonard which is now live here.

“Unscripted” with Craig’n’Dave.

And my “CAS Inspire” podcast with Beverly Clark is now live here, alternative links here.

Also I have been busy with Edtech demonstrator work, delivering free training to schools via the United Learning Edtech Programme. If you need any help with Edtech: I can help as an official Edtech demonstrator, or with Computing: I can help as a CAS Master Teacher. Just reach out on Twitter @MrAHarrisonCS.

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