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Diary of a Lead Teacher by Matthew Applegate

Author: CCCSuffolk
Boot Up Camp: Teaching programming without a computer in sight

I didn't know what to expect when I was invited to the Ukie offices in London in June. I was asked to meet up with other people who were representing their schools, people who are passionate about computing literacy, game design and digital skills. I had been to a few other similar initiatives in the past, but what was about to unfold was nothing like I had ever experienced before.

I have been in this "fight" now for a long time, probably around 10 years I have been fortunate enough to work for some of the biggest tech companies in the world on a number of high profile projects. It has given me a career and experience well beyond anything I could have imagined for myself, so I know the value of learning how to code.

Despite my years of experience on the first day I was nervous, I am not a "teacher" in the traditional sense, and I am just a guy who had a lot of experience in technology, so I didn't know what I didn't know about teaching. I just knew I wanted to help, I wanted to get involved and luckily for me I was in the right place.

Over the course of the two days of training, I got to encounter a wealth of teaching experience, they were friendly, they were encouraging and most of all they were passionate. Before this experience, I had felt pretty much alone and in some ways isolated in what I did. In my area of Suffolk, I taught computing, but I knew I did it differently which had made me a bit of an outsider. I knew what I was teaching and the way I was teaching worked well for the young people I worked with I just didn't feel I had any peers. Finally, I had found other teachers on a similar path. These teachers weren't talking about ICT, word processors or spreadsheets, they were talking about computer programming, game design, storytelling, the theory of play. I had found where I belong in a community of teachers dedicated to building up the creative tech skills in young people.

After the event, I felt empowered to not only try out some of these new skills but to adapt them to things closer to what I do, so instead of reflecting I dove straight in. During the two days, we got meet Paul Curzon from CS4FN, he not only had an amazing and engaging presentation style he brought wonder and play to the session which is often missing in computing in schools. He showed us how to play a simplified version of chess using only six Pawns in a game called "Hexapawn" in a style of teaching called "Computing Unplugged". In the game, by limiting the type of pieces you have and moves you can make, make it perfect for a simple neural net which is perfect for teaching about Artificial Intelligence. You can find all the details here.

This "Hexapawn" neural net got me thinking are there other simple games we could create a sweets-based neural net to work with? I settled on Tic Tac Toe, now there are 255,168 unique games that can be played in TIC TAC TOE and to successfully map on to cards would take the area of a football field, but I wasn't deterred. I found the whole process an exciting challenge. 

I created the first draft of the game which featured 12 cards, then 15 and finally after around, two weeks of work on and off, we settled on 16.  Notice the word we. Now, I did this very differently because instead of preparing the lesson and then revealing it to my students, I presented it as a work in progress. I offered it as a challenge for my students to work on with me. By doing it this way they got to shape it and learn in a very hands-on way about neural networks their constraints their goals and just how complicated and wonderful they can be, they also got to eat an incredible amount of sweets in the process.

Now from one idea of turning Tic Tac Toe into a board based neural net, we have two teaching resources, one the finished correctly working "game" and one the broken game which students need to fix. I as a teacher now also have a very different outlook on when and how to engage students with a new concept or idea and this whole thought process came about just by meeting up with these wonderful dedicated people at Ukie in London, who travelled from all over the UK because they were so passionate about finding creative ways to engage and teach young people what I consider to be the most exciting area of study. 

Since then, I have carried on making even more resources that teach computing concepts without computers, which teach game design not by sitting in front of a computer but by running around and trying it out in the real world. Which teach computer programming without a computer in sight.

So now, I am pleased, proud even to tell people now that I am a Digital Schoolhouse, not just because it sounds cool, which it does, it does sound cool, but because I know the value of it and I know the other talented teachers who are part of it. It has given me a wealth of insight and it has made me feel a lot less isolated in what I am trying to achieve in Suffolk. 

So thank you Ukie and thank you Sony PlayStation for bringing these wonderful people together. I now feel even more confident and empowered to help bring local schools in the amazing world of technology.

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