Malala Yousafzai’s A level results are brilliant, we need more successes like this

Who could be anything but delighted to see this headline? A-level results: Malala Yousafzai gets a place at Oxford, this is excellent news and a great boost for those campaigning for equal education. In fact, the publication yesterday of A level results in the UK has spurred me to take a slight diversion from worrying about who is moving my brain or my cheese. I certainly would not want to detract from the hard work that any students have put into their A level studies or to take the shine off their success. It is wonderful to see the smiling faces of successful students across the newspapers.

However, success does not come to all and even on a celebration day, or perhaps I should write especially on a celebration day, I think we need to consider alternatives to the stressful stop and test regime that pervades most education systems. I wrote about this in Nature Human Behaviour earlier this year under the heading: ‘Towards artificial intelligence-based assessment systems’ and it looks like it has been read a few times because it is ranked 5,746th of the 237,966 tracked articles of a similar age in all nature journals which puts it in the 97th percentile. This does not seem bad given that it was only a ‘comment’ piece and not a full paper. On a less positive note in an internal REF assessment exercise it was only ranked as 2*, which is not great and probably reflects the difficulty for academics in publishing more popular style articles. However, the modest success of the article in terms of the altometrics that Nature run encourages me to believe that there is some interest in exploring the possibilities that the intelligent design and application of AI could afford for National assessment systems. I therefore draw attention to this possibility here and hope to encourage further debate. The key point I wanted to convey in the Nature Human Behaviour article was that there are alternatives to exams, that are less stressful, less expensive and that allow teachers and learners to spend more time on teaching and learning (shouldn’t this be the point of education?).

This message may not be what others have selected to focus on, but for me, the most important thing is that we have an assessment system that is holistic, fair and that let’s all students evidence their knowledge, skills and capabilities.


Who moved my brAIn? Is this the next self help best seller to get us ready for our AI future?

I’m pleased to report that my ankle is progressing well and I am now once again able to achieve my ‘misfit‘ challenge of 1000 activity points per day: clearly it is a good job I was only mildly curious. However, I want to be more than mildly curious when it come to my intellect, and I want to do this without injury. I had therefore better take care, both of my own intellect and of the intellect of those I am trying to encourage to be appropriately curious. I therefore return to my thoughts about what a useful self-help book to prepare people for their AI augmented futures, might be like. To this end, I also return to ‘The AI Race‘ and specifically to the man behind the survey that was used to calculate how much of different people’s jobs are likely to be automated.


Andrew Charlton is his name and he is economist and director of AlphaBeta, an economics and strategy consulting firm. He did not beat about the bush! AI will impact on ALL jobs and he encouraged the TV audience to embrace AI. His ‘top tip’ was that we must carefully manage the transition from now to the situation when widespread AI augmentation will be common place.

He was clear that we must take advantage of what AI has to offer by increasing the diversity of our own skills sets. He saw AI as an “Iron Man Suit” for humans. This suit would transform us mere humans into super humans. This is a great analogy, who would not want to be super human? BUT embracing AI augmented working is not as simple as putting on a new outfit – especially an iron outfit. And increasing the diversity of our skill sets requires educators and trainers who are themselves skilled and trained in developing these new diverse skill sets. BUT where are these educators and trainers to be found? Who is helping the educators and trainers to gain the skills and expertise they will need to train their students in?


Andrew has little comfort to offer here.  His next comment about education is that 60% of the curriculum that students are studying at school is developing them for jobs that will no longer exist in 30 years-time. We need to re-design the curriculum he advises. So educators need to re-skill themselves as well as their students, and they need to revise the curriculum. Clearly educators will be busy! And clearly there will also be a significant job to be done in (re-)motivating all those students who discover that they have been learning stuff that nobody will want them to know by the time they are looking for a job.

Now we hit the nub of the matter, education and educators must prepare students for the new AI order of things. Educators lives are going to change in significant ways NOT because their roles are likely to be automated away BUT because they will need to teach a different curriculum and probably teach in a different way. To make matters worst: there is no clear consensus from the experts about exactly which jobs educators will need to educate people for. I think educators may be the most in need of a good self-help book to help them cope with the inevitable changes to their lives.


The self-help book I need to write might therefore be the updated version of the motivational best seller Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. I suggested this might become ‘Who moved my brAIn? An Amazing Way to Deal with ChAnge in Your Work and in Your Life’


The original book called ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ was a story featuring 4 characters: two mice, called “Sniff” and “Scurry,” and two little people, called: “Hem” and “Haw.” These 4 characters all live together in a maze through which they all search for cheese (for cheese think – happiness and success). Their search bears fruit when all of them find cheese in “Cheese Station C.” “Hem” and “Haw” are content with this state of affairs and work out a schedule for how much cheese they can eat each day, they enjoy their cheese and relax.


“Sniff” and Scurry” meanwhile remain vigilant and do not relax, but keep their wits about them. When horror of horrors there is no cheese at Cheese Station C  one day, “Sniff” and Scurry” are not surprised: they had seen this coming as the cheese supply had diminished and they had prepared themselves for the inevitable arduous cheese hunt through the maze and they get started with the search together straightaway. In contrast “Hem” and “Haw” are angry and annoyed when they find the cheese gone and “Hem” asks: “Who moved my cheese?” “Hem” and “Haw” get angrier and feel that the situation they find themselves in is unfair. “Hem” is unwilling to search for more cheese and would rather wallow in feeling victimized, “Haw” would be willing to search, but is persuaded not to by “Haw”.


While “Hem” and “Haw” get annoyed, “Sniff” and “Scurry” find a new cheese supply at “Cheese Station N,” and enjoy a good feast. “Hem” and “Haw” start to blame each other for their lack of cheese. Once again “Haw” suggests they go and look for more cheese, but grumpy “Hem” is frightened about the unknown and wants to stick with what he knows, he refuses to search. However, one day “Hem” confronts his fears and decides it is time to move on. Before he leaves “Cheese Station C” he scribbles on the wall: “If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct” and “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?” He starts his trek and whilst he is still worried, he finds some bits of cheese that that keep him going as he searches. He finds some more empty cheese stations, but also some more crumbs and is able to keep hunting. “Haw” has realized that the cheese did not simply vanish, it was eaten. He is able to move beyond his fears and he feels ok. He decides that he should go back to find “Hem” equipped with the morsels of cheese he has found. Sadly, “Hem” is still grumpy and refuses the cheese morsels. Undeterred, though somewhat disappointed, “Haw” heads back into the maze and a life of cheese hunting. He continues to write messages on the wall as a way of externalizing his thinking and in the hope that “Hem” might one day move on and be guided by these messages. One day “Hem” finds Cheese Station N with all its lovely cheese, he reflects on his experience, but decides not to go back to “Hem”, but rather to let “Hem” find his own way. He uses the largest wall in the maze to write the following (original to the left, my re-interpretation to the right):

Who move my cheese? Who moved my brAIn?
Change Happens: They Keep Moving The Cheese Computers keep getting smarter and intelligent tasks are moving from human to machine
Anticipate Change: Get Ready For The Cheese To Move Prepare for some of your intellectual activity to be taken on by AI
Monitor Change: Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old Keep checking in on your own intelligence and make sure you are really using it and keeping it fresh
Adapt To Change Quickly: The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese Adapt to change thoughtfully (quickly is not necessarily right here), make sure you offload intellectual activity carefully so that you maintain your human intellectual integrity
Change: Move With The Cheese Move with the intelligence (both human/natural and machine/artificial)
Enjoy Change!: Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese! Enjoy intelligence and the experience of your developing greater intelligence – being smart ‘tastes good’!
Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again: They Keep Moving The Cheese Never feel you are intelligent enough and keep striving for intellectual growth

“Haw” is never complacent and continually monitors his cheese store and searches through the maze and hopes that one day his old friend “Hem” will find his way through and that they will meet again.


Whilst the book “Who moved my cheese” was extremely popular, it was also the subject of considerable criticism. For example, that it was too positive about change, that it was patronizing and compared people inappropriately to ‘rats in a maze’. BUT can I learn anything from this as I try to encourage people to want to understand themselves and their changing intellectual capabilities?

I think there is still value in “Haw’s” writing on the wall and I have tried to clarify this nee value for AI in the right hand column of the table above. I also think perhaps that my original revised title of: “Who moved my brAIn?” is not quite correct. The more important question is “Who moved my intelligence?”.

More to come on this in the next blog post…


Mama teach me how to code: who cares about the lost generation of parents?

I recently wrote a post for the IOE blog about the surge in enthusiasm for the challenges and opportunities of computing in schools. I drew attention to recent press coverage as well as to the interjections of Michael Gove, The Royal Society and Nesta, which I have discussed previously in this blog. For example,  John Naughton in the Observer outlined a manifesto for teaching computer science in the 21st century, and Janet Murray in the Guardian celebrated the enthusiasm of a new generation of coders in schools. In the debate so far, much attention has been given to discussion of the training and skills requirements for teachers, and this is certainly vital.  However, there is a broader group of influencers and supporters who need to be equipped to progress the initiative effectively.

John Naughton highlighted School Governors as a resource that needed to be harnessed and I would add to that another important category of resources, and that is Parents. In my experience that vast majority of parents are keen to help their children progress at school, but they can be anxious about their knowledge of the way that certain subjects, such as Maths, are taught at school. What chance will most of them have to help their children learn computer science? There is much research evidence to support the important contribution that parents can make to their child’s achievements at school, so who is tapping into this vital educational ingredient to make sure that they are able to gain the skills they want and need in order to be able to help their children achieve of their best?

Time to re-load? Computational Thinking and Computer Science in Schools

Snapshot—April 5th, 2012 In Chicago today the Obama re-election campaign is set to be the most technically sophisticated ever seen with voters being wooed via Twitter and Facebook, and digital technology along with those who understand how to build and use it set to play a key role in influencing people’s decision making. Across the Atlantic in the UK we face an abundance of choices about how to exploit and use technology, and this poses an enormous challenge for both the current and future education of our children. The realisation that we need people who can produce as well as consume technology has brought a new energy and excitement about computer science and computational thinking, which is being heralded by some as the new literacy of the 21st century. The technology revolution has changed the way many of us work and interact, it has generated new industries and new
businesses, and it is natural that we now look to schools, teachers and the education system to help us to understand how we might best prepare our children to live, work and make best use of what computer technology offers.

But how best can we do this?

A mess? 2012 has seen the Secretary of State for Education state that “ICT in schools is a mess” and he has called for a new approach with the hope that technology can be used creatively to develop curricular content: the ‘wiki’ curriculum. What is happening with ICT and computer science education in schools has also been the subject of a 2011 Naace report entitled “The Importance of Technology”, an Ofsted report on ICT in schools, and the importance of providing young people with the skills required by the new workplace is captured by Nesta’s Next Gen report. Clearly there is growing concern and government commitment to change, so what change should we make and why?

Is Computer Science the answer? Computer science is an important element of the debate. The Royal Society’s 2012 ‘Shut down or restart?’ report suggested that a sound understanding of computer science concepts enables people to get the best from the systems they use, and to solve problems when things go wrong. However, computer science is evolving rapidly and its interdisciplinarity means that its evolution touches on many domains and every day life. There are significant challenges for those interested in how best to include it in the curriculum.

Are we sure we know what we want to change? There is already some excellent teaching of ICT and computer science in some schools within the current curriculum and programme of study, so not everything is wrong. Care needs to be taken that the changes we make do lead to a better learning experience at school: an experience that inspires and educates. But, are we clear about what is wrong with computer science and ICT in schools now? Can we be precise about the rationale for what learners at different stages need to be taught? What do we want learners to be able to achieve as a result of studying computer science? Where do ICT and computer science fit in the structure of the school curriculum: media, design, science, cross-curricular?

How can learners tap into the power of computational thinking? The skills of computational thinking can be taught with or without computers, by exploring how processes work, looking for problems in everyday systems, examining patterns in data, and questioning evidence. With a computer, learners can put their computational thinking into action. Could a focus on computational thinking better equip learners to use their understanding effectively and to learn how to apply a range of computing tools? Writing the code that makes a computer behave in a particular way is a creative pursuit: reflecting on what you have constructed is a key part of learning. We may therefore valuably ask: How can we develop good computational thinking for children?

Are we looking in all the right places? Are there less obvious areas of research that might help us answer some of these questions? For example, many people encounter the experience of Flow and are all too familiar with the experience of losing themselves in a task. Might the idea of Flow itself help us understand the learning process in computational thinking and computer science? Researchers in the psychology of programming have spent decades exploring how people learn to code, surely their expertise needs to be drawn into the debate?

There are no short cuts to answering these questions. The process of addressing them requires an interdisciplinary and participatory approach that involves groups from across the sectors that is inclusive in nature and powerful in design. This will require an approach that is new to society, schools, teachers and learners: a process that must be both flexible in its thinking and realistic in its understanding of the role of schools.

Tomorrow we will be having a debate about some of these issues at the London Knowledge Lab and I’ll report back on how that goes.

Read our briefing paper (from which the above text is taken)

Follow the event through illuminate – go to for access to the live stream.

Thinking like a computer or computing like a thinker?

In my last post I finished with a comment about pop-11, a langauge designed to help novices learn how to program and to grapple with Artificial Intelligence. I also included an image of the Eliza programme an early example of natural language processing designed in the sixties by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT. The computer user typed in questions and the ELIZA programme appeared to make human like responses. It worked on a script and when the user started to ask questions that were outside the script, ELIZA struggled. Probably the most famous example of the ELIZA programme was that of a psychotherapist, but my version of the ELIZA programme was one of the first pieces of code I ever produced in pop-11. I found pop-11 a good way into programming, it enabled me to get something up and running quickly, it helped me to start thinking in a particular way and it introduced me to the practical design and application of algorithms. My ELIZA program took on the personna of a politician, and it was surprisingly realistic and succeeding in writing a program that worked and produced a dialogue gave me a huge amount of pleasure. You know the sort of thing:

John: You don’t seem to be having a very good week

Teresa: Why do you think I am not having a very good week?

John: Well it looks as if your attempts to deport Abu Qatada have been stalled

Teresa: My attempts to deport Abu Qatada have not been stalled

John: But you acted too early and you have left him a days window to appeal

Teresa: I have not acted too early and I have not left him a days window to appeal

John: Do you not think that the three month deadline ended after you arrested him?

Teresa: I do not think that the three month deadline ended after I arrested him?

John: Are you sure that you have counted the days correctly?

Teresa: I am sure that I have counted the days correctly?

John: Is it not possible that you and your team have made a mistake?

Teresa: No, it is not possible that me and my team have made a mistake?

John: So have the European Court confirmed that you and your team have the correct deadline

Teresa: I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: But have the European Court confirmed this

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this

John: Because the European Court will now decide if there is time for Abu Qatada  to appeal

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this. I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: But we need to know if the deadline you used was correct

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this. I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: We seem to be going around in circles here

Teresa: I have not gone around in a circle I travel in a Jaguar: a circle is a simple shape of Euclidean geometry consisting of those points in a plane that are equidistant from a given point, the centre

John: !

To code or not to code, if that is the question, what is the answer?

I was struck by the item on the R4 Today program this morning at 8.45 ‘ish when Rory Cellan-Jones told us about his day course at Decoded, through which he, as a complete novice, built an app. You can see his app and his story on the Today website, and as Rory points out “coding is cool – the government is listening to those calling for it to be taught in schools, and executives are signing up for courses.” This has prompted me to reflect on my own programming experiences and to make this the subject of a few posts over the next few days and running up to our next “What the Research Says” event on computing in schools.

I am a member of the BBC micro generation who first came across computing through using this delightfully frustrating device. However, I was not a member of the young audience at whom this machine was aimed, but the wife of a teacher who became intrigued by what her husband was up to in his office. Having secretly mastered the manoeuvre of disk swapping that got you started with the BBC micro my appetite was whet and I enrolled for a course at the local technical college. When I went to sign-up I said I wanted to learn about computers and I was asked what I meant by that. I had no clue why they were asking me this question, because the answer seemed obvious to me – I wanted to learn how the computer worked of course! However, I was offered a range of courses that would take me into the realms of managing a spreadsheet or learning to word process as well as learning how to write a program in basic – no brainer of a choice for me then. I duly arrived at my first evening class ready to build something, no idea what, but something. I loved it, even though my outputs were modest:  a greeting on the screen (you know the one), a date reminder, but I was hooked. I wanted more and much to the bafflement of my husband and to my children aged 5 and 3 I announced that I was going ‘back to school’ and was going to apply to read Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at University. I was a distinctly mature student and was a little afraid that I would be the ‘silly old woman at the back of the class’. My fears were unfounded – most of us felt silly when it came to programming, because for most of us it was very, very hard!

After my BBC basic baptism, I entered the heady world of pop-11 a langauge designed to help novices learn how to program and to grapple with AI.


To be continued….

Let’s talk about what the research says: Industry, Academia, Learning: 7 days to go

Vanessa Pittard DfE, Richard Noss TEL Research Programme Director, BESA, Intellect, ALT, and Demos about research inspired technology enhanced learning to tackle challenges from teenagers’ energy consumption to social communication in a multimodal virtual environment for youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorders. What the research says event at LKL now has a waiting list for places! Clearly people do want to talk.

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