Our coding Journey with Bit and Byte (our school robots)

Isabelle, Lauren, Olivia and Homare (the WHS Social Robots team) describe how they are working on using the school’s social robots Bit and Byte as reading buddies in the Junior School, and update us on the progress made so far. 

We are the Social Robots team, and we would love to present our project, which is robot reading buddies, to you. This club started in 2018 and we work with the 2 robots which we have at school. Since then, we have taken part in competitions (such as the Institut de Francais’ Night of Ideas competition[1] – which we won!) and other projects and challenges within the school. Currently, we have been working on how we could use these robots in the Junior School to help encourage reading practise.

What we want to achieve and how

At Wimbledon High School we are lucky enough to have two Miro-E robots. They are social robots meaning they can react to touch, noise and other actions due to the sensors and cameras that they have. We can then code the robots into changing colours, wagging its tail, pricking up its ears and many other possibilities! The Miro-E robots are designed to mimic a pet.  But we are not the only one’s coding Miro-E robots for a social cause: they are also used for the elderly to combat loneliness.[2] We hope they will have a similar calming effect on children.

We all know how important it is to learn how to read since it broadens knowledge and vocabulary, as well as opening doors for future learning; therefore, we want to include the Miro-E robots in the Junior School as reading buddies. In addition, reading improves presentation skills and develops confidence and independence. Enjoying reading from an early age will help to support these skills.

To encourage this crucial development in the child’s life, we believe that it is vital to make those learning to read feel comfortable and stimulated. As a social robotics team, we realised that one way to achieve this was by creating a robot reading buddy that helps young children at school to practise reading whilst also being motivated by a cute robot dog (cat, kangaroo, cow, bunny, or whatever animals you think the robots resemble)! If we can compel children to read with our social robots, as well as to teachers or parents, this might change the amount they read or the difficulty of the books they attempt; therefore increasing the speed of reading development, as it is encouraging in a non-judgmental environment.

Our research about reading buddies

Research has shown that it is beneficial for children who are learning to read to have a companion who just listens, rather than correcting them, as we know that reading can be a challenging and sometimes daunting experience for some students. Of course, it is equally important for a teacher to help the child when reading and correcting them so that they can learn and improve. But we also think it is crucial for children to enjoy the reading experience, so that they have the motivation to keep learning.

Therefore, Miro-E robots are perfect for this job as they can help find the balance between learning to read, and practising to read. Also, we can code the robot to adapt to the situation and make the reading experience the best it can be. As we have 2 of these robots at the school, it will also enable the Junior Staff to have multiple reading sessions at once. Finally, as we mentioned, the robots can react with sounds, movement, and lights which we are hoping will engage the students and keep the experience enjoyable. 

While researching, we did also find many studies and papers regarding the effects of animals such as dogs on learning. However, we found little about robotics and coding to achieve the task we set out to complete, making it no mean feat. As school-aged children ourselves, what we are trying to do is pioneering and exciting but also has its challenges. We look forward to introducing Bit and Byte to the Junior pupils and inspiring them to get involved, not only with reading but also to get them excited about robotics and coding! 

Our progress so far

We have been working on this project since the start of 2021, and we have been focussing on research, as well as some coding. At first, we had a discussion with some Junior School pupils, and we sent a survey to parents to see what their top priorities would be for the reading buddy and what their opinions were. We find it really important that the users of the robot reading buddy can contribute their ideas and opinions so that the reading buddies are as beneficial for them as possible. 

An example of these results is that both the students and the parents wanted the robot to guide the child through nodding. Because of this, we set up 5 key stages of the reading process, with different coding programs (and therefore different emotions and actions shown in the robot) for each. We have coded these 5 key stages separately already. These stages are: 

  1. Starting to read, so when the students have just started their reading session or when they continue after a break. We have coded this to have an excited emotion, through tilting the head up towards the child, for example.
  2. While reading, so while the robot can detect someone speaking through the microphone. We have coded this to have a motivational emotion, through slow nods and opening the angle of the ears.
  3. A pause in reading, so when the robot is unable to detect someone reading for a fixed amount of time (for example, 10 seconds). We have coded this to have a questioning emotion, such as with a tilting head position. 
  4. Session finish, which is when the teacher says that the reading session is over. This could be a fixed time (for example, after exactly 10 minutes) or a different action which the robot could sense. We have coded this to have a celebrating emotion, such as moving in a circle.
  5. Early finish, which is when the student decides to stop their reading session before the finishing time. We are still thinking about how the robot could sense this: either if no sound has been heard for over a minute, for example, or if the student does a specific action, such as clapping three times. We have coded this to have a sad emotion, with the robot looking down and the tail not wagging any more. Here is the example code of this:

Social Robots as Reading Buddies sample code

Throughout all these stages, we have also made use of the lights on the robots to portray what stage the students are on.  This will allow the teachers to see the same.

We have learnt a lot in the project so far. For example, through the opportunity to talk with the younger students, we practised gathering data interactively, and how we can use this information. We also learnt a lot of new skills through our research, such as how we can receive papers from the writers and how we can use these effectively. Finally, we have experimented lots through coding by finding out how we can use the new functions in the miro2 library, as well as how we could use different libraries to overcome challenges such as not having a function to sense consistent sound, such as someone reading.

Our next steps

Our next steps for next year and beyond are to successfully complete the coding of this project and run a test with students in the Junior School, before finalising the code to make the robot reading buddy as effective as it can be. There are still a lot of problems that we need to solve for us to code the program successfully.

A key problem that we are facing now is that our robot currently cannot distinguish between a human voice (which can be constant) and a machine whirring away in the background. This is because the robot can only “hear” the difference between fluctuating noises and constant noises. There are many factors that contribute to this problem that we still need to test. Is it because the microphone is not good enough? Is it simply that the communication between the laptop, robot and lights is too slow for the robot to reflect what it is hearing? And how could we adapt our code to work with this? 

It is problems like these which slow down the coding process. For example, there were times where the program would not send to the robot, which we struggled to fix for weeks. Or smaller problems, such as when I thought the program was not running but it was simply that the movements on the simulator that I had coded were not big enough for me to notice the impact of my code.

When all our coding works for each of the 5 stages, we are going to link this all into one bigger program, which will decide which stage the reader is at. For example, if no reading has been detected for x seconds, then the robot may go into the “pause” phase. We will need to experiment to see what timings suit these decisions best. While we continue to develop the coding, we will also need to constantly test and receive more feedback to improve. For example, how could we find the balance between distractions and interactions? 

As you can tell, we have made progress, but we also have lots to do. We will continue to try to find effective solutions to the problems that we may encounter.

Reflection

We have all thoroughly enjoyed this project, and we also think that it has, and will continue to, help us build up several skills. For example, we have learnt to collaborate well as a team, being able to work both independently and with others. However, as previously mentioned we have encountered many challenges, and in these cases perseverance is key. Finally, we appreciate the project because it has been really rewarding and lots of fun to work with the robot and see our progress visually. 


However, we cannot do this project alone. As mentioned, we know it is vital that we receive feedback and act on it. This is why we would also really appreciate any feedback or suggestions that you may have for us! Feel free to complete this form with any comments: https://forms.office.com/r/3yNJZEHBfy. Thank you so much!


[1] Our video entry for Night of Ideas 2020: https://youtu.be/RlbzqTKAOTc

[2] Details about using Miro-E robots to combat loneliness for the elderly: https://www.miro-e.com/blog/2020/4/14/the-isolation-pandemic

21st Century Design for Life

Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, considers the impact of this year’s CPD on 21st Century Learning Design, evaluates the Social Robots project against the rubric and reflects on the value of this approach for teachers and students.

During the last term of this unprecedented school year, groups of teachers have been lifting their gaze beyond the challenge of the pandemic to reflect on the way we teach and learn. Since April, colleagues from the Junior and Senior Schools have been considering 21st Century Learning Design.(1) An academic research programme funded by Microsoft in 2010, the Innovative Teaching & Learning Research Project described and defined this pedagogical approach. Collaborative research was carried out across ten countries, with the Institute of Education in London as one of the partners. The outcome formed the basis of a framework for evaluating and designing schemes of work, and subsequently a programme of study for teachers.(2)


The six components of 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD)

21CLD is a lens through which we can view the planning and delivery of the curriculum – as broadly as across a whole topic, or down to the level of an activity within an individual lesson. The rubric-based approach across the six topic areas prompts teachers to think about how to effectively build skills which are not necessarily well understood or embedded by other pedagogical approaches. Whilst we may not accept the popular discourse about the necessity of ‘21st century skills’, the framework addresses the need for students to beopen to new ideas and voices, direct and be accountable for their own work, and conduct effective and meaningful collaboration: all skills which are valuable in a swiftly changing world.

A collaborative professional development opportunity

Teachers were assigned a module of the course to work through independently, and then came together in study groups to discuss the concepts and teach each other the module they had studied. This has proved an exciting way to learn about 21CLD and apply it to our own classroom practice. Mixed group discussions outside the silos of departments and key stages revealed how this pedagogy is applicable across different subject areas and age groups, and identified where there are connections with existing approaches, such as Kagan structures or Harkness method for communication and cooperation, and our STEAM+ interdisciplinary work.

The discursive approach allowed teachers to be candid about their experience. Delving into the detail of the rubrics brought self-reflection: one teacher saying “I thought we’d be brilliant at collaboration, but actually we often co-work rather than collaborate.” Teachers evaluated existing activities against the rubrics and considered how they could adjust their lesson plans and projects to create deeper engagement and more agency for their pupils, and substantive and meaningful work as a result. New plans for a science project about pollution and the revision of a history research topic are among the outcomes of this period of study. Junior School teachers investigated how different levels of the rubric might appropriate at different Key Stages: they plan to create examples of suitable activities to inform the planning of lessons which will develop skills over the pupil’s time in the infant and junior years.

The process was not uncritical, with much debate in both parts of the school around the knowledge construction module: balancing innovative approaches with the needs of the examination system and our own belief in the value of scholarship made for interesting conversations.

A real-life example of real-world problem-solving

As I studied the course myself and designed the programme for teachers, I evaluated one of my own projects.

The Social Robots Club, which the Head of Computer Science and I began two years ago, is an excellent example of real-world problem solving and collaboration within the 21CLD framework, which has arisen organically through the interests of a group of Year 10 students. You can read about their work in this week’s WimTeach[link], where the girls have written about their project and experiences.

The purpose of the club was to experiment with our Miro-E robots (3), in order to plan their inclusion in the curriculum. It is the students who have driven the project forward. From our early brainstorming about uses for the robots, they chose a goal, defined their project and set to work. How does this activity measure up as an example of 21st century learning?

Collaboration

Students work as a team, assigning roles for each task, and making their own decisions about the process and product. The work is interdependent – for instance, dividing up the writing of code into segments which will be later combined.

Skilled communication

Students have produced presentations for Junior school staff, a lesson plan for Year 5 pupils, surveys and a leaflet for parents and an assembly for the school community. They carried out academic research including writing to the authors of papers with further queries.

Knowledge construction

We had never used such sophisticated robotics at school previously, but the group are already competent coders, so are applying their knowledge. Research for the project has covered psychology, pedagogy and computer science – certainly interdisciplinary.

Self-regulation

This group of students have worked on this project for a year and are clear about their aims, and what success will look like. They plan their own work – in fact, Mr Richardson and I joke that we are superfluous! – but we are there, of course, to offer feedback and guidance to help the team make progress when the project stalls.

Real-world problem-solving and innovation

The project is problem solving on a macro and micro level. The real-world problem is about improving reading progress for primary age children, but every week is micro problem-solving as we navigate a new and unfamiliar coding interface and sophisticated but temperamental robots. The project will have a real-world implementation when the robots are used by Year 1 next year.

Use of ICT for Learning

Technology is crucial to the project, obviously, but most significantly, we will create a product for authentic users – a robot creature who will respond with encouragement to a child reading – a great deal of code will lie behind those simulated behaviours!

The benefits of 21st Century Learning Design

On a practical level, 21CLD offers teachers tools for creating learning activities which promote skills that we would all agree are essential for study, work and life – to communicate clearly, collaborate well and solve problems. When combined with our emphasis on scholarship and our interdisciplinary STEAM+ philosophy, I find three further important outcomes:

Building knowledge and appreciating complexity

In a fast-paced world, the experience of going deeply into a topic or project for a sustained period will develop sound knowledge and critical thinking skills. Grappling with complexity brings an appreciation that not all problems are solved or ideas best expressed with a sound-bite response. All fields of study are rich with nuance once we go beyond the superficial.

Identifying unknowns, living with uncertainty and resilience

The deeper students go into complexity, detail and a wealth of knowledge, the more aware they become of what is unknown, either to themselves or to others. In a year which has been filled with uncertainty, an awareness that what we understand of the world is not fixed or fully known is, at first, unsettling. Sitting with that uncertainty – whether academic or otherwise – can build resilience. As the students write in WimLearn this week, persevering through difficulty brings its own joys.

Curiosity and exploration

Having appreciated complexity and experienced uncertainty, where do we go next? We have the answer enshrined within our school aims: Nurturing curiosity, scholarship and a sense of wonder. To achieve sufficient mastery of an area of study that we can begin to push at the boundaries is where exploration and innovation happens; or, as we wrote at the start of this year (4), in the spaces and connections between traditional subject areas with our STEAM+ philosophy. Depth of study, knowledge and skill is a firm foundation for exploration.

In conclusion, the exploration of this course on 21st century learning design has been incredibly valuable. At a time when we have been caught in the weeds of logistics and change, the programme of study and our collaborative approach has opened up big ideas and new conversations between teachers, which we will continue to explore next year. This feels like the start of a new conversation about the way we use technology in the classroom.


References

(1) 21st Century Learning Design, Microsoft Educator Center, https://education.microsoft.com/en-us/learningPath/e9a3beec

(2) You can read the original research papers and other references here, within the Microsoft CPD course. https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=91F4E618548FC604%21300&authkey=%21AOE-MnST_ZCMc1Q&page=View&wd=target%28Embedding%2021CLD%20in%20practice.one%7C2989f197-22e1-42a9-b2d5-2a71628825c1%2F21CLD%20Readings%7Ce58d3c47-38fa-47da-9077-18571f525580%2F%29

(3) Miro-E are programmable social robots designed for us in schools. http://consequentialrobotics.com/miroe

(4) Bristow & Pett, STEAM+, http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/steam-2/, September 2020

STEAM+

Suzy Pett, Director of Studies, and Richard Bristow, SMT Secondee, discuss Wimbledon High’s unique STEAM+ strategy.

 

We’ve had a whole two weeks of inhabiting the new STEAM Tower. It’s beautiful, airy and light. However, it represents so much more than simply a new, physical space. I’m reminded of the poet Emily Dickinson who writes about a “certain slant of light” where “internal differences are”. And that’s the point. The tower is physically very different, but it represents the deeper, inner differences to the way we think about learning here at WHS.

First, we had STEM, that initiated the idea of interdisciplinary learning.

Then, we the realised that with the creativity of Arts, the problem-solving potential to real world problems was magnified. So, we developed STEAM. We need the imaginative, ethical, social and historical capabilities of the Arts to allow us to rigorously contemplate the complex issues of the 21st century. And my goodness have we shown our STEAM real-world problem-solving capabilities. Just last week we heard that our students were winners of the air pollution study by Bristol ChemLabS. Some of our students have worked with UCL’s Mullard’s Space centre to analyse data about the erosion of the Earth’s plasmapause, while others are almost ready to publish Sport Science research on the Wimbledon Championships in partnership with the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Recently, our Year 11-13s have been working with the Wellcome Sanger Institute (near Cambridge) as well as ELLS lab in Heidelberg Germany on bioinformatics projects. Not many school students ever have the opportunity to participate in ‘real’ research that could be published in scientific journals, but we do.

Now we are in the next phase of our evolution. That is STEAM+. Whilst maintaining the integrity of STEAM and its problem-solving potential, we are capitalising on the myriad of different connections between all subjects with STEAM+.

Why this is ethos is vital, is best explained by our Year 13 STEAM+ subject leaders.

Above: WHS Chemistry class, by Zest photos

Maddy:

“The principles of STEAM+ have been useful in allowing me to combine my interest in both the humanities and sciences. I found it very difficult to decide between the two when choosing my GCSEs and A levels. However, I have discovered opportunities in North America that allow me to continue to pursue interdisciplinary study at university level. Their system of combined majors and minors enables students to explore various subjects and the connections between them, thus specialising their course to their interests, lending itself perfectly to the idea of STEAM+.”

Karimah:

“My interest in STEAM probably stemmed from a visit to the Science Museum about 7 years ago – that, and my mega fascination with Doctor Who. The million-dollar “Bionic Man” had just been unveiled, complete with its own set of artificial organs, synthetic blood and robot limbs, all of which could potentially be fitted into a human body. Although I didn’t understand anything at all about how it worked (bearing in mind I was about 9 at the time), I was intrigued by the notion that science, technology, engineering, art and maths combined had accomplished something so remarkable and could benefit so many people.”

 

Above: WHS Biology, by Zest Photos

Sophie:

“I am studying Chemistry, double Maths, and English, aiming to study Green Chemistry at university. With regards to being a STEAM+ subject leader, the links between humanities and science is what first got me interested in pursuing a science degree, having for example read a book called Napoleon’s Buttons which talks about the significance of specific chemical molecules in historical events. This showed me how important interdisciplinary learning is, and has encouraged me now to find ways to combine different subjects, leading to my interest in the green aspects of chemistry which not only has a scientific backbone but also requires thought about social and political matters.”

Lena:

Above: VR Headsets in class, 2019

“I became a Steam + leader due to my appreciation in combining both my creative and scientific demand. My infatuation in applying both design and technology was prompted further by a trip I took to the German Cinematic Museum in Berlin. There I was presented a variety of virtual headsets – when worn, these headsets borne different combinations of the virtual and real world. Here I was introduced to the future of VR, AR and MR. These devices could either create completely virtual and explorable environments, or act as extensions of real-world structures. From then on, I have strived to explore ways in which I could utilise this technology.”

Fedra:

Entrepreneur and computer programmer Aaron Swartz says, ‘Be curious, Read widely, Try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity”. Climate change is not solely a scientific issue but also a social issue. This is why I decided to become a STEAM+ leader, as the interrelation of my A Level subjects -Geography, Biology and Economics – has enabled me to look through a different lens and a different perspective of climate change, before going off to university to study Environmental Studies

Our five STEAM+ subject leaders have recorded a WimChat podcast, so look out for this on Twitter and our website to hear more about their views on STEAM+ and how it is opening doors for them.

Last week we heard that Martine in Year 11 and Phoebe in Year 10 were both awarded prizes for their writing submitted for the Charles Causley Trust poetry competition.  Reading Martine’s poem, we were struck by how it encapsulates the connections that can be made when subject disciplines dissolve and we can connect our thinking in different ways.

台灣 (Taiwan)

There’s a sense of magic in a place I can only half remember.
Where the faces and names are delicate leaves of my youth, falling in late September
And the neon signs with the squiggly lines glow dimly somewhere in my memory
But the falling leaves are hard to see and evade my grasp in an act of treachery.

The magic of the minute yet colossal differences, the bathrooms, the ads, and the subway.
My young eyes like a camera, spinning and capturing the scene of my beloved Taipei.
From my grandmother and my family came the knowledge of a culture I had amassed
When I could enchant in a language that rolled off my tongue like a spell I cast.

The brutal heat of London these days tugs at a memory in the back of my mind,
Of waiting by the food stall for seconds stretched to hours, pleasant and unkind.
I dream of a return where every piece falls into place
When I’ll feel the heat and humidity wrap me in a soft embrace.

There’s a tugging, restless longing in my heart
For a place I now understand as much as abstract art,
But I know its smells like the lines of my hand
And the sounds of the motorcycles revving were my favorite band.

There’s a chasm in my core when I return to the place I only half remember
Because the night markets are weary and bored and feel like a misnomer.
The dumplings taste all the same and the plane ride was too expensive,
And the disillusioned neon signs reveal the grime that feels incomprehensive.

There’s a suppressed sense that I wish I had never returned,
So it would remain the same golden red forever,
Only half remembered.

Martine’s poem ‘Taiwan’ might not initially appear to be particularly STEAM focused, picturing, through a foggy memory, the images, smells, sounds and beating heart of a city far away. At its core is a nostalgia for a memory – a memory which has greater beauty than the reality later experienced by the author. So what has this got to do with STEAM+?

Well – knowing that STEAM+ allows us to make connections between subject disciplines and to explore the ‘gaps’ between them, we can see many links: between the sprawling city and the people who live there; the sounds of language and the noise pollution of traffic; the role of memory and how we often experience emotions from the past more strongly than emotions from the present.

Above: STEAM Tower

We have a beautiful new STEAM Tower, but STEAM+ is not a place, or a room, but rather a mindset. It is a way of thinking that allows us to not be limited by the subjects we study, but rather encourages us to see links between subjects to look at making connections, exploring new avenues, and solving real-world problems. STEAM+ is for all subjects, and for all students and staff at WHS.

Whether you believe the myth that ‘85% of jobs in 2030 have not been created yet’ or see this as being deeply problematic (it’s only 10 years away..), what we do know is that resilience, creativity, adaptability and critical thinking are going to be highly valued skills for the workforce of the future. Engaging with STEAM+ – our inter-disciplinary exploration programme – will help you to develop these in-demand global skills.

As a school, we want WHS pupils to step out to shape the society in which they live and work. What connection will you find that helps you to do this?

 

The potential of quantum computing

Isabelle (Year 9) looks at the potential of quantum computing, delivering an informative video and article outlining this fascinating innovation.

We need to know the potential of quantum computing, the powerful approach to computation that our world is moving into.

There are endless ways in which we can use quantum computing. The first is from a biological aspect. A mysterious aspect of this subject are enzymes and understanding these can help to produce medicines for various major diseases. However, we don’t know a lot about enzymes due to their incredibly complex structures. Normal computers are also unable to model such a complex structure, so we need a different solution: a quantum computer. Quantum computers could predict this structure, along with several other properties.

This is just one example, but quantum computers could resolve so many problems in healthcare and can be applied to several different industries such as finance, transportation, chemicals and cybersecurity. The promise is that quantum computers can solve problems which we have pondered for years in a matter of a few hours.

And yes, it will take years, perhaps decades for this to develop in a way where the value is significant enough for many businesses, however it is important to know how it would work and what it could solve. Then, businesses can truly use quantum computers to their full potential.

How does a quantum computer work?

It is hard for the ‘normal’ computers that we use daily to solve complex problems. But this quantum computer has to potential to be able to solve specific, very complex problems, fast. It won’t replace our ‘normal’ computers; it will improve research. But here are two differences that make these quantum computers so powerful:

1. Our ‘normal’ computers use binary numbers – bits. They are made up of two number (one and off): one and zero. But these quantum computers are designed to use ‘qubits’, which can also represent a combination of one and zero.

2.      2.  Our ‘normal’ computer can manage one calculation and one input. But the quantum computers can manage more. This gives the quantum computers their speed – they will be able to process multiple calculations simultaneously, with several inputs.

So, let’s combine this: if we have ‘n’ qubits, then the quantum computer is able to process many at once. That is fast and powerful.

Classical computing has the skill to find one particular result. However, a quantum computer is able to bring it down to a small range, which is so much faster. Afterwards, we can then use a classical computer to find one particular result, but it would take much longer to only use classical computers. The idea is there, but there are challenges which stop us from developing this so far.

Obstacles

We describe something as volatile if something is unstable. Qubits are volatile. In the ‘normal’ computers today, we have a bit which is 1 or 0. It is important that this bit on a computer chip does not interfere with other bits on the same computer chip, and we have managed to do this. However, the quantum computers would need to develop a structure where the qubits can interact with each other, so that they can process several calculations and inputs at once.

What then makes these qubits so volatile is that we need to be able to control these interactions. We need to allow them to interact, while still ensuring that no inputs are changed or deleted, which would harm the accuracy. This is a technical difficulty.

So, what happens now? The idea of quantum computing has been around since 1980, but only at the end of 2019 was there proof that it was really possible.

Source: McKinsey Quarterly Feb 2020

https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/a-game-plan-for-quantum-computing

GROW 2.0: a Review

Mr Ben Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral at WHS, looks at some of the key messages from last week’s Grow 2.0 conference, looking at what it means to be Human in an A.I. World.

 

Panel
Discussions and debate from our recent GROW 2.0 Conference

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the troubling determinism of social media and the corrosive effect of echo chambers on our beliefs. At GROW 2.0 however, Robert Plomin talked to us of a different kind of determinism. In a mesmerising, if slightly worrying, lecture he enthralled us all with his ground-breaking work into, what he calls, the ‘DNA Revolution’. I say worrying because, according to Plomin, 60% of any child’s GCSE attainment is down to their genetics. The other 40%? Well, there are no systemic factors, that scientists have yet identified, that make a discernible difference in a child’s attainment.

Plomin debunked outdated notions of nature vs. nurture and instead asked us to think about our genetic predispositions.  He warned that we must never mistake correlation for causation. If, for example, a parent reads to their five-year-old every night, it is easy for us to believe that that child’s predilection for books and literature later in life is because of their parent’s diligence at that early age. Plomin would argue however that we have missed the point entirely and ignored the correlation of the parent’s love of reading being passed, genetically, to their child.

This is a powerful message to share with teachers and parents. As a school and, in these turbulent times, a sector we offer a huge variety of activities, interests and passions to those we educate. It is all too easy, as a teacher, parent or pupil to put on your GCSE blinkers and ignore the world around you. If 60% of the outcome is determined by our genetics, why not embrace that other 40%? Fill that time and energy with all of the ‘non-systematic’ activities, trips, hobbies and sports that you possibly can. Because, if we are still not sure what actually makes a difference, variety of engagement is surely the best possible choice.

 

We were lucky enough to also hear from Professor Rose Luckin, a leading thinker in artificial intelligence and its uses in education. It was inspiring to hear the possibilities ahead of us but also reassuring to hear the primacy, from someone truly immersed in the field, of the human spirit. Rose talked about an ‘intelligence infrastructure’ that is made up of seven distinct intelligences. The most important of these for her were the ‘meta-intelligences’, for example, the ‘meta-subjective’ and ‘meta-contextual’. It is our ability to access others’ emotions and our context “as we wander around the world” that Luckin believes separates us from even the most exciting advancements in A.I.

VR
Does VR have a role in education in the future? How can it not have a role given the exciting opportunities it offers?

 

As an educator, where I think I gained the most excitement from Rose’s talk were the possibilities for bespoke and tailored learning for every child. The use of data to help us with the educational needs of learners has some amazing possibilities. One could imagine every child having an early years assessment to understand the penchants and possibilities that lie ahead. This could lead to a bespoke path of access arrangements and curriculum for each child. A possibility that, as Rose said, is truly exciting as we will finally be able to “educate the world”.

More photos of the event on Flickr

Is contemporary architecture threatening London’s historic skyline?

Walkie Talkie Building

Maddie, Year 13, argues whether modern buildings are ruining London’s skyline and balances the advantages and disadvantages of modern projects.

London’s historic architecture is one of our greatest assets – culturally, socially and economically. It lies at the heart of London’s identity and distinctiveness, and its very success. It is at risk of being badly and irrevocably damaged. More than 70 tall towers are currently being constructed in London alone, prompting fears from conservation bodies and campaigners that the capital’s status as a low-rise city is being sacrificed in a dash by planners to meet the demand for space and by developers to capitalise on soaring property prices.
There have been many examples of tall buildings that have had a lasting adverse impact through being unsuitably located, poorly designed, inappropriately detailed and badly built and managed. For example, the so-called ‘Walkie talkie’ building which due to bad design concentrated the sun’s rays melting parts of cars on the streets below. And recently there has, yet again, been another proposed skyscraper in the Paddington area to the west of central London. The 224m-high Paddington Tower costing £1 bn would be the fourth highest in the capital and the first of such scale in that part of London. A building of this scale in this location threatens harm to many designated heritage assets across a wide geographical area, including listed buildings, registered historic parks and conservation areas.

London Bridge However, some people think that cities face a choice of building up or building out. Asserting that there’s nothing wrong with a tall building if it gives back more than it receives from the city. An example of a building succeeding to achieve this is the £435 million Shard, which massively attracted redevelopment to the London Bridge area. So, is this a way for London to meet rising demand to accommodate growing numbers of residents and workers?

Well, planning rules are in place in order to make sure that London achieves the correct balance to ensure tall buildings not only make a positive contribution to the capital’s skyline, but deliver much-needed new homes for Londoners as well workspace for the 800,000 new jobs expected over the next 20 years. Furthermore, tall contemporary buildings can represent “the best of modern architecture” and it encourages young architects to think creatively and innovatively making London a hub for budding architects. It also means that areas with already run-down or badly designed features have the chance to be well designed improving user’s day-to-day life whilst also benefiting the local landscape.

Protected viewpoints of the city of London

The protected viewpoints of the city of London. Do skyscrapers threaten this?

Overall, I think that in a cosmopolitan and growing capital city, London needs contemporary architecture, to embody its spirit of innovation. However, this needs to be achieved in a considered and managed way so as not to ruin the historic skyline we already have.

 

Invention through desperation – military medical advancements

Military

Jessica, Year 13, explores military medical advancements in recent conflicts, discussing their impact and whether the nature of war acts as an inspiration for innovation.

In 2001, the conflict in Afghanistan began, continuing until a majority of British troops withdrew in the final months of 2014. During these years, 6,386 British personnel were injured, with 28 fatalities, leaving the survival rate at 99.6%.

This was unheard of in previous wars and a major success story for military medicine. However, the injuries and trauma to the soldiers during this period of time increasingly involved haemorrhaging and amputations due to gunshot wounds and IEDs (also known as improvised explosive devices – a type of unconventional crude homemade bomb). These IEDs cause extensive blood loss which has been attributed to 50% of combat deaths since World War Two. In order for these soldiers to survive, a change had to be made in the form of military medicine to preserve life and limb. There are three major advancements in military trauma medicine which all arose from the need to problem-solve solutions to the new injuries personnel and the medics were now witnessing.

The first is haemostatic dressings. During the period of the Afghanistan conflict, two new dressings were developed: XSTAT and QuickClot powder which contain components such as fibrinogen and thrombin catalysing the natural coagulation response. XSTAT uses 92 medical sponges in a pocket-sized injector to pack an open wound and halt bleeding within fifteen seconds. XSTAT increases the chance of survival and holds pressure until the patient can reach a medical centre. They also contain a molecule which is visible on an X-ray to ensure all sponges are removed later to prevent infection.

Secondly, there was a development in the traditional tourniquet. A tourniquet is a constricting or compressing device used to control venous and arterial blood flow to a portion of an extremity for a period of time. This is possible because it creates pressure equal to or higher than the patient’s systolic blood pressure. The single hand tie tourniquet is a development from the original tourniquet used by army medics which had to be applied by the medic and thus were only carried by them. Without the patient being able to apply their own tourniquet, crucial time and blood was lost whilst the medic reached the injured individual, reducing their chance of survival as well as increasing the complexity of their treatment and injuries. This is when the Clinical Application Tourniquet (CAT) was developed and introduced into the US Army in 2005. It was the first single-hand tie tourniquet, allowing the soldiers to treat their own injuries immediately until the medic could attend and provide more advanced care. The tourniquet distributes pressure over a greater area which is advantageous because it reduces the underlying tissue and nerve damage, preventing it from becoming ischemic, a deficient supply of blood, whilst remaining effective. This decrease in time before a tourniquet is used has decreased the mortality rate due to haemorrhaging by 85%.

A third category of advancements is in the use of blood and the way it is transported. Blood and blood products, such as platelets, are crucial in the treatment of haemorrhaging and amputations. However, in order for it to be viable for transfusion, it must be maintained in a cool, constant environment, far from the natural one in Afghanistan. This was previously a significant disadvantage and contributed to the low survival rates for haemorrhaging but improved with the development of the blood container. The Golden-Hour mobile blood container stores up to four units of blood and platelets at[1]the required temperature of six and two degrees Celsius respectively, for 72 hours without electricity, batteries or ice to aid emergency medics. Crucially, this enabled blood to be brought forward to the battlefield rather than stored at the field hospital.

The environment of the military and the nature of its role means that trauma medicine needs to evolve to deal with the style of injuries it is experiencing: invention through desperation. However, it is important that the care not only reflects the immediate treatment of the patient but also considers their long-term care to ensure they can achieve a high quality of life post-conflict.

Does the Harkness Method improve our understanding of Maths?

Elena and Amelia, Y12 Further Mathematicians, explore how the Harkness Method has opened up a new way of thinking about Pure Maths and how it allows them to enhance their mathematical abilities.

For Further Maths A Level, the Maths department has picked a new style of teaching: the Harkness Method. It involves learning by working through problem sets. The problems give clues as to how to get to the answer and this is better than stating the rules and giving examples; we have to work them out ourselves. These problem sets are given for homework, and then we discuss them together during the next lesson by writing the answers on the board and comparing our results with each other.

Elena:

At the beginning of term, I found it quite challenging to complete exercises without knowing what rules I was expected to apply to the problems, as each question seemed to be completely different to the one preceding it. The tasks also require us to use our previous GCSE knowledge and try to extend it ourselves through trial and error and by applying it to different situations and problems. I found it difficult to understand how to apply a method to solve different problems as previously each problem came with a defined method.

Maths diagrams As the lessons progressed, I started enjoying this method of teaching as it allowed me to understand not only how each formula and rule had come to be, but also how to derive them and prove them myself – something which I find incredibly satisfying. I also particularly like the fact that a specific problem set will test me on many topics. This means that I am constantly practising every topic and so am less likely to forget it. Also, if I get stuck, I can easily move on to the next question.

Furthermore, not only do I improve my problem-solving skills with every problem sheet I complete, I also see how the other girls in my class think about each problem and so see how each question can be approached in more than one way to get the same answer – there is no set way of thinking for a problem.

This is what I love about maths: that there are many ways of solving a problem. Overall, I have grown to like and understand how the Harkness Method aims to challenge and extend my maths skills, and how it has made me improve the way I think of maths problems.

Amelia:

When I first started the Harkness approach for Pure Maths in September, I remember feeling rather sceptical about it as it was unlike any method of learning I had encountered before. To begin with, I found it slightly challenging to answer the questions without knowing what topic they were leading to and found confusing how each sheet contained a mixture of topics.

However, I gradually began to like this as it meant I could easily move on and still complete most of the homework, something which you cannot do with the normal method of teaching. Moreover, I found it extremely beneficial to learn the different topics gradually over many lessons as I think that this improved my understanding, for example for differentiation we learnt it from first principles which gave me the opportunity to comprehend how it actually works instead of merely just remembering how to do it.

Furthermore, I think that the best part of the Harkness Method is that you are learning many topics at a time which means that you cannot forget them as compared to in the normal method which I remember finding difficult when it came to revision for GCSEs as I had forgotten the topics I learnt at the beginning of Year 10. I also began to enjoy the sheets more and more because the majority of the questions are more like problem-solving which I have always found very enjoyable and helpful as it means you have to think of what you need to use instead of the question just simply telling you.

Moreover, I very much enjoyed seeing how other people completed the questions as they would often have other methods, which I found far easier than the way I had used. The other benefit of the lesson being in more like a discussion is that it has often felt like having multiple teachers as my fellow class member have all been able to explain the topics to me. I have found this very useful as I am in a small class of only five however, I certainly think that the method would not work as well in larger classes.

Although I have found the Harkness method very good for Pure Maths, I definitely think that it would work far less well for other parts of maths such as statistics. This is because I think that statistics is more about learning rules many of which you cannot learn gradually.

As teachers, do we need to know about big data?

Clare Roper, the Director of Science, Technology and Engineering at WHS explores the world of big data.  As teachers should we be aware of big data? Why, and what data is being collected on our students every day… but equally relevant questions about how we could increase awareness of the almost unimaginable possibilities that big data might expose our students to in the future.

The term ‘big data’ was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 where it was defined as “extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations.”[1] In the same year it was listed by the UK government as one of the eight great technologies that now receives significant investment with the aim of ensuring the country is a world leader in innovation and development.[2]

‘Large data sets’ with approximately 10000 data points in a spreadsheet have recently introduced into the A Level Mathematics curriculum, but ‘big data’ is on a different scale entirely with the amount of data expanding at such speed, that it cannot be stored or analysed using traditional methods. In fact, it is predicted that between 2012 and 2020 the global volume of data will increase exponentially from 4.4 zettabytes to 44 zettabytes (ie. 44 x1021 bytes)[3] and data scientists now talk of ‘data lakes’ and ‘dark data’ (data that you do not know about).

But should we be collecting every piece of data imaginable in the hope it might be useful one day, and is that even sustainable or might we be sinking in these so-called lakes of data? Many data scientists argue that data on its own actually has no value at all and that it is only when it is analysed in context that it becomes valuable. With the introduction of GDPR in the EU, there has been a lot of focus on data protection, data ethics and the ownership and security of personal data.

At a recent talk at the Royal Institute, my attention was drawn to the bias that exists in some big data sets. Even our astute Key Stage 3 scientists will be aware that if the data you collect is biased, then inevitably any conclusions drawn from it will at best be misleading, but more likely, be meaningless. The same premise applies to big data. The example given by Maja Pantic from the Samsung AI Lab in Cambridge, referred to facial recognition, and the cultural and gender bias that currently exist within some of the big data behind the related software – but this is only one of countless examples of bias within the big data on humans. With more than half the world’s population online, digital data on humans makes up the majority of a phenomenal volume of big data that is generated every second. Needless to say, those people who are not online are not included in this big data, and therein lies the bias.

There are many examples in science where the approach to big data collection has been different to that collected on humans (unlike us, chemical molecules do not generate an online footprint by themselves) and new fields in many sciences are advancing because of big data. Weather forecasting and satellite navigation rely on big data and new technologies have emerged including astroinformatics, bioinformatics (boosted even further recently thanks to an ambitious goal to sequence the DNA of all life – Earth Biogenome project ), geoinformatics and pharmogenomics to name just a few. Despite the fact that the term ‘big data’ is too new to be found in any school syllabi as yet, here at WHS we are already dabbling in big data (eg. MELT project, IRIS with Ark Putney Academy, Twinkle Orbyts, UCL with Tolcross Girls’ and Tiffin Girls’ and the Missing Maps project).

To grapple with the idea of the value of big data collections and what we should or should not be storing and analysing, I turned to CERN (European Organisation of Nuclear Research). They generate millions of collisions every second from the Large Hadron Collider and therefore will have carefully considered big data collection. It was thanks to the forward thinking of the British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee at CERN that the world wide web exists as a public entity today and it seems scientists at CERN are also pioneering in their outlook on big data. Rather than store all the information from every one of the 600 million collisions per second (and create a data lake), they discard 99.99% of this data as it is produced and only store data for approximately 100 collisions per second. Their approach is born from the idea that although they might not know what they are looking for, they do know what they have already seen [4]. Although CERN is not using DNA molecules for the long-term storage of their data yet, it seems not so far-fetched that one of a number of new start-up companies may well make this a possibility soon. [5]

None of us know what challenges lie ahead for ourselves as teachers, nor our students as we prepare them for careers we have not even heard of, but it does seem that big data will influence more of what we do and invariably how we do it. Smart data, i.e. filtered big data that is actionable, seems a more attractive prospect as we work out how balance intuition and experience over newer technologies reliant on big data where there is a potential for us to unwittingly drown in the “data lakes” we are now capable of generating. Big data is an exciting, rapidly evolving entity and it is our responsibility to decide how we engage with it.

[1] Oxford Dictionaries: www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition//big-data, 2015.

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eight-great-technologies

[3] The Digital Universe of Opportunities: Rich Data and the Increasing Value of the Internet of Things, 2014, https://www.emc.com/leadership/digital-universe/

[4] https://home.cern/about/computing

[5] https://synbiobeta.com/entering-the-next-frontier-with-dna-data-storage/

What’s next? Moving on from ‘Growth Mindset’ – 19/10/18

I am sure we all have engraved in our minds the excitingly named Strategic Objective 3.1? It’s ok, this isn’t a test, and I will not be asking for answers on a GROW card… Mr Ben Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral, looks at the next steps in our pastoral programme here at WHS.

The answer –which of course we all knew – is: “Developing a growth mindset across the school”. Ever since Dr Carol Dweck published her paper about the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence, the education community has been clamouring to implement her findings in schools across the globe. Another well-known theory, Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, depicts the process by which an idea is adopted over time within a community. As Everett’s ‘Laggards’ grapple with how to implement Growth Mindset in their schools is it time for us, as at least ‘early adopters’ if not ‘innovators’ ourselves, to move beyond Dweck’s original research and ask; what’s next?  

 

As we all know too well, the world is rapidly changing, and the landscape for which we are preparing our students is constantly shifting. A recent Oxford University study estimates that 47% of current jobs are “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years.[1] The subjects we learn at school are mostly static, two plus two will always equal four and the Battle of Hastings will have always been fought in 1066. Complexity theorist Sam Arbesman[2] argues that facts like these have a ‘half-life’ of utility. Even coding, often touted as ‘the language of the 21st Century’, was first taught using the coding language of BASIC which is now defunct, and today Python is the most popular but will likely not be a decade from now. The challenge for students and educators is putting less value on what we know and more on adaption and improvisation.

Should the next focus then be on what we do with what we know, not what we have learnt or how we have learnt it? Laszlo Bock[3], formally the senior vice president of people operations at Google –  i.e. the guy in charge of hiring the talent for one of the world’s most influential and successful companies – notes that test scores are a worthless criteria for hiring and predict nothing. During Bock’s tenure, the percentage of Google employees without a college education rose to as high as 14% on some teams. What then did Bock value in a candidate? Of course, one cannot dismiss ‘good grades’, many jobs at Google require maths, computing and coding skills but the answer does not reside just in STEM and they certainly have their eyes on much, much more. The number one trait that Google looks for? Cognitive ability – the ability to ‘process on the fly’, to pull together disparate bits of information in order to work on and solve a problem.

Interestingly the other key skill sought by Google? Leadership. This is not the traditional leadership of captains and presidents. It is the leader, who when faced with a problem while a member of a team, at the appropriate time, steps in and leads. And, just as critically, steps back and stops leading and is able to relinquish power. This humility and ownership is an intrinsic part of leadership; to have stepped in with a sense of ownership while having the humility to step back and embrace the ideas of others in order to achieve your ultimate goal of problem solving, together. Perhaps the most telling of Bock’s lessons? The least important trait, so called ‘expertise’ – why would you hire someone that has done something ‘100 times’ before – what genuine innovation is there in repeating the past?

So, where then do these examples leave Strategic Objective 3.1?

I am sure that much of this will not be a surprise for most, but in evolving our thinking, it does raise pertinent questions.

  • What is the difference between embracing challenges and persevering through them and seeking out those challenges as opportunities?
  • When obstacles arise, our common response is grit and resilience but can we do more to shift our thinking to look for opportunities and possibilities; what do we do with what we know once they occur?
  • Innovation is not about ‘thinking outside the box’, it is about creating opportunities inside the box you already have; our hard work and effort are continuous, but as a school, how can we look to make time to create new solutions and ideas?

We proudly embrace failure but we cannot afford to be passive or linear in our thinking. Failures and challenges do not simply come in a procession, one by one; the most successful yet humble human beings are the ones that seek the highs and have experienced the lows and have come back for more regardless. Computers will never replace the agility of thought offered by people who can empathise, communicate and collaborate. It is that we want to engrave in our new Strategic Objectives but more importantly, instil into our girls so they can stride out and lead on the challenges facing us in the 21st century.

[1] http://www.eng.ox.ac.uk/about/news/new-study-shows-nearly-half-of-us-jobs-at-risk-of-computerisation

[2] The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman, 2004

[3] Work rules! Insights from inside google that will transform how you live and lead, Laszlo Bock, 2015