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

Helen of Troy – the secret to becoming timeless?

In WimLearn this week, Imogen in Year 10 looks at the secret to becoming timeless, looking at the story of Helen of Troy through different historical periods.

It is uncertain if Helen of Troy ever lived, and yet nearly 3000 years after she first featured in Homer’s epic, the Iliad, she remains infamous – her story and reputation timeless. Set in the final year of the bitter Trojan war, the Iliad tells a legendary tale and includes characters both mortal and immortal. Although appearing only a handful of times, the portrayal of Helen is a striking one.

 

“No blame that the Trojans and strong-greaved Achaeans
have suffered so long on account of such a woman;
terribly does she seem like the immortal goddess to look on.”

(3.156-158)

 

At this point in the poem, Helen herself has not even spoken, but already has been pegged as almost divine in her beauty as well as having the blame for the brutal war placed upon her.

The strange thing is that once this claim was made, Homer neglected to elaborate further. She was supposedly the most beautiful, but no specific features are described, instead leaving it to the imagination. But deliberate or not, employing such a fluid image was a powerful choice, as after all beauty is so subjective. This ambiguity is appealing to the masses, since by allowing the individual to tailor their own perception of her, she can truly become the most beautiful in their eyes.

In a way the Iliad revolves around Helen, but Homer did not require her so much as a character, but more as the ultimate prize – compelling and beautiful, but nonetheless a possession. As a result, her personality is vague, with the little dialogue she has simply presenting her as wracked with regret. One of the first things she says is, “How I wish I’d chosen evil death.” (3.173) Her words are used just to support her reputation, for the more she blames herself for the sufferings of the war, the more the reader dwells on the part she played.

There is something so intriguing about being called the most beautiful woman in the world and yet wishing for death. That, coupled with a lack of detail regarding her personality and background, is what most likely led other writers to continue it, resulting in contradictions and strange embellishments to her tale. For example, in Euripides’ play Helen, she was told to have been born from an egg – peculiar, but it is thought that this was accepted by the Ancient World. And Helen had become so famous that not one, but two different places in Greece, Sparta and Athens, each paraded an eggshell and claimed it was the very eggshell from which she was supposedly born.

Regardless, it seems much of her acclaim stemmed from those in Ancient Greece. Although details like the timeframe, scale and Helen’s involvement in the war are debatable, many historians believe some kind of Trojan war did actually take place. Assuming one did, the aftermath of it would have brought many exaggerations and tales, due to war being a quick path to glory. These would have served to make the war even more renowned, simply adding to her considerable reputation – the greater and more terrible the war was, the more worthy the cause must have been. And had she existed, very few people would have seen her in person, resulting in speculation which was just another factor inflating her stature. For although some would scorn her alleged behaviour, many had genuine faith in her, or at least her beauty. A cult dedicated to her even sprung up across Greece, just like one would have been created for deity.

But how did the myth of Helen survive long after the Ancient Greek’s demise? Her status was not just maintained orally but would have also been displayed in more tangible ways like her appearing in writings, art and architecture, all of which outlived the people. They helped preserve her story, but ultimately it speaks for itself. Even for Greek mythology the tale was unique, and so it was embraced widely by other civilisations. Around 800 years after the Iliad she briefly appears in Roman writer Virgil’s Aeneid. Her story continued to be told even once the gods in it were discarded in favour of other religions like Christianity – somehow in early Middle Ages Helen began to be taken as almost an equivalent temptress to Eve. Skip a few centuries and the Elizabethan playwright Marlowe had coined a catchphrase for her – ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ Even today, she continues to be a source of interest, inspiring more literature and films.

Therefore, what is the secret to becoming timeless? With Helen, there does not seem to be a single factor which can be isolated. Perhaps one could argue it was her iconic story, with her being beautiful enough for thousands of men to die over. But this alluring beauty is also reliant on speculation and mystery – all-important as a fixed image of her would never align with every individuals’ opinion. And so this opens up an important question: could there ever be another woman considered to be the most beautiful in the world? Nowadays, technology would undermine any such claim by eliminating this key element of mystery. Yet this is not necessarily a negative thing. Helen may be a timeless figure, but in the end being beautiful and famous brought her a sad life. The first time she speaks she begs for death, and in the Odyssey by the time she is back at Sparta she has resorted to putting herbs in her wine; essentially drugging herself against her grief. She seems broken – would anyone want to be timeless if that is the price?

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

Why everyone should want to become a ‘Digital Champion’!

Recently qualified MIEEs and Wimbledon High teachers Nicola Cooper, Nicola Higgs and Alys Lloyd discuss the impact being ‘WHS Digital Champions’ and part of the Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) community has had on teaching in their departments.

The concept of ‘Digital Champions’ – classroom teachers with a particular interest in exploring new and exciting ways of using technology to enhance classroom practice and student learning – really arose in response to a whole school initiative around innovation in the use of technology. With this aim and along with the introduction of BYOD, it was soon realised that in order to truly exploit the potential of ‘digital’, we needed the people using it, namely the teaching staff, to become the ‘experts’. From small beginnings, the ‘Digital Champions’ is now a team of 23 teaching staff from across the school. As well as regular meetings to discuss strategy with our Director of Digital Learning and Innovation, the group has also been involved in carrying out small scale action research projects looking into amongst other things; collaboration online, AI in learning systems and using hardware.

The Microsoft educator community, which is open to anyone, has been a great resource for all of us in our role as ‘Digital Champions’ providing as it does a vast range of professional courses that focus on helping teachers integrate technology into their teaching. Furthermore, qualifying as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert gives us access to a global forum of educators through which we can connect with colleagues working in a broad range of settings, drawing on their experiences and learning from them.

Microsoft Trip

Nicola Cooper – Teacher of Biology

For me, being an MIEE and ‘Digital Champion’ has, most crucially, given me a platform through which to really engage with technology. Collaborating with colleagues across departments, observing and discussing concrete examples of how they use applications such as Office Mix and Sway in their teaching, has been inspiring and helped me to think more creatively about my use of the same. And the benefit isn’t limited to use of technology, indeed any vehicle that gets teachers together sharing ideas is immensely powerful. As a digital champion I’ve had numerous conversations around tech, that have digressed to talking about curriculum overlap and collaboration in other areas.

My particular area of personal focus has been the use of OneNote. Through completing online courses, available through the Microsoft Educator Community, I have been able to use the application to give more meaningful feedback to students; the record to audio function allows me to give verbal feedback (of which there is a permanent record), using the inking tools I can pose questions to students and thus enter into a dialogue that would be much harder to do offline. This is expertise I have been able to take back and share with my department. I have been in a position to reassure and encourage colleagues with their use of technology so that we are now in a position where the Biology department has wholly embraced OneNote. Not just in lessons with our students, but also as a means of collaborating with each other and sharing good practice. Imagine this replicated across multiple departments and it is clear to see the positive impact Digital Champions are having throughout the school.

Alys Lloyd – Teacher of Maths

Being a Digital Champion last year really allowed me to utilise my enthusiasm for and love of technology that works well. I wholeheartedly embrace technology which improves teaching and learning both in and outside of the classroom, but I would rather have no technology than tech which makes life more difficult. I saw a number of areas within the school where technology could be used better, and as a Digital Champion I was given the opportunity to add my voice to influence the way it could be improved.

I chose to be part of the team investigating hardware in classrooms, to influence decisions made about the next generation of hardware to be installed in classrooms. We created a questionnaire using Microsoft Forms, which asked all departments across both Senior and Junior schools about how they currently use the hardware in classrooms, things that worked well, and main issues they found with it. Additionally, I was part of the team who went to The BETT Show, where I was able to make positive contributions to IT decisions, giving my opinion on which hardware would work well in the classroom, for a teacher in our school.
Working with the IT Team, I was persistent in pushing for an improved way of accessing shared files and resources. Taking them a variety of different ideas eventually lead to an approach which seemed that it would work in a way that would be futureproofed and consistent with being a Microsoft Showcase School. A few departments trialled different ways of connecting last year, which lead to it being successfully rolled out school-wide this year.

I hope that being an MIEE will allow me to continue to build on my enjoyment of good tech that works well. I look forward to training more members of staff, individually and departments, in optimising their use of the technology we have, improving their experience of technology, and therefore positively impacting students’ learning experience.

Microsoft Trip

Nicola Higgs – Head of Geography

Since the adoption of BYOD, staff have been given great freedom to try out the newest of technologies, to be innovative and take risks, which is part of the ethos of the school and something we try to model for our students. A colleague in the Geography department had an interest in reaching the quieter, ‘less seen’ student, those for whom participating verbally in lessons was more of a challenge. I was keen to see how technology could give a voice to those pupils. Through my role as a Digital Champion I have been so fortunate to develop a truly collaborative relationship with the Director of Digital Learning and Innovation, who suggested that Teams, which was introduced for all staff and students last academic year, might be a platform that could achieve this goal. We devised a ‘silent debate’ for Year 8 who argued for their position solely using Teams. We were blown away with the results; all pupils were able to articulate their point of view, drawing on excellent research, incorporating examples to support and using terminology that we might expect of a GCSE student. Students’ feedback showed how much they enjoyed the opportunity to create and respond to specific points of argument in a timely but unpressured way.

I am now exploring more ways to amplify student voice both in the classroom and the wider school community. I look forward to learning more from other educators through the Microsoft platform and collaborating with my colleagues at Wimbledon in the Digital Champions group.

 

The future

As MIEEs, we are planning to visit Microsoft’s store during the Christmas holidays where we will meet MIEEs from other UK schools, as well as representatives from Microsoft who want to hear all about what we are doing at Wimbledon.

The Digital Champions met a couple of weeks ago to agree the vision for the academic year ahead. It was thrilling to see colleagues bringing their own ideas and areas of interest as foci for research this time around, and our working groups are already getting stuck in to reading and trying out new ideas. We will report back to colleagues later in the year to share best practice and hints and tips.

The technological journey at Wimbledon High feels like it really is beginning, and we would urge all colleagues to consider becoming a member of the Digital Champions, it is an uplifting and ambitious group, and we always have tasty biscuits too!

https://education.microsoft.com/

How should we really feel about the arrival of artificial intelligence in the classroom?

Claire Boyd, Head of Junior School, reflects upon the emotional response pupils, teachers and parents may experience as artificial intelligence, big data and augmented reality looks sets to change the educational landscape.

 

It seems to me that we can be in no doubt that the educational zeitgeist of the moment is the potential that artificial intelligence, big data and augmented reality holds for education. As Ben Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral, explored on the pages of this blog last month, the take-home message from the keynote speakers at September’s Grow 2.0 conference, was the unprecedented scope of new technologies to create a bespoke, tailored learning experience for individual learners.

The same sentiments were echoed by Priya Lakhani, CEO and founder of Century Tech, on stage at the annual conference of the Independent Association of Prep Schools in central London a fortnight ago. Patel evangelised on the capacity AI holds to democratise education and remove silos of learning from classrooms around the world.

Much closer to home, my path across the playground from the Junior School to Senior School each day serves as a compelling reminder of the exciting and progressive space Wimbledon High School is giving to pursue a new, non-binary approach to teaching the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, art and maths; creating space for new approaches of innovation and collaboration to flourish through Project Ex Humilibus. The cumulative effect of these realities cast a different landscape of education with which many parents and teachers in our school community will identify. Whilst recognition that the traditional ‘factory’ model of education, in which knowledge and skills are played off against one another as learners are spoon-fed a linear curriculum of discrete subject teaching, is outmoded and anachronistic, there is little clarity on the reality of what an AI, data-led education system will offer is not yet certain.

Pupils experiment with VR headsets at the recent WHS Grow 2.0 Conference

With wearable technologies and virtual home devices such as Google Home and Alexa becoming increasingly commonplace in households around the country as well as ‘customers who bought this also liked’ recommendations par for course of our online shopping experiences, the creeping pervasiveness of data driven AI devices is changing the face of many of our everyday transactional experiences beyond recognition. Heralded for the part these developments play in increasing convenience and expediting smart-living, the contribution these new products are making to modern life is widely celebrated across mainstream society. When the capacity and functionality of these data-driven technologies are applied to the educational realm, I wonder how closely the positive reception will be matched? How comfortable are we with the diagnostic skills of AI-driven learning technologies being applied to the classroom environment, taking up residence in the learning space traditionally driven by the expertise of the teacher as the professional?

Throughout history, schools, universities and other educational institutions have provided space for progressive ideas to germinate and new approaches to intellectual and emotional development to evolve. With this in mind, can it not be that the advantages afforded to us in our personal lives by big data and AI can be replicated in the spheres of learning and education? The potential for AI to collect, collate and analyse the data of individual learning profiles and build personalised learning pathways of attainment, progress and development is so large in scale that the possibilities for bespoke education is infinite.

The advent of AI in education should also not be feared because of what it represents for teachers and the teaching profession more widely. Instead of viewing this new frontier with apprehension or scepticism, we should, as school communities, feel excited and energised about what lies ahead. This is because, when most people are asked to consider the favourite teacher of their school days, their responses will most commonly focus upon the way that teacher made that individual feel; the way the believed in them and empowered them to achieve an ambition or succeed at something they would not otherwise have achieved. It is this capacity for relationship creation, based on the nuances of emotional intelligence and the domain of human-specific skills such as meta-cognition and social intelligence that human and the artificial hold the potential to equip the children of today with the springboard for the unfettered success in the future. In the words of UCL’s Prof Rose Luckin, the “holy grail for education in the future is accurately perceived self-efficacy”.

GROW 2.0 – Being Human in an AI World

On Saturday 21st September we host our second Grow Pastoral Festival. The theme for this year is an examination of what it is to be human in a machine age. What questions should we be asking about the way technology affects our lives and what are our hopes for the future? More specifically, how will our young people develop and grow in a fast-paced, algorithmically driven society and what might education look like in the future?

 
In the morning session Professor Rose Luckin and Professor Robert Plomin will be giving keynote addresses, and then talk with our Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, Rachel Evans.
Prof Luckin specialises in how AI might change education; Prof Plomin has recently published Blueprint, a fascinating read about genetics and education. We can’t wait to talk about how education might get personalised, and how that change might affect our experience of learning.

In the afternoon we’ll dive into some provocative debate with Natasha Devon, Hannah Lownsbrough and Andrew Doyle, addressing questions of identity, wellbeing and community in an online age with our own Assistant Head Pastoral, Ben Turner.

So what kind of questions are in our minds as we approach this intellectually stimulating event? Ben Turner brings a philosophical approach to the topic.


Is our ever-increasing reliance on machines and subscription to the ‘universal principles of technology’[1] eroding our sense of empathy, compassion, truth-telling and responsibility?



Our smartphones give us a constant connection to an echo-system that reflects, and continuously reinforces, our individual beliefs and values. Technology has created a world of correlation without causation, where we understand what happened and how it happened but never stop to ask why it happened. Teenagers are understandably susceptible to an eco-system of continuous connection, urgency and instant gratification. It is these values that they now use to access their world and that inform them what is important in it.

Are tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook creating a monoculture that lacks an empathy for its surroundings? If we all become ‘insiders’ within a technology dominated society, pushing instant buttons for everything from batteries to toilet roll, are we losing the ability to see things from a fresh perspective? By raising children in a world of instant access and metropolitan monism are we creating only insiders; young people who will never gain the ability to step back and view what has been created in a detached way. How as parents, schools and communities do we keep what is unique, while embracing the virtues of technological innovation?

Is social media destroying our free will?

If you are not a determinist, you might agree that free will has to involve some degree of creativity and unpredictability in how you respond to the world. That your future might be more than your past. That you might grow, you might change, you might discover. The antithesis to that is when your reactions to the world are locked into a pattern that, by design, make you more predictable – for the benefit of someone or something else. Behaviourism, developed in the 19th Century, believes in collecting data on every action of a subject in order to change something about their experience, often using punishment or reward to enact the change. Is social media, through its algorithms, gratification systems and FOMO, manipulating our actions and eroding our free will?

Social media is pervasive in its influence on the beliefs, desires and temperaments of our teenagers and you do not have to be a determinist to know that that will lead to a disproportionate level of control over their actions. Does social media leave our young people with no alternative possibilities; locked in a room, not wanting to leave but ignorant to the fact that they cannot?

Is social media the new opium of the masses?

Social media has changed the meaning of life for the next generation. The change in human contact from physical interactions to those, arguably superficial, exchanges online is having not only a well-documented detrimental effect on individual young people but also on the very fabric and makeup of our communities.

In addition to the ongoing concerns about privacy, electoral influence and online abuse, it is becoming increasingly obvious that social media has all the qualities of an addictive drug. Psychologists Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths wrote a paper finding that the “negative correlates of (social media) usage include the decrease in real life social community participation and academic achievement, as well as relationship problems, each of which may be indicative of potential addiction.”[2]

That is not to say that everyone who uses social media is addicted. However, the implications of the ‘heavy’ usage of social media by young people are increasingly painting an unpleasant picture. The UK Millennium Cohort Study, from the University of Glasgow, found that 28% of girls between 13 and 15 surveyed spent five hours or more on social media, double the number of boys survey who admitted the same level of usage. Moreover the NHS Digital’s survey of the Mental Health of children and young people in England[3], which found that 11 to 19 year olds with a “mental disorder” were more likely to use social media every day (87.3%) than those without a disorder (77%) and were more likely to be on social media for longer. Rates of daily usage also varied by type of disorder; 90.4% of those with emotional disorders, for example, used social media daily.

Panel Discussion

However, there is more to this than just the causal link between the use and abuse of social media and poor mental health. With the march of technology in an increasingly secular world, are we losing our sense of something greater than ourselves? Anthony Seldon calls this the “Fourth Education Revolution”, but as we embrace the advances and wonders of a technologically advanced world do we need to be more mindful of what we leave behind? Da Vinci, Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters, not only worked alongside religion but also were inspired by it. Conversely, Marx believed Religion to be the opium of the people. If social media is not to be the new opium, we must find a place for spirituality in our secular age. Even if we are not convinced by a faith, embracing the virtues of a religious upbringing seems pertinent in these turbulent times. Namely inclusivity, compassion and community, because if we do not, then very quickly the narcissistic immediacy and addictive nature of social media will fill the void left in our young peoples’ lives, becoming the addictive drug that Marx forewarned against.


References:

[1] Michael Bugeja, Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms, 2nd Ed. 2018

[2] Online Social Networking and Addiction – A review of Psychological Literature, Daria J. Kuss and Mark D. Griffiths, US National Library of Medicine, 2011

[3] November 2018

Toward the Unknown Region: how do we impart the skills and knowledge required for students to be successful in careers that currently do not exist?

Future of Jobs 2

Toward the Unknown Region[1] – Mr. Nicholas Sharman, Head of Design & Technology looks at whether integrating STEAM into the heart of a curriculum develops skills required for careers that do not currently exist.

The world of work has always been an evolving environment. However, it has never been more pertinent than now; according to the world economic forum, 65% of students entering primary school today will be working in jobs that do not currently exist[2].

As educators, this makes our job either extremely difficult, pointless or (in my view) one of the most exciting opportunities that we have been faced with for nearly 200 years since the introduction of the Victorian education system. The idea of relying solely on a knowledge-based education system is becoming outdated and will not allow students to integrate into an entirely different world of work. Automation and Artificial Intelligence will make manual and repetitive jobs obsolete, changing the way we work entirely. Ask yourself this: could a robot do your job? The integration of these developments is a conversation all in its own and one for a future post.

So, what is STEAM and why has it become so prominent in the UK education system?

The acronym STEM was (apparently) derived from the American initiative ‘STEM’ developed in 2001 by scientific administrators at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)[3]. The addition of the ‘A’ representing the Arts, ultimately creating Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths. Since the introduction of STEM-based curriculums in the US, the initiative has grown exponentially throughout the globe, with the UK education system adopting the concept.

So why STEAM and what are the benefits? STEAM education is far more than just sticking subject titles together. It is a philosophy of education that embraces teaching skills and subjects in a way that resembles the real world. More importantly, it develops the skills predicted to be required for careers that currently do not exist. What are these skills and why are they so important?

Knowledge vs Skills

When we look at the education systems from around the world there are three that stand out. Japan, Singapore and Finland have all been quoted as countries that have reduced the size of their knowledge curriculum. This has allowed them to make space to develop skills and personal attributes. Comparing this to the PISA rankings, these schools are within the top 5 in the world and in Singapore’s case, ranked No1[4].

I am sure we cannot wholly attribute this to a skills-focused curriculum; however, it does ask the question – what skills are these schools developing and how much knowledge do we need?[5],[6]

  1. Mental Elasticity – having the mental flexibility to think outside of the box, see the big picture and rearrange things to find a solution.
  2. Critical Thinking – the ability to analyse various situations, considering multiple solutions and making decisions quickly through logic and reasoning.
  3. Creativity – robots may be better than you may at calculating and diagnosing problems, however, they are not very good at creating original content, thinking outside the box or being abstract.
  4. People Skills – the ability to learn how to manage and work with people (and robots), having empathy and listening
  5. SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) – learning how to use new technology and how to manage them
  6. Interdisciplinary Knowledge – understanding how to pull information from many different fields to come up with creative solutions to future problems.

Future of Jobs graph
The Future of Jobs Report by the World Economic Forum showing the pace of change in just 5 years

All of the above skills are just predictions. However, the list clearly highlights that employers will be seeking skill-based qualities, with this changing as future jobs develop and materialise. So do we need knowledge?

Well, of course we do – knowledge is the fundamental element required to be successful in using the above skills. However, as educators, we need to consider a balance of how we can make sure our students understand how important these skills will be to them in the future when an exam grade based on knowledge could be irrelevant to employers.

What subjects promote these skills?

As a Technologist, I believe there has never been a more important time in promoting and delivering the Design & Technology curriculum. The subject has for too long been misrepresented and had a stigma hanging around it due to previous specifications and people’s experiences, comments such as ‘so you teach woodwork then?’ really do not give justice to the subject.

With the introduction of the new curriculum, allowing students more opportunity to investigate and build these future skills, the subject has never been more relevant. Looking at the list of promoted skills, I cannot think of another subject that not only promotes these skills but also actively encourages the integration into every lesson. Do not get me wrong, all subjects are as equally important. Design & Technology is a subject that is able to bring them all into real-world scenarios. If we think about the knowledge that is developed in Science for example – where students can look at material properties and their effect on the user’s experience, or Religious Studies and how different signs, symbols or even colours can have different meanings in cultures affecting the design of a fully inclusive product – they can all be related to Design and Technology in one way or another.

Comparing the Design & Technology curriculum to the future skills list, we can break down the different skills it develops. It encourages mental elasticity through challenging student’s ideas and concepts, thinking differently to solve current and real-life problems. It allows students to develop critical thinking, through challenging their knowledge and understanding; ensuring students develop the ability to solve problems through investigation, iteration and failure, ultimately building resilience. It goes without saying that the subject not only encourages creativity but allows students to challenge concepts and ideas through investigating and questioning. Furthermore, it teaches the concept of ‘design thinking’ and collaborative working, allowing students to develop people skills, understanding how people work, interact and think; enhancing empathy and understanding. As technology progresses the subject follows suit, permitting students to implement and understand how new and emerging technologies are embedded, not only into the world of design but the Social, Moral and environmental effects they create. Lastly and probably most importantly, is how the subject teaches interdisciplinary knowledge. I like to describe Design & Technology as a subject that brings knowledge from all areas of the curriculum together, the creativity and aesthetics from Art, the application of Maths when looking at anthropometrics, tolerances or even ratios, how Religious Studies can inform and determine designs, how science informs and allows students to apply theory, or even the environmental impact Geography can show. I could go on and explain how every subject influences Design & Technology in one way or another, although, more importantly, it shows how we need to look at a more cohesive and cross-curricular curriculum; when this happens the future skills are inherently delivered in a real-world application.

Looking back at the question at the start of this article, we can start to conclude why having the concept of STEAM at the heart of a school environment is so important. However, it is not good enough to just ‘stick’ subjects together, there has to be a bigger picture where knowledge and skills are stitched together like a finely woven tapestry. Ideally, we would look at the primary education system, where we remove subject-specific lessons, develop co-teaching, learning that takes place through projects bringing elements from all subjects in to cohesive projects; teachers would become facilitators of learning, delivering knowledge not in a classroom but in an environment that allows more autonomous research and investigation. However, until the exam system changes, this is not going to fully happen.

So what could we be doing more? I believe we should be focusing on more cross-curricular planning, developing skills application and using knowledge to enhance learning. By developing a curriculum centred around a STEAM approach, we can start to develop the skills required for our students and the careers of the future.


References: 

[1] See https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/245 for the text to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece for choir and orchestra entitled ‘Toward the Unknown Region’
[2] https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2018
[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/STEM-education
[4] http://www.oecd.org/pisa/
[5] https://www.weforum.org/focus/skills-for-your-future
[6] https://www.crimsoneducation.org/uk/blog/jobs-of-the-future

How is the Turing Test Relevant to Philosophy?

Kira, Year 13, looks at the Turing test and how criticisms of it bring new ideas and concepts into the philosophy of mind.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing

As emerging areas of computer science such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) continue to grow, questions surrounding the possibility of a conscious computer are becoming more widely debated. Many AI researchers have the objective of creating Artificial General Intelligence: AI that has an intelligence, and potentially a consciousness, similar to humans. This has led many to speculate about the nature of an artificial mind, and an important question arises in the wake of this modern development and research: “Can computers think?”

Decades before the development of AI as we know it today, Alan Turing attempted to answer this question in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence. He developed the famous Turing test as a way to evaluate the intelligence of a computer. Turing proposed a scenario in which a test subject would have two separate conversations: one with another human, and one with a machine designed to give human-like responses. These conversations would take place through a text-channel so the result would not be affected by the machine’s ability to render speech. The test subject would then be asked to determine which conversation took place with a machine. Turing argued that if they are unable to reliably distinguish the machine from the other human, then the machine has ‘passed the test’, and can be considered intelligent.

At the start of his essay, Turing specifies that he would not be answering “Can computers think?”, but a new question that he believed we are able to answer: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” However, Turing did believe that a computer which was able to succeed in ‘the imitation game’ could be considered intelligent in a similar way to a human. In this way, he followed a functionalist idea about the mind – identifying mental properties though mental functions, such as determining intelligence through the actions of a being, rather than some other intrinsic quality of a mental state.

Many scholars have criticised the Turing test, such as John Searle, who put forward the Chinese Room Argument and the idea of ‘strong AI’ to illustrate why he believed Turing’s ideas around intelligence to be false. The thought experiment looks at a situation where a computer is produced that behaves as though it understands Chinese. It is, therefore, able to communicate with a Chinese speaker and pass the Turing test, as it convinces the person that they are talking to another Chinese-speaking human. Searle then asks whether the machine really understands Chinese, or if it is merely simulating the ability to speak the language. The first scenario is what Searle calls ‘strong AI’, referring to the latter as ‘weak AI’.

In order to answer his question, Searle illustrates a situation in which an English-speaking human is placed in a room with a paper version of the computer program. This person, given sufficient time, could be handed a question written in Chinese and produce an answer by following the program’s instructions step-by-step, in much the same way as a computer does. Although this person is hence able to communicate with somebody speaking Chinese, they do not actually understand the conversation that is taking place, as they are simply following instructions. In the same way, a computer able to communicate in Chinese cannot be said to understand the language. Searle argues that without this understanding, a computer should not be described as ‘thinking’, and as a result should not be said to have a ‘mind’ or ‘intelligence’ in a remotely human way.

Searle’s argument has had a significant impact on the philosophy of mind and has come to be viewed as an important argument against functionalism. The thought experiment provides opposition to the idea that the mind is merely a machine and nothing more: if the mind were just a machine, it is theoretically possible to produce an artificial mind that is capable of perceiving and understanding all that it sees around it. According to Searle, this is not a possibility. However, many people disagree with this belief – particularly as technology develops ever further, the possibility of a true artificial mind seems more and more likely. Despite this, Searle’s Chinese Room argument continues to aid us in discussions around how we should define things such as intelligence, consciousness, and the mind.

In this way, both the Turing test and Searle’s critique of it shed new light onto long-standing philosophical problems surrounding the nature of the human mind. They serve to help bring together key areas of computer science and philosophy, encouraging a philosophical response to the modern world, as well as revealing how our new technologies can impact philosophy in new and exciting ways.

Learning: Back to the Future

‘Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit’ - a virtual reality film combining traditional Shakespeare with modern VR technology

Mrs Jane Lunnon, Head of WHS, looks at the impact of digital learning on education, linking this to recent examination reforms at GCSE and A Level.

Imagine this: you are watching a production of Hamlet online. Gertrude is betraying her son, Ophelia is going mad. Claudius is hiding things and Hamlet is doing (or rather, not doing) his thing.  And you, the viewer, are not only watching this on your computer, you are also, right there, in the show, a reflection in a gilded mirror – daubed with blood and looking pretty ropey. (Your part is the ghost of Old Hamlet.)

And so, you are there and not there. You can see yourself – as watched and watcher.  How brilliant, how extraordinary, how game-changing is that? This is happening, right now. In the US, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company have teamed up with Google: so VR tech teamed with great creativity, enabling viewers to inhabit the text – to literally become part of it.  That’s what’s happening in learning today.[1]

 

‘Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit’ - a virtual reality film combining traditional Shakespeare with modern VR technology
‘Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit’ – a virtual reality film combining traditional Shakespeare with modern VR technology

 

[1] See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/theater/hamlet-virtual-reality-google.html

And it’s not just some exotic, transatlantic experiment.  The impact of technology on the way we learn is seminal and astonishing. In our last staff meeting, our Director of Innovation and e-learning (imagine even having such a job title in a school ten years ago), was heralding the arrival of a brand new set of VR Headsets. As a school, we adopted BYOD (bring your own device) several years ago and this, when combined with the headsets and Google Expeditions, means that our pupils can journey to Africa, to Jerusalem, to Tudor England, to the inside of a black hole, to the inside of their own bodies… The impact on our students, when they do, is immediate and palpable. It’s not just gimmicks and game-playing; this is sentient, dynamic, visual learning in ways those of us who became excited by the potential of power-point in the late 1990s, could barely have imagined.

But the technological revolution in education is not just about the flashy, painting with coloured light sort of stuff (although it’s very hard not to get terribly excited by all of that). As a Microsoft Showcase school, we have adopted wholesale software like Microsoft Teams (useful baskets to keep all our meeting/lesson/admin resources), Onenote – seamless collaborative working/library spaces, and Onedrive – shared document folders. Like many schools, we have found that the truly revolutionary and transformative development in education IT was the Cloud and the way it has made accessing and sharing learning seamless and straightforward. The learning environment is no longer just in the classroom or the library. It is now, quite simply, everywhere: in the playground, on the bus, at your mate’s house, in the kitchen…and this has made a real difference to the way children learn and the way we all teach. My Year 7 English students, for example, work online – using their class TEAM. They do their homework in their own folders stored in that TEAM basket and I can then mark it (using the clever pen that writes on the screen) as soon as they do it. That means, that I can see at once if they are not quite getting the point about enjambment or the impact of verse form on the meaning of a poem – and I can adapt my next lesson plan accordingly.  No more waiting around for a week for the work to be done, the books to come in and the homework to be marked. So nothing radical there; just more efficiency, more pace, more targeted planning. Which of course leads to more opportunity for stretch and fun and better outcomes all round.

We are not simply operating as advertisers for Microsoft products here, although earlier this term we were thrilled to find ourselves acting as a SW London outpost for the BETT Conference, with 40 or so delightful Swedish educators, joining us, keen to find out what we were doing and how we were doing it. I suspect that’s the largest number of Swedes we have entertained in this building at any one time in the 140-year history of the school!  It was a real pleasure to share our experiences, to learn what they are doing and to celebrate together the range, power and versatility which technology has brought into the classroom and beyond it.

And this is important because technology doesn’t just allow us to do things in a more colourful or more efficient way. It also, clearly, changes the way that children approach learning. Much of their work in the classroom, for example, is collaborative. It is as much about team-building and communication, about effective listening, careful research and powerful articulation of ideas, as it is about the causes of the First World War, or how to integrate fractions. The skills our world now requires (as the Hamlet example above suggests) is not just technical expertise and versatility, not simply the acquisition and application of key facts, analytical thinking and problem solving but creative flair, the ability to connect and link ideas and fields of knowledge and curriculum areas often in surprising, unexpected ways. And then there’s the capacity to communicate all this persuasively and effectively both in person and on paper. These are the skills necessary for a dynamic, technological, connected and highly protean workplace and it matters that our young people are encouraged to develop them in school.

That’s why we are developing our STEAM programme so enthusiastically at WHS. Our Steam Room, staffed by scientists in residence (SiRs), is not just the base for our girls to engage in scientific research and inquiry (with external partners

as well as internally) it is also a symbol of our cross-curricular approach. The job of our SiRs, is to facilitate inter-disciplinary connections. (RS meets Science when Year 7s try to make the dyes in Joseph’s dream-coat, English meets Psychology when A Level English students engage in the psychological exploration of the characters in ‘To The Lighthouse’, Geography, Physics and Technology combine when Year 9s design wind turbines… the list goes on.)

Facility with all of this, the ability to think flexibly, imaginatively and with resilience and integrity when confronted with tough problems, this feels like the urgent pedagogical focus for us now and it feels like the best way to prepare our children for the future. I had the great good fortune of hearing Sophie Hackford speak at the GDST Summit last summer[2]. Sophie is a Futurist (which strikes me as one of the best job titles ever). Her job is to look at trends and projections and the dreams of techno-enthusiasts everywhere and work out what is likely to be coming next – and then to advise government and anyone else who will listen. She described a world in which fake and real blend imperceptibly, where the world becomes our screen and we become computers, where space is our playground and our new hang out. A world where asteroids could be bought and mined, Mars could be inhabited. All alarming and deliberately provocative perhaps, but also, exciting and reflective of the urge to think differently and to imagine the hitherto unimaginable. This again, is what the future requires of us.

What it doesn’t need, I feel sure, is for our children to show that they can sit in rows of desks and write, on paper, with a pen, regurgitating facts they have carefully learnt, for three hours at a time. And yet that, of course, is what our examination system currently requires our children to do. And indeed, has done, to a greater or lesser extent, for the last hundred years or so. Learn this, commit it to memory, show me you’ve done so by writing it out on paper. How absolutely extraordinary, that in a world which has made so much progress and right in the middle of a technological revolution, here we are, still fundamentally assessing our students’ talent and achievements at school, with a pen, paper and serried rows of desks.

We might, perhaps, take comfort from the fact that there has been significant reform in our exam system recently. More academic rigour has been brought in at A Level and at GCSE.  And yes,  A Levels and GCSEs are new(ish) – more rigorous, fatter – the modules you can endlessly resit are gone, so is the huge emphasis on coursework. They have, indeed, been reformed. But reform is not revolution. These specifications, these exams, this assessment system is not a radical re-think for a new(ish) century. It’s not even a radical re-think for the old century. These exams are not modern – as those of us who are old enough to remember the very old O Levels and A Levels can testify. Indeed, it’s all there, as it always was: little or no coursework, significant emphasis on learned material, assimilation of key facts and the ability to remember and apply those facts in writing, to time, in big exam halls with your entire cohort sitting around you, using (mostly) a pen. There’s not much there that we don’t recognise. Indeed, not much that we wouldn’t recognise if we went back to when our parents were young. Perhaps there’s more rigour, but in the context of Sophie Hackford and the Google school of innovation and reform, it feels more like rigor mortis than bracing, academic stretch and dynamic aspiration for our young people in a new century.

[2] See https://www.gdst.net/article/gdst-summit-new-frontiers-equipping-girls-future

So, let’s not wonder (along with Hamlet) “why yet [we] live, to say this thing’s to do”. The assessment of our children need not be a tragedy if we can find ways to prepare them for examinations that require them to think and act differently and which make as much use as possible of the amazing new technological tools at our disposal. There are, indeed, “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy”. Time to embrace them, I think.

This article was first published in Independent Education Today

New Scientist Live – Year 9 Academic Scholars’ are taken out of this world!

On Thursday 20th September, fifteen of our Year 9 Academic Scholars’ had the chance to attend the New Scientist Live festival at ExCel London for a jam-packed day of science and technology, hearing from some of the biggest names in the industry.

The girls immersed themselves into a range of live talks and activities from racing salt water cars to hearing first-hand from astronaut Tim Peake about his out of Earth experiences!

Thank you to Scientist in Residence, Mrs Alex Farrer for organising and assisting the girls on such an inspiring STEAM trip.

Follow the @STEAM_WHS to see more ongoings within the department.