The Plastic Brain

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Google Digital Technologies Curriculum Summit

I sent in an application at virtually the last minute, but it seemed like too good an offer not to throw my hat in the ring: Flown to Sydney to participate in a two-day summit discussing the implementation of the Digital Technologies strand of the Australian Curriculum, hosted by Google.
The application required the usual details, some short sections on how you use technology and, here’s the kicker, a one minute, vision-statement video.
I’ve made videos before, I know how long it can take to make even just a short one. This was a long-shot, and I didn’t want to waste much time. I threw something together, uploaded it to Youtube, and pressed submit. It’s embarrassing, but I suppose I should link to it.
Miraculously, my application was successful, and here I am, at Google HQ in Sydney, about to meet some great folks, learn a lot and hopefully pick up some great ideas.

Day 1

Keynote: Maggie Johnson
  • Computer  science is an important skill in our society
  • The demand for people with CS skills is greater than the number of graduates
  • We can address this by teaching computational thinking (see this seminal article)
  • Computational thinking is as important as literacy and numeracy
  • Google has done a lot of work defining what computational thinking is, and how we can teach it
  • The core of their definition is Abstraction: the ability to take a complex situation and reduce it to its important features
  • Pattern recognition was the other key skill she discussed
  • Combining these allows you to take a pattern-to-program approach to coding (at Google they have students code in python)
  • Interestingly, for teaching purposes they also had students work on program-to-pattern problems: run numbers through commands and investigate patterns in the output data

Digital Technologies Update: ACARA Julie King

  • Digital Technologies will form part of the Technologies stream along with Design and Technology
  • Core of subject is around: Computational Thinking, Design Thinking and Systems Thinking
  • Aim is take make students creators of technology, not just users.
  • Will be taught F-8 to all students, and as an elective subject from Year 9.
  • ACARA will be working closely with Scootle to produce resources for teachers

From e-learning to free learning: Dr Chris Tisdell
  • The future of education is: online, on-demand, mobile.
  • Youtube is a powerful tool for scaling teaching and allowing students to control their consumption of his teaching content
  • Doesn’t require a lot of know-how or equipment to get started
  • Analytics helps him to data mine student learning activities
  • However, lacks the personal touch. So Tisdell uses Google Hangouts to provide live webinars where he can respond and give feedback to students
  • He has also written a large, free text book to accompany his Youtube channel
CS Unplugged: Tim Bell
  • Computational thinking does not require computers
  • Foundational core skills (which can be very sophisticated) can be taught through simple and fun activities
  • There are some excellent teaching resources through CS Unplugged and CS Field Guide

Unconference Sessions

  • Computation thinking and digital technologies should be embedded across the curriculum
  • We can use new language and approaches (possible moving away from coding) as ways to engage with reluctant students
  • Need new models of professional learning (primarily face-to-face and buddying) to help colleagues upskill
  • Focus, as always, should be on good pedagogy
  • Student-centered learning and project-based learning are important directions
  • Transparency in syllabus design and providing student voice and choice
  • School structures (logistical, administrative and even physical) need to change to facilitate, rather than impede these changes
  • Open classrooms with observation as the norm helping teachers learn from each other
  • Need to sell the message to get parents and communities on board

Day 2

CS Unplugged 

  • Activity 1: Using “bit cards” to explore how numbers and letters are encoded in binary.


  • Activity 2: Treasure Hunt (Finite state automaton)


Can be drawn for stopwatches, microwaves, DVRs, etc, etc

  • Activity 3: Information Theory. How much information do you need to define a number?DSCN0940
For a number less than 8, it is only 3. But, in compression algorithms we can use assumptions about the data in order to narrow down the range. The assumptions are based on context – what does the data (eg colour in an image) look like around the one you are encoding.
  • Activity 4: Sorting Algorithms. Pairwise comparisons (select and sort).
Chris made a great time-lapse of the process here.
Nick Falkner

Nick is an academic at Adelaide University, doing amazing things in the School of Computer Science. He is part of a team launching a new program with Google which will “help teachers encourage the next generation of students become the creators rather than consumers of digital technology”

 He asked us to explore:
  • Ideas
  • Resources
  • Community
  • Scale of effort

Nick asked to consider where these things have come together for us. How did it work for you?

This is what our group put together:


Key take-home for me was encapsulated in the central diagram: PD should happen in classroom, to students and teachers at the same time! Great idea Phillip.

Why do computer science? Fun, change the world, be ready for the world.

FIRST Robotics

Just the setup looks exciting. Can’t wait to have at it!


Such a great session that I didn’t get a chance to take many process shots, but here are some of the robots our groups put together.
The EV3 systems (both the hardware and software) are a great incremental improvement on NXT and Mindstorms, but a still completely intuitive for people experienced on the old platform. Had a blast.
HUGE thanks to Google for an amazing Summit. It was great to meet up with so many passionate people and share ideas. Much to think about (and implement!).

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(For conference tweets, search the hashtag #googledigiteach on Twitter. Storyfied here)

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Notes on “New Pedagogies for Deep Learning” (Part 2)

This post follows on from Part 1.

Implementation Framework

The second part of the whitepaper focusses on implementation. The plan is laid out in four consecutive stages:

  1. Common Goals:“The framework is premised upon purposeful learning by doing, beginning with a small number of ambitious goals”
  2. Common Measures and Tools:“design a set of common measures and tools to be used across school clusters”
  3. Identify and Share Best Work: “identify and share the best cases of new pedagogies and deep learning work”
  4. Collective Capacity-Building:“teachers to analyze, share and reflect on the best exemplars for both student work and learning activities as a key part of collective capacity-building efforts”

Supported by a Technology Platform

The words “common” and “collective” above are telling. This approach seeks to join numerous stakeholders, and create opportunities for discussion and dialogue. Usual mechanisms of communication would be fragmented (like email) or infrequent (like conferences and symposia). Instead, the aim here is to produce a technology platform which can facilitate the networked, connected and collective interactions required of a project of this nature.

The technology platform will be a scalable online system that includes:

  •  Collection and sharing of student work
  •  Collection and sharing of teachers’ learning activity designs
  •  Online surveys of student, teacher, school leaders and parents’ perceptions, practices, resources and relationships (learning conditions).
  •  Data collection on uses of technology for teaching and learning
  •  Direct online assessments of students’ learning progressions
  •  Reporting engine, providing feedback reports on all of the above inputs

Exemplary Student Work

I find this idea of putting exemplary student work as one of the cornerstones of the project to be unexpected, yet very intriguing. Usually, such programs focus on teacher best practice. However, why not look one step further to student outcomes? Not only would exemplary student work stand on its own, but teacher best practice would shine through in the design of the tasks and then resulting learning.

We will seek to identify best-case examples of student work, of learning designs that prompt such work, and then the school and system learning conditions that nurture and cultivate such learning work.

Capacity Building

Capacity building is a very hot concept in education. I think it is in favour due to the fact that it goes beyond knowledge and even skills. It speaks to a desire to produce learning outcomes which provide intellectual opportunities to learners. Once you have “built capacity” in your students or staff, you can expect to see them take new steps and enter unchartered territory. The authors outline their capacity building program as follows:

Capacity-building programs will include many elements:

  •  Analysis of evidence on learning work (learning activities and student work codes) and learning conditions (practices, perceptions, engagement), using this do identify specific needs
  •  Student and teacher exposure to exemplars, demonstrations and samples of deep learning, new pedagogies, new assessments and new technologies
  •  Identification and development of programs and models relevant to the specific needs of individual schools or clusters. This might involve participation in a cross-cluster experimentation “hubs” focused on particular aspects of pedagogy, learning conditions, technology or policy.
  •  Collaborative capacity-building processes within and across clusters to support the adoption of new models, including supports such as teacher networks, collaboration summits, professional and leadership development, tools, and continuous measurement.

Who will do the Work?

It seems apparent that at the core of this project are a group of professionals funded by grants and/or corporate backing. However, the reach of the scheme is great, and will rely on voluntary contributions from stakeholders.

The partnership will seek to recognize and engage these individuals [teachers and students] as “activators” of new pedagogies and deep learning within and across clusters.

As a teacher who says ‘yes’ to (arguably) too many programs, I am aware of the time these can take. However, I also know that this time is an investment, which is richly rewarded by one’s own learning, and the benefits which can flow to colleagues and students.

The Invitation

The whitepaper finishes with the following invitation:

The world is changing and teaching and learning are changing with it. This paper has defined a vision and a plan of action. Success will depend on partners truly committing to this work to mobilize and dramatically expand
new pedagogies and deep learning on the ground. We invite all who might be interested in participating in this endeavor to contact us at

The Verdict

I’ll sum up with two possibly conflicting statements: 1) I admire the approach, and think it has a lot going for it, 2) I am not going to sign up.

I find it hard to articulate why I don’t want to be directly involved – probably because it is a mixture of reasons. Is it because the project has big corporate sponsors? It is because it seems too big, too impersonal? Is it just because I have enough going on already?

Despite all of that I do support these kinds of initiatives, and will be keen to see what they can develop. Who knows, maybe I’ll jump on the bandwagon once it starts rolling…