I recently caught up with Alan O’Donohoe, aka @teknoteacher, a computing teacher from Preston. Bursting with energy and enthusiasm, he has a blog, a series of podcasts, runs a raft of computing CPD as well as Hack to the Future and Raspberry Jam events intended to engage the public with computing. No wonder he’s a CAS Master Teacher. In this blog post, Alan talks to me about his Raspberry Jam events (meetings for Raspberry Pi enthusiasts) and the impact he sees them having.
Me: So Alan, thanks very much for taking the time to speak to me. To start with, let’s talk about teaching computing — how do you find it?
Alan: I really enjoy teaching GCSE Computing. I don’t have a background in Computer Science [CS] — I haven’t studied it formally. I’m experiencing CS for the first time and I’m finding it thrilling and exciting so I want to find new things and discover new things. If it had been a subject on the curriculum when I was at school, it’s more than likely I would have gone on and studied it at a higher level. But it wasn’t available to me back in the 80s, so I’ve ended up in CS teaching via another route: electronics and design/technology.
Me: It’s not that unusual, I think. A lot of developers are self-taught, partly because there wasn’t much opportunity for them to study computing when they were at school.
Alan: When I was at school, there were opportunities around, but they weren’t in school. There was a computing club in my local club called PACE: Preston Atari Computer Enthusiasts. I turned up with my Sinclair Spectrum and they all laughed at me and said “What do you call that? That’s not a real computer.” They all pointed to their Ataris that they’d imported from America, telling me that those were proper computers. Meeting and socialising with those adults, that’s where my learning about computing took place.
Me: Of course, you now run a lot of events like these yourself — Hack to the Future, Raspberry Jams. I know you’ve recently got a grant [50,000 pounds from Nesta, Nominet Trust and Mozilla] to help continue this. Let’s talk about those events — what’s the typical demographic at a Raspberry Jam?
Alan: I would say we’ve got two distinct types of Raspberry Jams. We’ve got these small little groups who meet, maybe once a month on a Monday evening. There, you get mostly men and a few women and children who are either working in technology or have an interest in technology. They come along and they’re developing projects at home and they bring them along to show people what they’ve done, and to find out other possibilities. That’s one typical example. The other, which I want to champion more and more, is the family-focused Jams which tend to take place on Saturdays. You get everyone coming to them: we’ve had children, their grandparents, parents, teachers, computer scientists, web developers. I’m trying to make them as open as possible. And they take place in museums and galleries and schools and colleges – that’s really what I want to do.
The groups that meet on a Monday, that will just carry on going. I don’t see that it’s going to grow bigger and bigger. But I want to use those people who go on a Monday to come and support the Saturday events, so that we can reach out to different audiences. I think the events for children are so important — that they can meet people, not just teachers. For the children to meet someone who gets excited about what they do, that will help the children forge their own opinions about what their future might look like.
Me: That was something that struck me at the Manchester Girl Geeks Barcamp: I saw Amy Mather, who did a great presentation. This was an event where she, as a teenager, could interact with a lot of adults who were interested in the same things. It seems like there isn’t a lot of opportunity for that, generally.
Alan: Yes — this is music to my ears. You see, in a way, I’ve never left school. I did my GCSEs, A-Levels, degree and then started teaching. So I do love school. But after 20 years, I see lots of flaws. The idea that a child says: “Oh, sir, when are we going to learn object-oriented programming?” and we tell them: “We’re not doing that because it’s not on the syllabus”. Or they ask: “Sir, when do we get to embed videos in our webpages?” and I tell them “Oh, we don’t do that until next year. You’re in year 7 and we do that in year 8.” It’s part of the flaw of mass education that everything has to be organised and in a straight line and in little boxes.
Whereas in an event like a Raspberry Jam, there’s no demarcation as to who’s the teacher/expert. You can see that’s a child and that’s an adult, but you can’t tell what levels of expertise they have. That video on youtube [of Amy] has had over 27,000 views. I had to disable the comments because people were saying things like “Yeah, but she didn’t do it on her own. She obviously had a mum or dad at home showing her or doing it for her.” She’s done that with Ben Nuttall, a developer, and they’ve developed it together. But she can confidently stand up and talk about what she has created. I absolutely love the fact that you’ve picked up on that interaction between age groups. With the Hack to the Futures and the Raspberry Jams, we don’t have these clear roles of teacher and student, and that is wonderful.
In fact, at the Jam we’re having in York, Amy’s younger brother Dan, who’s ten years old, he’s going to be leading on a workshop on building games in Scratch. Well, why shouldn’t he? He doesn’t have a teaching qualification, but when a nine year old stands up in front of a group and starts showing them what he can do and how they can do it, he doesn’t need lessons in how to manage a classroom’s behaviour, because they want to hear what this ten year old has to say.
Me: I went to a Scratch event at the SIGCSE conference. They had kids who were about 11 or 12 who’d been using Scratch for “many years” they would tell us.
Alan: For some of them, they’ve spent half their life using Scratch!
Me: Exactly. They were standing up and telling us what they’d been doing and what they liked about Scratch and what they didn’t like. That was great. One kid said: “I had to do a book report but I didn’t just want to do slides or a poster because that’s boring – so I did it in Scratch.” Some of these children know a lot, often by engaging with it themselves.
Alan: Yes. There was a child, Matthew – when he was in year 8, his mum and dad were telling me at parent’s evening that he’d been developing his own games site using PHP and it was making him 12k-13k a year. Someone suggested to me: Alan, you need to learn PHP, so you can show him what to do next. The thing is: he’s got something like 6—7 hours of time when he gets home to do all this. As well as marking and planning my lessons, I’ve got cooking and ironing to do. Children have this huge amount of time available to them! Children can be very imaginative and creative and it tends to be adults who say “no, no, no – that wouldn’t work, you can’t do that”. Adults live in the real world, but children live in this world where they can imagine the possibilities. Some of the most creative ideas have come from children.
As yet another example: at the summer camp we ran last year, we had children coming along who knew loads more than I did and were able to support the other children. I was so glad those more expert children came along, because if they hadn’t I probably would have been teaching the summer camp children how to use Scratch, but instead they were using things that I was only hearing of for the first time, like jQuery and node.js. These children were coming along and showing other children how to do it. As long as you’ve got some adult supervision there, you can keep a hand on the steering wheel.
(This was one half of our conversation. In the other half — to be published soon, in another post — I talk to Alan about teaching in the classroom.)