Festive Turtle Art

A Christmas tree drawn with Python Turtle

This month I have been working with one of our technology superstars in the mathematics department to see if we could enhance a preexisting unit on angles by introducing the students to the Turtle library in Python. Each lesson would begin with a structured introduction to the math, followed by either an introduction to new Turtle commands or a deconstruction of an existing Turtle program and finally a challenge that required students to draw a word, shape or pattern.  For building the challenges we are using Repl.It

The students took to the code a lot faster than we expected, which I think is a credit to the work being done in our primary school. The students already have three years of block based coding experience under their belt and my general impression from time spent within classes was that the students were very well prepared for transitioning to typed code.

To celebrate our students successes and the approach of the winter holidays, we challenged students to create some festive art using the knowledge and skills they have learned throughout the unit so far. The code for the christmas tree drawing shown above was shared with the students and deconstructed to introduce the functions in Python Turtle and to revisit the idea of a loop. 

The tree could be broken down into the following four parts, each of which allowed us to discuss a little math, and a little syntax in Python Turtle:

  • The tree trunk – This was a simple square drawn once; it allowed us to remind students of the use of loops in Python Turtle.
  • The green triangle – This was defined as a function and called three times. It was the most complex block of code as it involved writing a function that called a loop and used the correct exterior angles for an equilateral triangle (See code below)
  • The star – This was an interesting block of code because it involved looping five times and again turning the value of an exterior angle for a five point star. I was happy to be teaching alongside a mathematics teacher when introducing this shape!
  • The baubles – These were a single function to draw and fill a circle, that was called at random locations around the tree.

Using Arduino and Prototype Electronics in MYP Science

Figure 1: A recent workshop I delivered on using Arduino and prototype electronics for within a Year 8 science unit on electricity

Last week I ran a workshop for our Year 8 science teachers to prepare them for a Year 8  unit on electricity which has undergone significant rewriting to incorporate the use of Arduino microcontrollers and prototype electronics. By the end of the unit, students complete a Criteria D assessment which challenges students to;

  • Prototype a circuit designed to solve a problem and journal this process (Formative assessment and skill building)
  • Write a report that;
    • Describe how they have applied their scientific knowledge and understanding to address a specific problem or issue
    • Discuss and analyse the the various implications of using this technology and its application in solving a specific problem or issue
    • Apply scientific language effectively
    • Document the work of others and sources of information used.

The idea here is to create a Criteria D assessment that is more project focused and creative. By teaching students the skills necessary to use raw electronic components as a medium for creative problem solving we are opening up a traditionally theoretical and prescriptive unit into one that has space for student agency and inquiry. What I like even more about the unit, is that is goes a long way to demystify technology. Students come to like when they realize that many of the functions of the toys and machines around them rely on neither magic or overly complicated technology.

One thing that has proven to be invaluable in extending the unit this year has been the introduction of electronics block based coding and simulation to TinkerCad studio. This has allowed me to easily create a ‘Cheat Sheet’ so that teachers can reference both the correct physical wiring and the correct sequence of block based code for challenges that are set for students during the unit.  

Figure 2: A copy of the challenge cards given to teachers to show the code process flow diagram, the expected block code and a diagram of a setup that will work.

To achieve the necessary frontloading for this unit, we required just under a full day for teachers to become familiar with the many components that students will have access to and the platforms they will be using to prototype and to code their machines. I have copied a rough overview of the agenda I set for teachers below for anyone with the know-how to replicate. For those that don’t, feel free to contact me for advice on where to start.

Electronics Training Agenda

  • An introduction to the Arduino, LED’s, hookup wire and breadboards
  • Using resistors to protect components.
  • Constructing series and parallel connections on a breadboard
  • An introduction to TincerCad studio
  • Running the Blink program
  • An overview of common errors that students encounter
  • An overview of switches and controls (Buttons, potentiometers and tilt switches)
    • An introduction to using the serial monitor to print data received by the arduino
  • An introduction to servo motors and the programming
  • An introduction to sensors (Thermistors, LDR’s and sound sensors)
  • A final reflection and discussion on the teaching and learning process for this unit and the level of support that will be required (See my coaching framework)

This is definitely too much content for mastery to be achieved in a day, but I encourage teachers to embrace the unit as inquirers themselves; there are a wealth of websites and blogs for electronics projects online and in my experience almost every coding error that can happen has happened, and it’s solution has been found and discussed at length online. In fact, some of my favorite moments in supporting this unit have come when classroom teachers and student groups have been working through a genuine puzzle together and have had to move together through a logical and methodical approach to identifying and solving the problem. It is at these moments that teachers are able to authentically model perseverance and critical thinking because they are forced to work within the learning process instead of outside of it.

Epistemological Inquiry – Preparing Students for the Theory of Knowledge course in the MYP Classroom – Part 1: Inquiry

Disclaimer: This article is a draft of thoughts that are still developing. A canvas for connections that are still being made. Your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments section.

In this article I compare elements of the MYP unit plan and the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) curriculum and reflect on how an MYP Sciences course might be structured to better prepare students for TOK. 

When I was asked to join the Theory of Knowledge department at my school, I was excited to explore a subject that was always a bit of a mystery to me. Now that I’ve spent some time teaching the course, I’m starting to reflect on what impact the experience might have on my capacity to better prepare my MYP students for their first encounter with the Theory of Knowledge course.

In TOK we spend a lot of time identifying knowledge claims and knowledge questions, which are absent from the MYP vocabulary. Whilst the usefulness of both first and second order knowledge claims are described in the TOK Guide, only second order knowledge questions are discussed. Their definitions and intended uses are;

First Order Knowledge Claimsclaims made within an area of knowledge about the world. These will feature in examples offered in the essay and presentation illustrating the manner in which areas of knowledge go about the business of producing knowledge.

Second Order Knowledge Claimsclaims made about knowledge itself within a subject. These form the core of any piece of TOK analysis.

Knowledge Questionssecond order questions about knowledge itself that are not rooted within a subject area. They form the core line of inquiry from which second order knowledge claims are drawn, and first order knowledge claims from areas of knowledge are identified and discussed.

On knowledge questions, the TOK guide has the following to say;

“…the first task in trying to answer a TOK question is to establish an
understanding of the key concepts involved. There may be a number of different ways of thinking about these concepts. Each might give rise to a different analysis and ultimately a different answer to the question.”

TOK Guide, IBO Publishing, 2015

This is where we find an explicit connection to the MYP framework. MYP teachers are taught to plan units by constructing a statement of inquiry that consists of key and related concepts and a global context. Whilst global contexts might be useful for preparing students for other areas of the IB Core, it is the key and related concepts that appear to give us a foothold for exploring first and second order knowledge claims within the MYP. The definitions of both from the MYP Guide are given below;

Key concepts – are broad, organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within and across subjects and disciplines, providing connections that can transfer across time and culture.

Related concepts – grounded in specific disciplines, explore key concepts in greater detail, providing depth to the programme. They emerge from reflection on the nature of specific subjects and disciplines, providing a focus for inquiry into subject-specific content.

It is worth noting here that from their definitions, it is apparent why an understanding of key concepts is required for the successful answering of TOK questions; these are inherently interdisciplinary and more likely to address second order knowledge claims. Related concepts on the other hand are rooted in first order claims and are the basis of disciplinary education. Understanding this, we can now recognise the statement of inquiry as a second order concept that is being explored through the first order concepts within that discipline.

example 1: Scientists observe patterns and use them to construct systems that explain how the world works. (MYP Sciences Guide, 2014)

Students explore the second order concept of knowledge existing across a system using the scientific concepts that scientists use patterns of observation to construct models in science and that these models can be used to explain further observations.

example 2: Systems that are designed to meet an individual’s ergonomic requirements can increase their ability to function within the world. (MYP Design Guide, 2014)

This time students explore the second order concept that knowledge exists across a system using the design concepts of function and ergonomics.

example 3: Nations form alliances to protect their military, cultural and economic interests. (Individuals and Societies Guide, 2014)

In this final example, students explore the second order concept of systems using the individuals and societies concepts of conflict and cooperation.

Looking at these three examples together, we get a view of how students in the MYP should be prepared to discuss second order knowledge claims by the time that they reach the diploma programme. However, we must ask ourselves: Are we making these connections explicit enough to our students? Are we making these connections explicit enough to our teachers?

For many teachers new to the MYP, these concepts can seem a little abstract and their utility in teaching content knowledge and skills can feel a little vague. If this impression percists, these concepts fail to become more than a guide in the planning process and rarely enter class discourse in any meaningful way.

The MYP Guide does not treat key and related concepts so lightly, explicitly stating that;

  • Students need multiple opportunities to explore the concepts defined for each subject or discipline. Students should have meaningful inquiry into all of the key and related concepts for each relevant subject group at least once over the course of the MYP.
  • Over the course of the programme, students need to develop an understanding of the key and related concepts at increasing levels of sophistication and abstraction.
  • Summative assessments should offer students opportunities to reach the highest levels of achievement with regard to their conceptual knowledge and understanding.

How do we achieve “meaningful inquiry into all of the key and related concepts” in our classroom? For this, the MYP introduces inquiry questions…

Generating Conceptual Thinking and Inquiry in the MYP Classroom

To achieve meaningful inquiry (Beyond asking students to simply research a problem), the guide asks that we direct the teaching and learning that takes place using a framework of three types of inquiry questions

Factual Questions – Challenge students to remember and describe a narrow range of correct answers. Promote recall and comprehension.

Conceptual Questions – Challenge students to analyse broader ideas with many correct interpretations. Promote analysis and application.

Debatable Questions – Challenge students to evaluate perspectives that involve a value judgement.  Promote synthesis and evaluation.

[Do we need to address the already clear connections to Bloom’s cognitive domains here? Don’t want to move the conversation to cognitive domains, but it strengthens the argument that we should move through Factual -> Conceptual to a final Debatable stance where students synthesise or evaluate a problem or solution]

As we progress from factual to conceptual inquiry questions not only are we reaching higher levels of cognitive complexity (Bloom, 1956) but we are pulling students above the layer of content and into the realm of discussing key and related concepts. Here, we can prepare students for the TOK course by strengthening their vocabulary when discussing these concepts within your discipline.

Yet further still, when students are challenged with debatable questions they are challenged to develop and justify a value judgement in much the same way that the TOK course asks students to deal with knowledge claims (TheMYPTeacher). Further, Lenny Dutton has already create a wonderful array of concept driven questions and claims that can be used in various subject areas to allow students to practice developing and justifying conceptual understandings. (ExcitedEducator.com)

In a nutshell, this is it: MYP units best prepare students for TOK by progressing from factual questions about content to conceptual questions and claims about the key and related concepts that the unit is based on and then challenging students to develop and justify value judgements using their conceptual understanding.

The question now is how do we best achieve this and what might that look like?

  • A conscious and communicated effort to highlight the overarching concepts between disciplines will strengthen students ability to work with key concepts. For this to occur, departments need combined planning time to discuss overarching concepts to ensure that conceptual understandings are harmonious across the teaching body and are therefore harmonious across the teaching and learning that occurs.
  • Enhancement of the MYP vocabulary to strengthen connections between the programme and TOK.  For example, in the sciences a laboratory assessment would be understood as a vehicle for students to synthesise  and test knowledge claims using their observations and data. Essay tasks are seen as an opportunity for students to evaluate first order knowledge claims.
  • Further to an enhancement of the language, could opportunities for reflection on and/or assessment of conceptual understandings of second order claims that use key concepts be better built into the MYP unit planning process? Perhaps this is another utility for journaling/ePortfolios, or perhaps it is a further interpretation of the assessment criteria.
  • Interdisciplinary connections are powerful opportunities for students to realise the second order nature of key concepts. If interdisciplinary units were planned by not just subject teachers of the subjects involved, but experienced TOK teachers then perhaps this opportunity could be taken better advantage of.