Supporting Learning: a sci-fi / fantasy writing pack

Who writes the future? is a creative writing resource for schools from the Bodleian Libraries. Based on materials and activities used in a Summer School writing course, I developed this pack into a workshop for visiting schools. Drawing on lessons learned from these workshops, the pack is now available for free download from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage.

Image from the  Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage
Link to the resource from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage

Background

The original course was the brainchild of researcher Jacob Ward and a project in public engagement with research. A group of fifteen young people explored speculative writing from the past and learned about current research in computing at the University of Oxford before developing their own stories under the guidance of author Jasmine Richards. They also worked with illustrator Nurbanu Asena who developed a striking image to accompany each story. Their work was published in an anthology, a PDF version of which is included in the pack. My role was to plan, facilitate and evaluate the project.

Developing a writing resource

The summer school achieved all its original aims successfully, but we wanted to ensure that the format and resources we had produced would help young writers beyond the original group. We first developed a workshop in which visiting school groups developed one aspect of the original five-day course. This was usually conceiving a story idea, world building, or developing a central character. The process of drafting and revision could then be continued back at school.

These workshops also helped me to develop the resources from a series of individual elements into a coherent pack. I used the feedback from visiting groups to refine some of the elements. These refinements included clearer definition of the elements in world building, redesigning the character template, and explaining other sections more clearly. I also produced a set of teacher notes to assist those using the pack in class or in a writing group.

Contents

The resource pack includes the following elements:

  • Teacher notes
  • Student Booklet, designed to be printed as an eight-page A4 booklet.
  • Historical examples of speculative fiction, written at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries and including predictions made about our present.
  • The Who Writes the Future? anthology produced by the young writers in the original summer school.

Student writing pack

The student booklet takes students through seven steps, culminating in a first draft of their short story:

  1. Decide on a specific setting. Start to build a world for the story.
  2. Select your story idea / concept. Students are asked to think about the particular impact of a technology, but taking this ‘hard sci-fi’ approach is not essential.
  3. Select a theme. There is a list of suggestions but students may wish to choose another.
  4. Decide on the point of view, i.e. first, second or third person narrative.
  5. Develop your character. A template is included to help students think about the central character(s) in their story.
  6. Outline your story. Students are encouraged to plan an outline before writing their first draft.
  7. Write your story. We have included a few lined pages.

I hope the pack will prove as successful for school classes and writing groups as it has been in our workshops. I’d love to hear feedback from teachers who have used it. If you have enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in my other posts on Supporting Learning.

Computing, creativity and cheating

Creativity and coding

I believe that creativity is at the heart of computing. A couple of years ago I marked the passing of the creator of Logo, Seymour Papert with this post on his legacy. He created and promoted that computer language to foster creativity in students. The focus on creativity also drives many of the current generation of educational developers. Scratch, a free online scripting language allows all users, most of whom are children, to create and share stories, games, and animations. Created in 2007, Scratch now has more than 4.3 million users worldwide, mainly between the ages of 8 and 18, and nearly 7 million projects. It is used widely in UK schools and is many children’s first experience of scripting code instructions. Creativity is also a driving feature behind other computing innovations commonly used in UK schools such as the coding language Python, the Raspberry Pi and BBC Microbit.

Problems with assessment

If we accept this central role of creativity, it follows that the assessment of computational thinking, and its practical output as novel solutions to coding problems, must take account of this. Unfortunately, in recent years the assessment of GCSE Computer Science coursework has been bedevilled by the appearance of programming solutions to the set problems on the internet. This has forced the exams regulator, Ofqual, to remove this element from the assessment. The current situation is that a programming task forms part of the course, but marks do not form part of the assessment, which is therefore based solely on terminal exam papers. Unfortunately this is an issue that occurs not just at GCSE, but at all levels of education.

Ofqual consultation

Ofqual are currently consulting on this issue for exams from 2020 onwards through a consultation document on the future of assessment for GCSE Computer Science. You can respond to the consultation document here.

I think that they have thought carefully about the pros and cons about different methods of assessment. I am disappointed, however, that there is not more explicit mention of creativity in Computer Science. Ofqual make a comparison with other subjects with a coursework element, such as design technology, but this seems to be in consideration of practical skills which, while important, are not the whole picture. I feel that what is missing is the role of creativity in the elements and practice of computational thinking.

Nevertheless, I think Ofqual have left the door open to a solution that will allow students to demonstrate creativity in their thinking. In enabling exam boards to issue pre-release material to candidates (in a similar way to creative subjects such as art), there is scope for students to think and prepare for a creative response to a particular context, without the details of the specific task being revealed. I hope that in the future, developments in technology will mean that creative computational thinking can be securely assessed in a way that more closely mirrors the reality of programming than the exam hall.

The consultation closes at 4pm on Monday 3rd December 2018. I would urge anyone involved in teaching computing to take some time to make a response.

Image: Pixabay