Hello World

What has storytelling and imagination got to do with computing?

March 07, 2022 Hello World Season 3 Episode 3
Hello World
What has storytelling and imagination got to do with computing?
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we explore computing from a more playful and inventive angle as we ask: "What has storytelling and imagination got to do with computing?" James and Carrie Anne investigate how we as computing educators can find computing concepts in familiar stories and children's literature as well as how telling stories might help learners understand more abstract concepts through analogy and metaphor. Can storytelling benefit some learners and help them connect with complex ideas?

Full show notes:
https://helloworld.raspberrypi.org/articles/what-has-storytelling-and-imagination-got-to-do-with-computing

Linda Liukas:

Computing is all about metaphor. That it's a discipline. We have things like bugs and Kernel Panics.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

What does it look like inside a computer? It could be any kind of magical thing. Right?

Linda Liukas:

Sometimes drawing in my experience has been a explore these Concepts and ideas.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Hello, and welcome back to the hello world I'm Carrie Anne Philbin, a Computing educator telling stories across various types of media including this podcast.

James Robinson:

And I'm James Robinson, a Computing educator teaching and learning within our subject such as our recently published big book of computing pedagogy, which is available digitally for free at helloworld.cc/bigbook.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Today, we're thinking about how we help Concepts in Computing and asking what has storytelling and Imagination got to do with computing... Question marks, exclamation point question mark, exclamation, one, exclamation, exclamation. And we're joined thankfully by three guests. Yes. We spoil you. Who use stories to support Learners in Computing, education. Quite often we focus on practicalities of computing and computer science, and digital making, and all the other good stuff that we talk about here. So James, I'm interested to know, kind of how does imagination fit in?

James Robinson:

Well, I think it's a really good question. And I think it may not necessarily be the most obvious kind of partnership at first glance. But actually, I think when we're teaching Computing, we're teaching lots of really abstract ideas. You know, we're explaining to teachers to students how things are working inside this box. There's lots of things that don't have kind of concrete properties to them. And so utilising the students imagination to help them visualise those ideas can be a really powerful way to get those ideas across and storytelling is essentially sort of, analogy by a different name. So we're using analogies to help them bridge those conceptual gaps. And I think also through that imagination piece, we can, we can, you know, sort of drive motivation. And I don't think it's particularly a new idea. I remember many, many years ago when I was studying for my degree, there was a book...

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Was that back in the 1910.

James Robinson:

It was, it was, it was, it was like, abacus Thank you Carrie Anne.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Got you?

James Robinson:

Yeah. No, so. So, we used a book. It was a I can't think of the exact title, but it was called, Godel, Escher and Bach: An eternal golden Braid, or something like that. And it was, it was a really beautiful book and every chapter used a story like an Edward Lear style story to kind of explain and, explore some really interesting Concepts and so this idea of Storytelling in computing isn't really a new thing. But perhaps its use with young children is something that we're kind of starting to kind of reflect on and use more. So, yeah, and ultimately I think it helps us repack our ideas after hearing a story and help us distinguish what the story kind of told us. And then understand the kind of Concepts away from the story. That's a really important step as well. So yeah, I think it's really, really powerful.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Our first guest is children's book, author about computer science. Her series. Hello Ruby has been translated into over 35 languages. Now, she is working on building a playground that allows children to learn how computers work through play. I'm super excited to welcome Linda Liucas to the podcast and ask what excited you about computer science and programming. And how did this lead you to create your character Ruby.

Linda Liukas:

Well I honestly I started with this O'Reilly you know how the O'Reilly series have these like funny little like animals and and so forth and I figured that oh Computing is all about metaphor. It's a discipline that it, like, the ratio of metaphor to reality is very, very high. We have things like bugs and kernel panics. And like all these wonderful stories and then I started to read the book, and it was terrible. It was just so dull and boring. And I was bombarded by words. I kind of didn't understand and didn't even care about, like, what is a variable and like, why do I care how many things I can fit into it and then out of boredom and out of frustration, I would start to Doodle these little characters and because the language as mentioned, I was learning was Ruby. I would always imagine a little girl and I would try to imagine how she would explain object-oriented programming, or, or Garbage Collection, or a memory management, or whatever word I was struggling with, and that's slowly how the series started. So, in the beginning, it was mostly for grown-ups, but then, when I realised that actually, this is what I want to professionally be doing it morphed into an actual picture book series for children.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

And tell us more about her adventures. What does she? What does she get up to? What is, what do we learn through her eyes?

Linda Liukas:

So I started already in 2014. So it's almost 10 years that I've been writing these books and it's a series of four books. I started obviously with coding and programming because that was the big thing happening. But I think as we've all kind of realised, it's only a small part of computer science and there's so much kids should understand about. So she goes on an adventure with her dad and finds hidden gems, but then she also falls inside of her computer, just like Alice in Wonderland and learns about how computers work. And then in one book, she decides to build a snow internet and learns how the internet is made of hardware and protocols and software. And also the impact it creates for us as humans. And then the final book which isn't out yet in English. It's a book about machine learning and AI. In the book, Ruby takes a robot, a toy robot to school and learns, how in a very, different way computers learning about new things and we humans and what we humans are good at and what machines are good at.

James Robinson:

I can't wait to read that. That new book. That sounds amazing, might teach me a few things as well.

Linda Liukas:

There's a lot of balancing because we don't What are kind of the AI, and machine learning things that we want to be teaching for the young ones, and there's a lot of interesting stuff being done in the U.S. Especially in the K through 12 like AI framework group and so forth, but I was struggling a lot. Like should they know about unsupervised learning and supervised learning, or should I just focus on something completely else? And that I think, is the challenge in writing these books is the balance of, like, figuring out what they should learn, what will benefit them in 10 or 15 years time. And what is something that is only relevant for kind of the trendy tech topics of our day.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

You talked about about what brought you to understanding some of these concepts. So do you see that as being like a real benefit from using this approach to be able to teach Concepts to young people? Is it that it it helps teach the concept or do you find it's the main benefit is that it brings in a more diverse group of people to those concepts? Like what? What do you think is the key benefits?

Linda Liukas:

I think when we think about computers, we then when we look a little bit closer, we realised that there's a lot of like symbol manipulation. There's a lot of kind of logic happening in there. There's a lot of, a lot of stuff that just can be packaged in a very different way. And, and they are machines of language also. And in some way, I didn't feel that there was pathways into computer science that took into account the fact that stories are the original way, we learn about ourselves and each other and about the world surrounding us. And I figure if that we need different kinds of stories about the world of computers as well. It was just something that came very naturally to me and felt that there was this little like, I don't know. Nook in the world are like a little way in, a perspective that I could share.

James Robinson:

Also joining us are two Computing researchers might also help Learners access and understand key Computing Concepts? Lynne Blair, is a senior lecturer of computing at Lancaster University and also a primary Computing Hub lead for Cumbria and working with her on this project is Sarah Twigg, who's a secondary Computing teacher also from the UK. Sarah, and Lynn. Could you both give us a brief summary of the approach to your research and the question that you were trying to answer?

Sarah Twigg:

The question we're trying to answer is accessible to everyone? Because when we were doing our research and the primary school teachers were coming in, a lot of them were saying that they were struggling with teaching the programming side of it. Because there are lots of terminology, which if you've not done a Computing degree, you don't understand. Like it's really hard to come across. So with my older sister in primary school teaching and I was like, well, haven't you tried this way and showed her the links between I think it was Going on a Bear Hunt. I was just reading the story to her, I was like, look, there's a repetition look this is where your selection is and all, all stories have a sequence. So here's a start, the middle, the end and so on. So yeah, the main concept was how can we teach it to children? Which isn't going to overload them because of a lot of research into the cognitive load Theory. So how can we do it so they actually understand it and they're not going what on Earth is this? Because even in secondary school, teaching Computer Science, you give them something and they just look at you like what on Earth is going on? What are you trying to get across to me. So I think trying to make it relatable to the students because as, James was saying, before, computer science is very abstract. So if you can relate it to them, and give them a bigger picture of how everything works. Then, the children are more likely to understand and put it into our long-term memory.

James Robinson:

And Lynne. Could you give us an example, hunt, there. Is that what other kind of examples of books did you, did you look at, and do you want to elaborate a little bit on the approach you took as well?

Lynne Blair:

Yeah, we looked at one of the big book displays, you know, in my local primary, I went in and they've got this big display on and so, we went to their online catalogue and we just look for classic stories that were appropriate for, I think we targeted sort of the five to six year olds, so that we knew that the reading the language was going to be accessible to the widest range of children and out of those Sarah and I spent a wonderful few days either finding them online or going around charity shops and finding all these books, and I brought a lot of them out now. So I could remember what they all were an absolutely lovely weekend just really going through seeing which one's had examples of well, like Sarah said, all of them have in some form or other a form of sequencing in them, but then we were looking at repetition and selection and we basically coded them up is what we were saying. We were ticking off which one's had examples of repetition in them, which one's had examples of selection in them. So, yeah, that was probably the best part of research I've ever done in my whole career. It was lovely.

James Robinson:

I can imagine. And so many of those young interaction in some way. Just anecdotally and coincidentally, my I was at I was visiting with my family. My niece brought me a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar at the weekend to read to her. She handed me this book and I went to open it, sat her on my knee and I was like, oh, it's it's in French. I know this story, but all of a sudden all the words, all the repetition all of the sequencing has escaped me. So I had to kind of like read it from memory because I couldn't quite translate it. My French is not that good. And what did you find from the research that you did? And you know what proportion of books for example, contained repetition. Where was it really prominent within those storybooks to sort of the Computing Concepts?

Lynne Blair:

We were trying to spot patterns in those I think part of it was just that identification of patterns and then translating that onto what we thought that the teachers and the children could do. So, like Sarah said, the repetition was, was the easier part of it and then working out that selection on top of that. So it was, it was the big three in Computing. Are that sequencing, that repetition and that selection. So it's going Beyond where we've seen stories used in, in primary schools before. So stories are such an important, part of children's learning, you know, and it's already common to see sStructured learning activities that are linked to stories, you know, when going to the classroom we see that in many different subjects. And so we wanted to apply that to these big three constructs in Computing. And, you know, we have physical Computing toys that are wonderful, things like coding Critters. One of my favourites that you program to move around objects that link to a story. And so it was taking it that one step further, you know, can we do it in reverse? Can we look at those stories and already see these Concepts as part of them.

James Robinson:

So, I added a question for everyone really. So once our Learners have engaged with a story, that's helped them, understand the concept. How do we then? What's the, what's the sort of The Next Step from that? How do we then kind of convert that or turn that into some kind of application of that learning? And is there a link back to the story when we apply that? And I wonder if anyone's got a thought on that?

Linda Liukas:

I love it. I think it speaks to the richness literature and then beyond they all need that kind of the analytical approach. I think there's a lot in their memory. Like we all have this childhood books that we remember reading and that moment the kind of qualitative moment when the child reads the book and makes that connection it will stick with him or her for like years to come. And they will be able to return to it many times over.

Lynne Blair:

So, in terms of linking it back to their some sort of template sheet that the children could use and that was based on, you know, the story had a start point, you were looking for some form of repetition in it. So you have sort of a an angle bracket that would group together statements that, statements that were repeated and you might have a list of things. So Sarah gave an example of going on a bear hunt so you might have a list of environments and in those environments you did something different. So, you know, if you were in one environment you would do another thing. So in terms of taking it that bit further. It was it was really identifying the patterns that you found in this story book. So you would read the story book to start with and see if the children noticed anything, then you might act it out. You know, I've done some wonderful sort of code clubs that we acted out these stories and then we try to find these patterns. So the last point of that, if you wanted to take it further, might be to code it up using one of the block based languages and working out that mapping from, you know, your initial reading on to the acting out and onto the modelling on paper. It would do you're tearing a piece of paper up modelling that. And then eventually, if you wanted, you could then see that in some code, like block based language.

James Robinson:

So you're almost kind of abstracting away detail of the story, all the lovely artwork in the imagery about, like, like, and reducing it down to its kind of its narrative construct. That sort of that, you know, could be expressed, almost sort of algorithmically and then your able to express that through through acting through dance through through a program, ultimately potentially. So you'll yeah, you're kind of pulling out that core element.

Lynne Blair:

And then recreating it with imagination because the beautiful thing about things like scratch as a language is, you can recreate all that, you know, you can put your own artistic interpretation on those different environments. So yes, you are, abstracting it away, but I hate to think that that element of that story is lost because that's such a valuable part of the original story. But you then allowing the children to interpret for themselves and create for themselves their how they see it.

Linda Liukas:

Yeah. It's that interpretation bit that also kind is part of my philosophy that like the story is a great thing. But then there, I think the value of the Ruby books is in the activities that allow the children to kind of learn with their fingertips and they're like, hands, and knees. And, and by like, crafting and making things. And as we discussed in the beginning, so many of the ideas of computer science are so abstract that the more tangible, the more real we can make them the more real they become also to the the children. And, in some ways, I've even started to think that, like, often writing at a young age and like, storytelling at a young age, is that it's a hard skill to get. When you're very young, when you're four, you come up with imaginative and crazy stories. But especially when you're like in school and so forth, like sometimes drawing in my experience has been a much more profound way for children to explore these Concepts and ideas and and I make them draw like what they imagine is inside of a computer and I get very different kinds of answers and that that's basis for like a larger discussion where we always don't have right and wrong answer. But rather like different perspectives.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

I love that approach of allowing that creativity into to kind of what does it look like inside a computer? It could be any kind of magical thing. Right? Because not everyone understands technology and then using that to sort of dispel those myths and making more concrete.

Linda Liukas:

And honestly, there is no right answer for is inside of a computer because some of the kids they draw like the actual components some of them, draw, like the electricity that moves, some of them draw files and apps and that is the beauty of computer that it can take a thousand form and have a thousand faces.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Yeah, and even teaching computer systems and networks, you can also, when teaching input process output. You can ask your learner's to create devices that do something that is meaningful to them. Right? And all they have to do is kind of label. This is the input part. This is the process process part of this is the output part because really that device could be anything. And I just love that aspect of allowing creativity into teaching Computing. And I, a question I have for all of you. Is that this feels like a really great approach but so far everyone's sort of talking about very young age group and I wondered how applicable is this approach. Do we think for older older, Learners? I know Linda you talked a bit about yourself and teaching yourself as an adult learner? And I would definitely put myself in that category too. But what do we think about sort of teenagers may be young adults?

Lynne Blair:

Just to go to the other end of the scale. I've got a colleague who used one of Julia Donaldson's books at University to teach recursion. So, Charlie Cooks Favourite Book is absolutely fantastic. So I wouldn't restrict books to primary schools.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Yeah. I've just clinging onto a Julia Donaldson book just as Lynne said that, because I'm in my son's room recording this, but they are some of the best books I think for, for repetition and recursion.

Linda Liukas:

Maybe one of the kind of barriers to more using of Storytelling is the fact that we tend to take ourselves so seriously as we grow up. And then one way, I've been able to sneak in a little bit of stories by talking about metaphors and analogies and so forth for grownups, and I think it's a big challenge actually for the tech industry in general because we have again like people like it's got a big straw who like was quite cranky a nd he said something like anthropomorphising computers, like means professional immaturity or something like that, back in the days. And then we have people like Donald Knuth who said that, like the best way to convey information is through a story and somehow like, like, when we look at academic papers, for instance, like they're sometimes, there are these wonderful stories. I recently, read this story about them, bubble sort algorithm, that kind of went. It was an anthropological story about the algorithm and it looked at the efficiency, but then it also looked at like why it became so popular and why do people use it that as the first teaching, like algorithm for sorting. But I think there's a lot we can do ourselves. Even in like the higher ED side of things in like easing in these ideas about story and narrative and metaphor and analogue.

James Robinson:

And Sarah, you've had some experience research you did with primary age students, but now you're teaching secondary. How, how would you kind of apply some of those ideas to that that cohort of students that you're working with now?

Sarah Twigg:

So in the school that I currently work with, a lot of English, as an additional language students. So with them we're currently readapting our curriculums, so I might suggest to the head of Department that when we teach the progra mming element, in the future that we use the children's books and implement the strategies that way. But as one of the Teaching Standards in the UK is to encourage literacy in the classroom. So, in my classroom, I've got a little section of books and at the end of each lesson, if some of them have finished early, they're allowed to go and read a book and there are actually books which I think are age appropriate for high school students. So between 11 and 16, I think I might pronounce his name wrong, but it's Jeremy Kubica or something. He, yeah, he does. The Ccomputational Fairy Tales, Best Spell Practice (Best Practices of Spell Design), and The CS Detective, and the other day, your kid picked up the CS detective and I couldn't stop them from Reading. I was like, it's break time. You need to go. I didn't want to be rude, but I was like, come on. It's break time. I want to go and have my break and you need to go outside and have some fun outside with your friends and he just sat there reading which is lovely to see because as they get into High School reading, it's not really something that deemed to be fun. Something thats seen to be cool. So it was quite nice to see. No, I want to go read which is...

Carrie Anne Philbin:

It sounds so wonderful and a wonderful That feels like it engages. A lot of of Learners. I think, one of the risks around this strategy could be not, not ensuring, we're being culturally responsive and culturally sensitive. I think there's a sort of risk that you reach for your nearest favorite childhood book. And actually, not just take that extra step to think about young people that you're working with and how you can best serve them. And I just wondered if you had any thoughts on that.

Linda Liukas:

It's a bit of a different thing. But I think it's again like the shape of the stories we tell around technology tend to be very much around like a lone innovator alone, male white innovator who comes up with something and that's like something. When we talk about the history of technology and tell stories about it. I think we should be very aware of it. Obviously, children's books and the classics but you guys can speak more to that and like what kind of problems they might have. But one of my favorite activities has been one where the children get to like draw illustrations and images of what they imagined, computer scientists look like and what kind of problems they solve. And I've had like little girls from Singapore, make like a computer scientist who look like them, and imagine things that they would do. And then little bit older students in them like high school aged students. They would actually go and research some existing computer scientists and like these legendary characters, but then they got bored because there were only men. So, they like really needed to dig deep and start to find those like untold stories about other perspectives and other just more diverse examples of what does it mean to be a person who works in Computing? And again, like growing was a more powerful metaphor for me to explore this subject and writing, but the end results in this have being really, really lovely. I'll share a few of them.

Lynne Blair:

Yeah. I think that's a really important that Sarah and I were working in as well. So thank you for asking that Carrie Anne. It's really relevant and I think in most cultures, we have that concept of the songs that might have repetition in them or nursery rhymes, or we can look to other forms and make sure that we are being culturally relevant there.

Linda Liukas:

I went to know what happens next in your Like when will you have your next like session where you dig through, computers? And like children's books. And what are you looking for a next?

Lynne Blair:

For me, it's a bit on the back burner, because Sarah's got a rather demanding job and my works are transferred into the diversity and inclusion in Computing education. So, we've been looking into the research around that and particularly what we can do in Higher Education to address the not too impressive gender balance that we have at the moment in Computing. So there's lots of things. I've got an amazing team that I'm working with at the moment on those areas. So that's that's the way my research has gone.

Sarah Twigg:

Yeah, I was going to say at the moment. I've kind of not worked on it for a while, which is really upsetting in a way because it is my main point of what I want to do. Luckily. Now, I'm working part-time so I have got a little bit more time. It's better to do it because I switch to school up in Bolton. So I do have a few more hours spare, but it went on the back burner because of I'm teaching high school now instead of primary. It was looking more into how can I teach them? But yeah, it's still something that's in the back of my mind going. You need to go back to this research. You need to go back to this research. What else needs adapting. But I think if we change our pedagogy for the younger years and year seven, who have those English as Additional Language and seeing how it can include them and doing that approach to it. Then that can expand upon the previous stuff, hopefully.

James Robinson:

I was going to pick up on something that Lynn There is this sort of continued effort around diversity inclusion. There is some studies going on at the moment looking at the value of Storytelling as a pedagogical approach to, you know, there's some sort of big. Yeah, the the gender balance in Computing project is sort of working on this to explore whether this actually has an impact on people's as a whole but also specifically girls within computer where the storytelling is a sort of valuable approach for that to them. So yeah. Yeah, I think it's gonna be really interesting next kind of couple of years as we see more research around this kind of theme to to emerge.

Lynne Blair:

I think we can link storytelling to so many computing though. And like Linda was saying about that, creativity through drawing, we've done a lot of work with younger children with physical Computing robots, you know, like floor robots and things like an app called Foldify that you can create, you know, a paper folded version of your favourite animal say, and put that stick that on to the robot and then you can get the children to tell. That's tell a story about their their animal as they move their animal around. So younger children have created stories of hedgehogs, hibernating, or squirrels going on a hunt for their, you know, gathering their nuts all accompanied by a story and a moving floor robot. And that is just amazing. You know that is computational thinking in practice with storytelling, and it's all bound together beautifully in play. So I just love that side of it, pragmatically in schools and the value there. You can see the children learning engaging and having fun.

James Robinson:

I think if I can bring a little tiny bit of because, you know, you know how I like my educational theory. No, so I think all of this stuff that we're talking about here and when we started to write stories and analogies, it all fits in really well, with the idea that we talk about a lot here at the foundation of a semantic wave. So the idea that we take an abstract concept. We concrete concretise, it we make it more concrete, but then we don't finish the journey there we re we reconnect that to the abstract idea. So we don't leave them in the concrete world. We reconnect with the abstract idea and I think for anyone looking at storytelling and analogy, that's a really important consideration.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

We asked our listeners to share the title and image of the cover of a storybook, which they thought would make a great teaching resource for computing and long-term contributor to hello world Matthew Wimpenny-Smith said, I have used the hello Ruby books as they are great for teaching in primary schools.

James Robinson:

And another contributor Joanne L. She wrote in to say that her favourite story was computational fairy tales that they use in Key Stage 2, and 3, when they're introducing programming Concepts and they also love the Dr. Seuss books, when teaching compression, which I hadn't thought of, that's a really good point.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

And Neil Howie mentions lorem ipsum by Bueno, which is another great book. I have that one. That's really great for sort of 11 year olds, 12 year olds. I find that's a really great book.

James Robinson:

And one that I haven't had heard of, but I'm Robocat from Pete the Cat series was a recommendation from Alison Sheldon, which she recommends was, is a must-have in early years. So yeah.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Yeah, we had a couple of thoughts on this We talked earlier about Willow finds an egg, by our good friend, Rebecca Franks. And I was thinking a lot about Here Be Dragons by the late, great Chris Leach as well.

James Robinson:

Yeah, that's a fantastic recommendation and I I mean a book that I really love to sort of talk about when we're talking about some of the wider aspects of like learning Computing. So like resilience if you haven't come across the Rosie Revere book, which sort of talks about persistence and resilience and the importance of learning from failure. That's something that I often used with my students to encourage them to embrace the lessons that came from failure.

Carrie Anne Philbin:

If you have a question for us or a comment today, then you can email via podcast @helloworld.cc or you can tweet us at HelloWorld_Edu. My thanks to Linda, Lynne and Sarah for sharing their insights with us today. You can read more about Lynne and Sarah's work in Issue 6 of Hello World magazine in the article, children's literature for computer science. You can also read about Linda's approach to programming and play in our big book of computing pedagogy. So James, what did we learn today?

James Robinson:

Well, I think what the one thing that I would the classroom today is reaching for my bookcase, looking for my children's books, flicking through them and looking for those key concepts that we've talked about today. How about you?

Carrie Anne Philbin:

Well, that's good. I'm just off now to program the go away bird as that's sat right in front of me, go away, go away, go away.