The enchanted loom

Symphony of Science has recently posted ‘Ode to the Brain!’:


‘Ode to the Brain’ is the ninth episode in the Symphony of Science music video series. Through the powerful words of scientists Carl Sagan, Robert Winston, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill Nye, and Oliver Sacks, it covers different aspects [of] the brain including its evolution, neuron networks, folding, and more. The material sampled for this video comes from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran’s TED Talk, Bill Nye’s Brain episode, BBC’s ‘The Human Body’, Oliver Sacks’ TED Talk, Discovery Channel’s ‘Human Body: Pushing the Limits’, and more.

Carl Sagan:

What we know is encoded in cells called neurons
And there are something like a hundred trillion neural connections
This intricate and marvelous network of neurons has been called
An enchanted loom

Wikipedia — Enchanted Loom:

The enchanted loom is a famous metaphor for the brain invented by the pioneering neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington in a passage from his 1942 book Man on his nature, in which he poetically describes his conception of what happens in the cerebral cortex during arousal from sleep:

The great topmost sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

The “loom” he refers to was undoubtedly meant to be a Jacquard loom, used for weaving fabric into complex patterns. The Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, was the most complex mechanical device of the 19th century. It was controlled by a punch card system that was a forerunner of the system used in computers until the 1970s. With as many as thousands of independently movable shuttles, a Jacquard loom in operation must have appeared very impressive. If Sherrington had written a decade later, however, he might perhaps have chosen the flashing lights on the front panel of a computer as his metaphor instead.

According to the neuroscience historian Stanley Finger, Sherrington probably borrowed the loom metaphor from an earlier writer, the psychologist Fredric Myers, who asked his readers to “picture the human brain as a vast manufactory, in which thousands of looms, of complex and differing patterns, are habitually at work”. Perhaps in part because of its slightly cryptic nature, the “enchanted loom” has been an attractive metaphor for many writers about the brain …

Oliver Sacks:

We see with the eyes
But we see with the brain as well
And seeing with the brain
Is often called imagination

‘Whole orchestras play inside our heads’ (Sagan).

‘Sorley’: Gaelic for wanderer

Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1895–1915. He left just 37 complete poems. Adapted from The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1989): 

His posthumous collection, Marlborough and Other Poems (1916), was a popular and critical success in the 1920s, but he has since been neglected, though championed by Robert Graves amongst others. Graves said of Sorley that, with Owen and Rosenberg, he ‘was one of the three poets of importance killed during the War’. The best known of his poems include, ‘The Song of the Ungirt Runners’, ‘Barbury Camp’, and the last, bitter ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ — found in the author’s kit sent home from France after his death.

Sorley’s father, describing his son’s life in a preface (1919) to Marlborough and Other Poems:

He was educated at Marlborough College, which he entered in September 1908 and left in December 1913, after obtaining a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Owing to the war he never went into residence at the University. After leaving school he spent a little more than six months in Germany, first at Schwerin in Mecklenburg and afterwards, for the summer session, at the University of Jena. He was on a walking tour on the banks of the Moselle when the European war broke out. He was put in prison at Trier on the 2nd August, but released the same night with orders to leave the country. After some adventures he reached home on the 6th, and at once applied for a commission in the army. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment before the end of the month, Lieutenant in November, and Captain in the following August. He was sent to France with his battalion on 30th May 1915, and served for some months in the trenches round Ploegsteert. Shortly after he had entered upon his life there, a suggestion was made to him about printing a slim volume of verse. But he put the suggestion aside as premature. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards, more especially of the small-holdings type. For three years or the duration of the war, let be.’ Four months later his warfare was accomplished. His battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos, and he fell on 13th October 1915, in an attack in which the “hair-pin” trench near Hulluch was captured by his company. ‘Being made perfect in a little while, he fulfilled long years.’

When I read his letters and papers, I am always taken aback by the voice that comes through — its unexpected modernity and warm intimacy:

… poetry up till now has been mainly by and for and about the Upper Classes … The voice of our poets and men of letters (ie, contemporary writers) is finely trained and sweet to hear: it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie. … all true poets (that is, poets who insist on truth) have been consciously or unconsciously in revolt. (From papers on Masefield and on Housman, read to the Marlborough College Literary Society, 3 November, 1912 and 15 May, 1913, respectively)

… the penalty of belonging to a public school is that one plays before the looking-glass all the time and has to think about the impression one is making. And as public schools are run on the worn-out fallacy that there can’t be progress without competition, games as well as everything else degenerate into a means of giving free play to the lower instincts of man. … One is positively encouraged to confuse strength of character with petty self-assertion, and conscientiousness with Phariseeism. (Letters: 25 February, and early April, 1914)

Do you know that Richard Jefferies, the greatest of English visionaries, felt exactly the same about the high parts of the downs as you? That you climbed great hills that should overlook the sea, but you could see no sea. Only the whole place is like a vast sea-shell where you can hear the echoes of the sea that has once filled it. Du Gott! One can really live up there! The earth even more than Christ is the ultimate ideal of what man should strive to be. (Letter: 14 November, 1914)

There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan. (Letter: March 1915)

Sorley is the Gaelic for wanderer. I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road. (Letter: 16 June, 1915)

… out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. The death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: ‘We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do’: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse. One is hardened now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns. (Letter: 26 August, 1915)

I can now understand the value of dogma, which is the General Commander-in-Chief of the mind. I am now beginning to think that free thinkers should give their minds into subjection, for we who have given our actions and volitions into subjection gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjection of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master on the part of a great nation that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards, I and my like will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers. … Ridley [a close friend at Marlborough and a Captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers] … recovered from his wound … Ridley with whom I brewed, ‘worked’ and shared a study, and quarrelled absolutely unceasingly for over three years. We have so thoroughly told each other all each other’s faults and oddities for so long a time that nothing now could part our friendship. (Letter to the Master of Marlborough College.
 One of three last letters, all dated 5 October, 1915.)

Eight days later, Sorley was killed, shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20.
 Herbert Ridley won an MC in 1917 and was killed in action at Ypres on 15 July that year, aged 23.

The Letters of Charles Sorley (CUP, 1919)

 Marlborough and Other Poems (fifth edition, CUP, 1922)

The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Cecil Woolf, 1990)


Thinning out, tidying up. Books to Oxfam, books to booksellers. Analogue to digital.

Here’s something I’ve long wanted to consign to my outboard brain. In a book bought eight years ago and now on its way out, these words, attributed to an unnamed headmaster (but I think I know who it is — they’d be utterly characteristic of him):

… four questions to ask myself in any situation:
What are the facts?
What are the issues?
What am I going to do?
Who do I have to tell?

Teaching’s changed over the course of my life, becoming suppler and subtler, gentler and wiser. Kinder. Looking back, there was a lot of focus on “facts” and not always much sensitivity to issues. Facts often seemed to be the issues.

Schools, like families, are crucibles of intense engagement. Those four questions are a great way of collecting yourself in the rush of a crisis. They’ve been of help and they can live here now. The book can go.

This archiving business, though … Opening up the book to get that bit and put it down here, I found forgotten notes on index cards — one about the book, but others to do with a job interview I had nearly 10 years ago — and a post-it with a rather good quotation on it from … ? And now that it’s so easy to digitalise and store, what do I keep? When should you forget? What should be put clean away?

‘the more I write, the more I shall have to write ... I shall never overtake myself’

I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term … the pattern becomes clear. — Tom Armitage, ‘Telling Stories’ (Reboot 8, Copenhagen, 2006) (pdf)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months paring and pruning, trying to focus more closely on the things which really matter to me. I’ve got something to put down here soon about attention and curation, but before this new year runs away with me and everything, yet again, tilts Tristram Shandy–wards, I thought I might look back, sum up, take stock (a bit).

Here’s something I wrote for our annual school magazine about last year’s talks. (It goes over some of what I’ve written about here during 2009–2010 and I’ve given the links, in square brackets, where that’s the case.) It's very … potted.

ICT Talks 2009–10

This year, our talks continued to cross disciplines. We kicked off with Andy Huntington (RCA graduate, designer, musician) on interaction design [see 20.9.2009 entry]. In Digital Ground (MIT, 2004), Malcolm McCullough set out how interaction design ‘studies how people deal with technology — and how people deal with each other, through technology. As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century’. Andy, who has worked on interactive objects and experiences for clients from the BBC and the Science Museum to Nokia and the Bartlett School of Architecture, talked us through tapTap (‘The system is built up of individual knock boxes. Each box has its own memory and is completely self-contained. As you tap on the top of a box, the box waits for a few seconds and then taps back what it has heard. If you want more you add another box, and another, and another, tap, tap, tap’) and Beatbox (‘a physical programmable drum machine’). Later in the autumn we were delighted to welcome Usman Haque, architect and co-founder of Pachube (‘store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world’):

Usman Haque

The domain of architecture has been transformed by developments in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centered design, contextual awareness, RFID systems and ubiquitous computing. These technologies alter our understanding of space and change the way we relate to each other. We no longer think of architecture as static and immutable; instead we see it as dynamic, responsive and conversant. Our projects explore some of this territory. — Haque Design + Research

Playing with tapTap and Beatbox, thinking how objects are now interacting with us through the internet, reflecting on how we can use Pachube … Ubiquitous computing has well and truly arrived and, as McCullough foresaw, educators need to address interaction design as a matter of urgency.

Also in the autumn, Adrian Hon came to talk about his games company, Six to Start [see 30.9.2009 entry]. He began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the striking role now played in our lives by online text. The main part of his talk focused on We Tell Stories — a project developed for Penguin: ‘six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks’. Adrian, who left a career in neuroscience to co-found Six to Start with his brother, sets great store by narrative: ‘Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves’. His ambition for games is, indeed, remarkable: ‘Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world. … It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities.’

Professor Chris Frith, FRS, talked about how our brain generates emotions and thoughts and he was followed soon afterwards by Professor James Paul Gee, the distinguished American scholar, on games and learning. In his book, Making up the Mind [see 22.9.2009 entry], Frith argues that, ‘on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating’. In Gee’s thought, the world of a complex game mirrors the functioning of the mind: ‘We run videogames in our heads’ [see 30.10.2009 entry]. At the heart of his critical understanding of games is the idea of situated meanings and their role in learning. Games are about problem-solving. Today’s problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. Today, we must be able to work way beyond standard skills, learning how to be part of a cross-functional team — a very high order skill common to play in many games.

Another theme this year has been how we are living in a time when information is becoming more accessible. We welcomed Timo Hannay, publishing director of Web Publishing at Nature Publishing, to talk about open science and in March we had the opportunity to hear Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia [see 22.3.2010 entry]. Timo spoke about the nature of early scientific publishing and the rise of the expensive (and therefore relatively inaccessible) specialist journal. He explained projects he has helped to develop at Nature, including Connotea, a social bookmarking service for scientists, Nature Network (a social network for scientists) and Nature Precedings (‘a platform for sharing new and preliminary findings with colleagues on a global scale’). Jimmy, arriving straight from Heathrow, spoke to a packed hall on the origins, vision and role of Wikipedia. One thing to emerge from this very well-received talk: about 80% of the students present had edited Wikipedia. Next day at a Guardian conference for heads of media, the same question from Jimmy revealed that only about 30% of that audience had edited the online encyclopaedia.

Another highlight of the year was the chance to hear Stewart Brand and Brian Eno talk about the Long Now and Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand & Brian Eno
The idea of the active intellectual is very important, Brand said, and we’re very pleased that St Paul’s is the first school in the UK to join the Long Now and engage with its commitment to long-term thinking and sustainable living. This takes us neatly back to Pachube and the way we interact with technology. The future requires that the young grow up learning about the history of technology, of man’s long journey of inventiveness in manipulating nature and of the possibilities, for good and ill, that lie in this relationship we have with our world.

Schools and young entrepreneurs

There was a piece on ReadWriteWeb earlier this month about the Teens in Tech conference: ‘They haven’t learned that the sky is not, in fact, the limit - and for god’s sake, don’t tell them.’

Teens In Tech Conference 2010 from ReadWriteWeb on Vimeo

In January, Stephen Heppell, quoted in the Guardian, said of the iPad: ‘It’s gorgeous, I want one, but I want to see children and teachers develop for it … nearly there.’

I’ve been meaning for some time now to say something here about what George Burgess, a final year student at St Paul’s, has been doing. I’ve known George for three years and he’s the most business savvy student I’ve ever come across. It’s in his blood: he operates with a shrewdness and an eye for opportunities. George is alert to changes in the game:

‘The idea that anyone, all the way from an individual to a large company, can create software that is innovative and be carried around in a customer’s pocket is just exploding. It’s a breakthrough, and that is the future, and every software developer sees it.’ — Apple’s Game Changer, Downloading Now, NYT, 6 December, 2009

Late last year, George had his iPhone app, GeoRev, accepted and on 24 November it appeared in Apple’s store. You can read about it on his website, EducationApps. From George’s press release:

GeoRev is designed to help students revise for their Geography GCSE exam and consists of 600 multiple-choice questions. These questions are separated into 15 topic areas with both foundation and higher tier options. The topic areas aim to incorporate the majority of material required by major exam boards.

GeoRev is the first of many revision apps Burgess will produce as part of his business, EducationApps. The business aims to produce high quality education applications for the iPhone and iPod touch which help pupils to learn and revise for exams.

Since then, he’s released a free, LITE version of GeoRev with only 150 questions, with the aim of sparking further interest in the full version by giving users an opportunity to try it out first. (When I spoke to George in early February, he’d sold over 400 copies of GeoRev, now priced at £1.19.)

Not standing still, he’s gone on to release two Economics apps, with revision notes for Units 1 and 2 of Edexcel’s AS Level Economics. The notes are split into topic areas and there’s a search function to allow users to quickly find relevant material (particularly helpful for homework). ‘I’m currently working with teachers to try and produce the following GCSE apps before Easter: Maths (a basic version of this might be available within the next two weeks), Chemistry, Biology, Physics and RS. I’ve also received permission from OCR to use their word lists in the making of my foreign language apps. I’m therefore working with a developer in Australia to get these started.’

Oh, and over Christmas his seasonal Trivia Quiz made it into MacWorld.

George ran his first idea for an app (GeoRev) past the school and then drew up a contract with our Head of Geography: they co-wrote the questions and answers (George is studying Geography at A Level). Once version 1 was out of the door, he began working on new features for version 2, including random testing and beat-the-clock.

He’s happy for me to re-tell the story of how, in our junior school, he got into some trouble … as a result of his business sense. Travelling quite often between the UK and the States, he noticed how his friends liked the American sweets he brought back. So he started bringing them back in quantity and selling them on. That’s what business people do, but it’s not quite the form traditionally expected of school pupils. (Bruce Chatwin got into trouble as a schoolboy at Marlborough College when he exercised his discerning eye and bought stuff from the local antique shops that he knew would fetch a good price in London. In his case, the local dealers got together to protest to Chatwin’s headmaster: Chatwin was destroying their credibility, they said …)

One thing I find admirable in what George has done is that he’s done it at all, whilst still at school. He’s not the first, of course: there’s a long line now of school-aged innovators seizing the reins, writing code and changing the world a bit.

In George’s case, he didn’t write the code for GeoRev himself. Like me, he’s not a coder, but unlike me he had the idea for an app, knew what it should do and what it should feel like, found a developer in Pakistan and commissioned the work. And in order to do all this, he approached my colleague, his Geography teacher, and invited him to enter into this business proposal, contract-based, clearing the idea with the school as he went.

Since George got his first app on the market, other GCSE revision apps have started to appear. He’s swift to watch for new competition, seeing what each does and appraising the strengths and weaknesses of their products — ‘this developer produces quite boring and basic apps (including the ICT one), which consist only of audio commentary with some notes on the screen’; ‘these ones only cover science but look quite good, with a similar approach to mine (multiple-choice questions)’; ‘this developer just produces revision flash cards with text and pictures’.

It will become a crowded space and then there’ll be the inevitable shake-out. That’s his challenge. Ours is to respond adeptly to this most significant change in empowerment: not just to tolerate or learn to cope, but to create the ethos which encourages entrepreneurial initiatives and offers guidance and support — not least in avoiding the pitfalls. I’ve seen more complicated, student-driven initiatives just recently, and one thing we can bring to all this is a sense of realism about legal and other issues surrounding these ventures. But ‘realism’ must not be a reason for dampening enthusiasm. We’re here to guide and enable, as best we can, as these young entrepreneurs aim high.

Things you might try to pass on

I find it hard to believe that the Paxman/Kissinger encounter on ‘Start The Week’ occurred all the way back in 1999 (here’s a Guardian piece about it, too). (I heard it live and I’d love to hear it again: all these years on, a kind of acoustical aftershock is still resonating in my head.) It’s recalled in the first comment to a 2002 post by David Weinberger. Weinberger calls Kissinger a ‘disgraceful, banal man’.

I came across a quotation from Kissinger recently that struck me. (That’s thought-provoking in itself — to come across something that seems important said by someone for whom, at best, you don’t much care.) This is from Nat Torkington’s excellent O’Reilly Radar post earlier this month, Rethinking Open Data. The last sentence is his own.

Henry Kissinger said, “each success only buys admission to a more difficult problem”. I look forward to learning what the next problem is.

In the same post, there’s a lovely bit which runs:

As Krishna was told by Arjuna, “a man must go forth from where he stands. He cannot jump to the Absolute, he must evolve toward it”. I’m just noting that, as with all creative endeavours, we learned about the problem by starting to fix it. …

Conveying something valuable about life’s complexities and problems — that’s one of the very best things in teaching, whether done within a disciplined area of study, in guiding an enthusiasm or individual project or in being alongside someone in the larger matters of living itself.

Bucky tweet.jpeg

I liked very much what the Guardian reported Rowan Williams said recently in a lecture about Dostoevsky: ‘he loved Dostoevsky’s characters because of their soul-searching and sharing of other people’s burdens’. And there was this (the words are Williams’ own):

Irony is when you recognise that your own sense of dramatic power is always something that is going to be absurd in the light of truth. The readiness to cope with that absurdity is something that you have to learn in order to grow up.

That’s good.

‘We run videogames in our heads’

James Paul Gee

It was a very great pleasure to welcome James Paul Gee to talk at school, shortly before we broke for half-term. James spent an hour in conversation with our students, examining what games and learning have to do with each other. He was in the UK to speak at Handheld Learning 2009 and this is his talk from there:

At the heart of both talks, besides his zest for life, learning and a passionate engagement with his subject, is the critically important idea of situated meanings and their role in learning: ‘Comprehension is grounded in perceptual simulations [of experience] that prepare agents for situated action’ — Barsalou (1999).

Some photos of slides James used at St Paul’s (which illustrate what he means when he says, around 5m 50s into his Handheld Learning talk, ‘Our schools don’t use the best principles we know about learning, but our popular culture does’):

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

Many students who came to hear James talk had read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You (2005) and will have recalled Steven’s discussion of James’s thinking. Here’s Steven on ‘probing’, that process in learning to play a videogame where the player ‘probe[s] the depths of the game’s logic to make sense of it’ — exploring the rules, yes, but also something subtler and more complex, ‘the physics of the virtual world’:

The games scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the “probe, hypothesise, reprobe, rethink” cycle:

  1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
  2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
  3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
  4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.

Put another way: When gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method.

It might be useful to summarise here James’s six headline slides from his Handheld Learning talk about what characterises videogames: an experience of being simultaneously inside and outside a system; situated meanings; action orientated tasks; lucidly functional language; modding; passionate affinity groups. From his talk to us, some points I jotted down:

  • 700 games design courses have started in US universities in the last six years.
  • “We’re a profoundly contradictory people”: we worry about violence and videogames and GTA is put in the spotlight, yet a very violent game like Postal goes largely unnoticed and America’s Army is free — funded with tax-payers’ money! (James talks about America’s Army here.)
  • Games are not like books: Doom has a poor story (and graphics), but very good mechanics and mechanics really matter in our appreciation of a game. Warren Spector thinks story is very important to games. The creator of Doom doesn’t. Of course, if it’s got good mechanics and a good story …
  • The modern world handles knowledge distinctively, working with large, broad, cross-disciplinary themes.
  • If education is only about standard skills, it will only get you a job with standard skills (probably off-shore). In the US and UK, three-fifths of workers are in the service industries.
  • Success at school may square with the job you get, but it doesn’t predict how well you’ll do in your job.
  • Games are about problem-solving. Our problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. You must be able to think way beyond standard skills.
  • Cross-functional teams, a feature of games such as World of Warcraft, require very high order skills — greatly valued in high-tech firms. Working in such teams is exceedingly intense and demanding.
  • A game like Portal creates an embodied feel for physics and provides continuous assessment of your knowledge (performance). The game itself guides the experience.
  • James Paul Gee

  • Good games makes you feel smarter than you are. Play first, learn later (situated meanings). Where school fails is when it’s like a bunch of manuals without the games — and that’s also a very good way to make the poor look stupid.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh cards and their associated ecosystem are a striking example of geeking out with passion. Here’s a card James took from a seven year-old — who understood it completely (complex, technical language made lucidly functional by being married to action in the game) and explained it to him:
  • James Paul Gee

  • Modding: not only ‘How can I use what this game design has given me to my best advantage?’, but also ‘How can I improve/develop this?’
  • James Paul Gee

  • As Will Wright said, my games designers can make better stuff than 90% of players — but not the other 10%.
  • Recommendations: Half-Life; Deus Ex (1); System Shock; Flower (PS3); Braid. My colleague, OIly Rokison, chipped in with Fable 2.
Here’s an interview with James from Gamezone, 2007:

What is it specifically about video games that help people learn?  Does it have more to do with the gameplay than the story, the visual content or the characters?

My book covers 36 good learning principles built into good games like System Shock 2, Rise of Nations, Arcanum, or even Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.  But there are many more.  Let me just give a few examples.  First, humans are terrible at learning when you give them lots and lots of verbal information ahead of time out of any context where it can be applied.  Games give verbal information “just in time” when and where it can be used and “on demand” as the player realizes he or she needs it.

Second, good games stay inside, but at the outer edge of the player’s growing competence, feeling challenging, but “doable.”  This creates a sense of pleasurable frustration.  Third, good games create what’s been called a “cycle of expertise” by giving players well-designed problems on the basis of which they can form good strategies, letting them practice these enough to routinize them, then throwing a new problem at them that forces them to undo their now routinized skills and think again before achieving, through more practice, a new and higher routinized set of skills.  Good games repeat this cycle again and again—it’s the process by which experts are produced in any domain.

Final example: good games solve the motivation problem by what I think is an actual biological effect.  When you operate a game character, you are manipulating something at a distance (a virtual distance, in this case), much like operating a robot at a distance, but in a much more fine-grained way.  This makes humans feel that their bodies and minds have actually been expanded into or entered that distant space.  Good games use this effect by attaching a virtual identity to this expanded self that the player begins to care about in a powerful way.  This identity can then become a hook for freeing people up to think and learn in new ways, including learning, or least thinking about, new values, belief systems, and world views, as the Army realized in building America’s Army.  If you stick with it, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind does this brilliantly and people play the game very differently depending on the different ways in which they have invested in their character.  We would do better at teaching science in school if kids really invested in a scientist identity.  But you have to make it happen, you can’t just say “pretend.”

You can read a recent paper written by James and Elizabeth Hayes, his wife, here: Public Pedagogy through Video Games.

‘Passionate affinity groups’. That stays in my mind when I’m thinking about school and how education works, doesn’t work … and is changing. Here’s James’s slide about the qualities these groups exhibit, from his Handheld Learning talk:

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ICT AUPs are hardly sexy, but they of course reflect how an institution thinks of its computing resources and of its users. We drew up a revised AUP last calendar year and have just gone live with it for this new academic year.

In the development of ICT at St Paul’s, we have put the emphasis upon users being both informed and responsible. The course for our first years (13 year–olds) is open to all in our community to make use of and, within the constraints of a busy school’s life, we try to communicate widely key points about online life — from the way stuff endures online, is read by unknown publics, etc, to the exercising of thoughtfulness and the nurturing of a good ear for context and (therefore) register. Underlying all this, two things: the value in creating and nurturing your online identity, and the whole business of learning to be accountable for what you post or send.

The debt to danah boyd in our AUP will be evident, but we’ve also drawn upon a number of other writers. Last year’s introductory lesson on blogs and wikis cited danah, but also included this:

In all online activity,  you must post responsibly and wisely.  How we behave online affects our reputation — and the reputation of others. Here are some simple guidelines for participating in online life: ‘be civil’ (Jeremy Keith's Irish music site, The Session); ‘be polite and respectful in your interactions with other members’ (Flickr); ‘use common sense while posting’ (; ‘Use your best judgement. Don't forget your day job’ (IBM, pdf); ‘IBM's integrity & reputation, as well as your own, are in your hands’ (IBM Virtual World Guidelines).

I like the point an IBM blogger made concerning IBM’s Corporate Blogging Guidelines, something I apply in my mind to a good ICT AUP, too: ‘a commitment that we all have entered into together’. Schools, with their transient populations, have to renew their commitment continually, not only every year but many times each year. This is the guts of teaching and of good schools. It’s tiring, but very rewarding.

Another reason why AUPs test schools: ‘most schools and districts are operating under Acceptable Use Policies that were written before there was a Read/Write Web’ (David Warlick, in 2007). As I’ve said before, no-one I know saw what we were really doing when we started connecting our schools to the web. The shared perception was that we were enlarging our libraries. When we began more fully to appreciate that we’d in fact joined the read/write web, the need for a very different kind of AUP was evident.

An AUP should, to borrow Roo’s words from his 2008 post about IBM’s conduct guidelines, Policing vs Guidelines, be ‘annually revisited (though not necessarily annually revised)’. This is what we’re running with this year:

ICT: policy for good use

This policy is binding. It has been kept as simple as possible and is intended to encourage creative, imaginative use of our computing facilities. If you exercise due care and consideration, you will be observing its spirit.

The school provides both networked, desktop computers and wireless access to the internet through the school’s own filtered connection. Wireless access (which does not provide direct access to the school’s network) is available in specified locations for authorised users to use via their own devices.

Identity and responsibility (online and digital)

Respect and maintain the integrity of digital identities — yours and others’. For example: log on only as yourself; keep your login details private and make them secure; do not leave any device logged in and accessible to others.

Exercise informed judgement about disclosing your personal details and do not give out another person’s details without their clear consent.

Except for Coletines, financial transactions by pupils are permitted where you act within the constraints of the school’s rules and with your parents’ approval.

In the digital realm, once something is posted online it has a persistence that is not like something that is said. It is also searchable and replicable and you cannot be sure who your audience is or will be. Once something is posted online, its effects are often magnified and can be mirrored out of context. All of this requires experience to understand. Remember: when you post, you have not only your own reputation to consider but also that of others and that of the school. Every member of the community has to take responsibility for his or her actions online. If you are in doubt, it is best not to post, send an email, etc.

Network and hardware integrity

Respecting and maintaining the network and the computers the school provides is largely common sense. For example, if the functioning of the system were to be impaired by the introduction of a virus, it would have a possible impact not just on the school’s network but on all devices using the school’s facilities. Attachments sent to you should be assessed case-by-case: unexpected or suspicious files should not be opened.

Many different devices exist which can be connected to a network or a computer. Every user needs to exercise judgement: for example, storage devices (eg, USB sticks) with non-executable files on them are clearly fine, but should have been virus-checked first by you. Harder to assess can be executables designed to run safely from a USB stick (etc) — eg, a browser. If in doubt, consult with a member of the ICT staff.

Devices that are themselves computers (in whatever form) should not be linked to the wired network without first consulting either the Director of ICT or the IT Manager.

Laptops and other portable devices can access the internet (and, via this route, the school’s systems) by using the wireless network — accessible from a number of points within the school.  Anti-virus provision for all mobile and portable devices is the owner’s responsibility.

Downloading files: again, exercise judgement and be aware that viruses can be hidden in documents and images (for example) and not just in executable files. To guard against accidents, the school’s own machines do not allow unauthorised software installation. Think about what you are doing and always seek advice if in doubt.

Respecting the network’s integrity extends to how messages are sent. There are many ways of spamming people, or generating needless messages, and no-one should be doing this. Another example of unacceptable practice would be attempting to send messages anonymously or pseudonymously.

It is standard practice in organisations to audit users’ internet activity and all staff and pupils are audited in this way. Audit trails are rarely examined but exist as a safety net should things go wrong. Should you find yourself looking at or opening material you consider the school would think inappropriate (or material you find disturbing), simply inform a member of staff so we can work with you to address the matter.


  • On our intranet, there are hyperlinks to further info for: disclosing your personal details and financial transactions by pupils are permitted where you act within the constraints of the school's rules.
  • “Coletines” refers to pupils in our junior school, Colet Court.
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Last words on last year

A few words to add to what I wrote back in January about the first half of last academic year, 2008–9.

This was the second year we’d taught our Year 9 the new ICT course (online here). Now that this body of material is very familiar to us, we can move on with confidence, keeping the old cycle of lessons as a reference for us and for anyone else who wants this level of detail, but producing much cleaner, leaner lesson material for the pupils with more time, now, for hands-on experience both in lessons and beyond. Given the engagement we’re building with professionals based in London, and the inter-disciplinary collaboration now going on at school to make much more of all the considerable areas of overlap between art, ICT, technology, electronics, science, etc, I’m confident that there’s something underway which, properly nurtured and encouraged, could be very exciting and creative.

As part of our continuing exploration of computer games, we were fortunate to have two more visiting speakers of distinction. Ian Livingstone came in May. Eidos hosts a biography. One of the UK’s founding fathers of interactive games and fiction (he co-founded Games Workshop in 1975), at Eidos (the UK's leading developer and publisher of video games) he was instrumental in securing many of the company's major franchises, including Tomb Raider and Hitman. In 2000 he was awarded the BAFTA Special Award for his outstanding contribution to the interactive entertainment industry. In 2003 he was appointed Creative Industries advisor to the British Council and in 2005 he was appointed Chair of the Computer Games Skills Council. He was awarded an OBE in the 2006 New Year’s Honours List for his contribution to the Computer Games Industry. His talk, Life Is A Game, focused on his many years in games. He spoke about the acute skills shortage in the UK games industry and the urgent need for top quality UK maths/computer science graduates to consider it as a career.

I'm delighted that, again in May, Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor, Education, at Channel 4 and a renowned gamer, came to talk about her life in gaming (she played Quake for England), what she does now and why she thinks gaming matters. You can read about her work with C4 and what she's up to on her blog. You can also read what Matt Locke at C4 has to say about her (‘she’s one of the most inspiring women I know working in technology at the moment’) and you can read about some of her thinking to do with a game C4 is developing about privacy. (And the game, Smokescreen, is now out.)

In June, we squeezed in another excellent talk — by Graham Cooke, eCommerce Senior Project Manager, EMEA, Google. He spoke about cloud-computing (trends and changes in computing and how cloud-computing is changing the way we work), his own work at Google and website analytics (what it takes to make a website work).

Last term saw us celebrate our 500th anniversary as a school and as part of that my colleague, Olly Rokison, showed off Centograph on our open day (more about our open day and ICT in an earlier post), a piece we’d commissioned from!. We’ve been talking with Alex and others at! for a while now (and Alex spoke at school last September), looking at ways in which we can make more use of Arduino in our teaching and at how we teach about “the internet of things”.


From the! post about Centograph:


Students in St. Paul’s technology classes are studying the fundamentals and the latest advances in computation, networks, electronics, and physical design. These technologies are increasingly complex and interconnected; this has been reflected in the emergence of fields such as interaction design, human computer interaction, and physical computing.

Centograph, a physical representation of virtual information, uses today’s technologies to encourage viewers to reflect on the past.

When you enter a search term into the computer, Centograph queries the Google News Archive for a list of related news articles over the past 100 years. The archive returns a timeline of articles sorted according to date. The bars on the graph then change height to display a histogram of the relative number of news articles for each decade. This allows you to view the ‘shape’ of the past century in relation to different topics—from progression in computing technology to times of war and peace to changing sources of energy, to name a few possibilities.

Centograph provides viewers with a context for exploration and reflection, and it urges viewers to seek connections between different subjects and evaluate changes in public discourse over time. It also raises questions about how we use technology today. How do we acquire and interpret information, and how do we connect the web of virtual data to our physical lives? Users type a search term into the computer and press enter. The bar graph then changes to display the histogram for the term. You can also browse through words that other people have entered by clicking on a term to see the related graph.

We’re looking forward to doing more with both Arduino and!.

And so, the new school year begins … More about us and AMEE, YouTube/Vimeo, etc as we go.