Developing visual literacy through infographics

In these days of information overload visual representations offer a useful strategy for helping students see patterns and connections. They also help make information accessible to all learners, including those with EAL or reading challenges.

I’d like to explore some links and tools for collecting data (raw and unprocessed) and turning it into something that communicates a meaningful message (information). A trend that has been gathering momentum recently is the idea of presenting information through well-designed infographics combining illustrations, text and charts of one kind or another.  Here’s a nice example on photosynthesis from Kids Discover.



These infographics often include data visualisations, which show the relationships between data sets using colours and shapes, maybe as a timeline, diagram, flowchart, map, word cloud, graph, concept web or table. Have a look at this TED talk from David McCandless about how these representations can help us to see patterns and connections and ‘make information beautiful’.

You’ll find some lovely examples of these on David’s website, and a Pinterest search of ‘infographics’ reveals many more. Here’s a selection aimed at children from Reading Rockets. The Daily Infographic has a new, data-filled illustration each day  and a good catalogue of past finds. I have my own collection of links for data and infographics on Pinterest too.

In order for children to get the most out of infographics, they will need to learn how to read and navigate them and how to interpret the charts and diagrams. TechChef4u has 8 lesson ideas for developing infographic interpretation skills. Even better, children can deepen their understanding by making their own infographics.  Online tools such as piktochart, and, with pre-defined templates offer a simple way to start.

The beauty of these tools is the potential for children to combine their own local investigations with data from around the world and compare trends. This can give them a feel for the difference between first hand data (primary data) and data collected by someone else (secondary data). They come with built-in charts for displaying quantitative data, or you can create your own with tools such as Google Chart Editor, Pictograph Creator, or Piecolour. You can make your own pictograms in Excel or add word clouds using Wordle or Tagul.  All of these diagrams can then be added to the emerging infographic.

If you’re feeling ambitious you could take the infographics idea a stage further by adding data and information to films using YouTube Annotations Editor or to photostories in Animoto or PhotoPeach. Get inspiration from Little Red Riding Hood reinterpreted as a data story by Tomas Nilsson or this amazing video from General Electric about capturing and converting energy from train brakes.

With infographics creation as a way of sharing findings, children can be encouraged to adopt an inquiry-based approach to data collection and research in collaboration with their peers. It is worth pausing at the beginning of such a project to allow time to come up with a provocative and tantalising question. Watch Ewan McIntosh’s video The Problem Finders and think about how giving students time to define their own problems can help them think more dynamically.

One starting point might be to brainstorm individual topics within an overall theme such as ‘change’.  Taking an historical approach, children could explore census data on the National Archives website and compare it with a database they construct about themselves, including making their own family tree.  From a geographical point of view they could use History Pin and the historical imagery slider in Google Earth to investigate how places have changed over time: (the Beijing and London Olympic Stadiums, the shrinking Aral Sea and the building of the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai are good examples). Climate change offers another slant, with opportunities to scroll around 26,000 weather stations on Wundermaps, or to look at Metlink, GlobalWarmingKids or resources from Education Scotland.  You’ll find some great ideas on TechChef4u for combining webtools, apps and data sources to explore data patterns. Alongside these sources, survey tools such as Google Forms and Survey Monkey can be used to collect local data.

Whether you are reading them or creating them, infographics offer a dramatic way to share data stories. The layering of visuals and text means that they can be interpreted on many levels, making it easier for all learners to make meaning for themselves. See if you can make information beautiful in your classroom!

Manipulating media for Christmas

I have been playing around with media on iPads and the internet, and combining sound, images, video and text in various ways on a Christmas theme.

One of the benefits of the iPad is its versatility when working with media. Many apps can be integrated with one another to create shareable digital products such as animations, songs, films, designs, slideshows, and ebooks. By giving children open-ended problems and creative tools to engage with, the iPad can become a real tool for thinking rather than just a collection of apps, allowing them to refine and present their ideas in a purposeful way.

Bearing this in mind, here are some ideas you might like to try on a Christmas theme.

How about creating an eCard on the iPad by customising an image using the sketch effect in BeFunky (free) and then adding a message and layout in Phoster (£1.49). This type of activity will give children a feel for how the iPad can be a dynamic art tool giving them experiences they couldn’t gain in any other way. They might also think about the poetic language of carols:



The source images for these cards came from the Flickr search tool Compfight, which helps you find Creative Commons licensed images for remixing and resusing.

Sticking with the idea of images, you could use the Comic Life app (£2.99) to create instructions for a Christmas recipe. This would be a fantastic way to document any practical classroom work. One of my GTP students had the great idea to combine images from Toca Hair Salon in Comic Life. Read more on her blog Sara’s Sources.

iPads can also make movies and combine sound and animations from other apps. How about creating a film based on a Christmas story in iMovie (£2.99) and adding your own music from Garageband (£2.99), or a stop-frame animation in I Can Animate? (Here’s a video on how to add the music). Or you could use the wonderful iMovie trailers to document preparations for Christmas. (Here’s how). Our Year 3 students at the University of Northampton made trailers on the theme of story genres:

Another advantage of the iPads is their portability, making it easier to capture learning that takes place outside the classroom. And one great way of getting out and about with technology is through QR codes, quick scannable images, like bar codes, which take you to a digital destination such as a written or spoken message, a document or a website when you hold a webcam, phone, iPad or iPod camera up to them. 

Try using Scan by QR Code City. (Here are some instructions).  Imagine how engaging it would be for your children to have the code for book trailers they made in iMovie inserted into library books, to go on a treasure hunt looking for coded clues, or to have a talking display of work in the classroom. You might try making a seasonal QR code trail based on finding the carols to spell a mystery word by encoding links to youtube videos.

Using online tools, rather than the iPad, you could continue the theme of exploring media by capturing your typical xmas day as a 5 frame story in Animoto:

Or PhotoPeach:

These two tools are so simple to use and yet produce results which children would be proud to share. Both tools also allow you to add text, opening up possibilities for creating or interpreting poems in words and pictures, or for exploring themes in other subjects.I used Compfight to find these creative commons images to make my slideshows: Magic bokeh! by kevin dooleymerryxmas by nivekhmng,The Grinch by pareeericaChristmas Tree Fruit by Lutz-R. Frank, and Happylucky by in da mood.

I hope this has given you some ideas on ways to help children create using digital media and how mobile technologies can offer rich cross-curricular learning opportunities.

BLT Day Live


This week, the School of Education was delighted to host a BLT day, one of a series of innovative workshops for the Northants Better Learning using Technologies network, which facilitates a ‘grassroots’ culture among educators who meet to share practical experiences of using technologies to make learning better. Over 40 teachers from across the county took part in workshops led by Ewan McIntosh and Peter Ford from the creativity and learning consultancy NoTosh, on ‘Visible Learning and Visual Learning: Using digital media to capture, discuss and improve learning.’ We explored themes such as how to get children to take ownership of problems and how best to capture their ‘messy thinking’. The day culminated in a powerful stand-up session of ideas-sharing around strategies for using ICT to redefine and transform learning. 

Starting from Scratch

Teaching computing in schools is a hot topic right now.  And one of the ideas under debate is whether children should begin to learn computer science in Primary schools, so that they grow up with an ability to use code creatively rather than just passively consume computer programs made by others.

Have a look at these kids interviewing some high calibre applicants for Code Club, a national initiative introducing programming to Years 5 and 6. They are unimpressed by Tim Berners-Lee inventing the World Wide Web but decide to hire the Duke of York for his connections!

You can well imagine that children of this age will jump at the chance to make their own computer games, but where does the novice Primary teacher start with all of this? Code Club suggests using the free software Scratch, a child-friendly visual programming language in which you snap together coloured blocks to assemble your script like a jigsaw. You can make interactive stories, animations and games, share your projects with the world and remix other people’s scripts.

This means that you don’t really have to start from scratch at all: you can find a project you like the look of and modify the script to suit your own ideas.  Primary-aged children respond well to this problem solving approach where they think of an idea, look at what others have done, create a prototype, debug, get feedback and redesign.  At the MIT lab they see the computer design process as a continuous spiral that combines many 21st Century skills:

Here’s how Simon Haughton sums up the program writing process as a Learning Intention:

Simon also shares his school’s plans for progression in programming from Year 1 to Year 6. However, before they can get creative with Scratch, children using the software for the first time will need to understand the basic concepts and begin to learn some of the terminology. (Word cloud made in Tagul.)

Good starting places for beginners might be this introductory guide from MIT,  these Simple introductory lessons from Redware or the Scratch Cards from the MIT site ScratchED which you can print and laminate.  EdTechLounge has some resources for Key Stage 1, TES online suggests simple lessons for low ability students starting out with Scratch, and Miss Flavia’s blog shares how she begins by designing aquariums for her young students’ fish sprites to swim in.

If you like the aquarium idea have a look at Miles Berry’s video on making an animated underwater scene.

You could continue the fishy theme and progress to making a shark attack game using this set of instructions on the Teach-ICT website, where there is also a fantastic selection of how-to’s for other classic games and some useful assessment tracking sheets.

Once your pupils have explored the basics, step-by-step game-making guides such as these are a good way to learn more. Here’s a selection:

Whack-a-witch game from Code Club,

Make a Bat and Ball, Dog and Crab and Fish! games from Redware

Pac Man (chasing and eating) or Pong (paddle and ball) and Racing car games from Simon Haughton

Etch a Sketch  and Angry Birds games from Simon Haughton

You can follow up by challenging them to modifying their games by changing the size or speed of the sprites, making them look different, changing the theme or adding sounds.  You’ll find that children learn to program at different speeds but all will learn something new each lesson and it will be important to recognise their achievements.

If you have a blog you can embed your Scratch projects by following these instructions.

Once your class is hooked on programming, it is also worth looking at Kodu, another free visual programming language made specifically for creating games in 3D landscapes.  Here’s Stuart Ridout demonstrating how to make a simple apple collecting game in Kodu. The option to use an Xbox controller with your computer instead of the keyboard is sure to appeal.

And on the iPad here are two drag and drop apps for introducing computing concepts: Daisy the Dinosaur, aimed at KS1 and Cargo Bot which would be great at KS2.

Finally here’s a set of further links:

Hopefully, you’ll find something in the above resources that will help you get started. The good thing is that, with these easy-to-use approaches to programming, you don’t need to be an expert or even have any previous programming experience yourself. You just need to scratch the surface and watch them go!



A history of the geeks and the land they lived in

When a colleague asked if anyone had any stories of the development of computers in the 50’s and 60’s I had to own up to a family secret; my dad was one of the first geeks.  He was invited to the first meeting of the British Computing Society in 1959 and, until his death in 1974, he remained close to the cutting edge of hardware and software development. 

So, what do I know about the ‘early days’ ..?

Not many people realise that much of the pioneering work to make computers useful to business was carried out here in the UK and that, for a time, Britain was the world leader in developing hardware and software for commercial use. Most of us have heard of Bletchley Park, only a few miles from Northampton, and of how our need to crack German military codes led to the creation of the world’s first true computer there, but, after the war, the head-start provided by the Park’s code-breakers was largely lost due to the government decision to keep the invention a secret.  That allowed the USA to take up the running, creating room-sized computers that mainly ended up in universities and in government departments.  Then a British company called Lyons, famous mainly for their corner teashops, decided it needed a better way of keeping track of its payroll, and so its forward-looking directors decided that one of those new-fangled computer machines being produced in the States might just be the answer. Little did anyone know that a corner-shop business would end up spawning a new generation of computers and software specifically designed to help run businesses. From selling tea and cakes, Lyons moved into making computers, with the first one being called – naturally – Leo. Leo, and its descendants, gave a new impetus to computers in the UK and a new lease of life to geekdom in the UK.  Which is where I come in …

I was born in a semi in Kingston-upon-Thames. Here’s the inside of our house; just look at our TV! I remember watching Andy Pandy and the Woodentops on it, and also ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio.  My Dad was a prototype geek, as you can probably tell from the photo, and after studying maths at University and learning Russian for his national service, he went on to work for Leo Computers, English Electric and ICL in the ‘50s and ‘60s, helping to develop the earliest business computer applications.

Leo actually stood for Lyons Electric Office, and the first Leo computer was as big as two bus-shelters and relied on punched cards and card readers for its inputs. It had 7,000 valves and a memory of just … 2K!  But it was a world-beater.

Leo soon had offices in Prague and Moscow, and, looking back through their archives, it must have been a very exciting field to be in.  Here’s Ernest Kaye, one of the original design team sharing his memories about it in a BBC podcast.  Read some more memories from the era here and here and here’s a fascinating video about Leo computers which shows what one ‘bit’ looked like then:

What comes across is that these people were real pioneers, reinventing computer technology to meet commercial needs. Ralph Land, talking in the video below gives a real flavour of the time, ‘It’s difficult to imagine now the sheer excitement of the group we worked in.….there was a constant buzz….you were doing something new almost every single day and that made it constantly exciting…you came home in the evening and thought about what had been done and it was quite exceptional’.

The Leo Computers Society website has a great collection of photos and evocative recordings of the sound of Leo, which was surprisingly noisy.

In 1963, Leo Computers merged with English Electric who opened a new computer factory in Kidsgrove near Stafford. In 1968, English Electric merged with ICL. And of course there were other companies working in the field across the world. In 1964 my dad represented Leo Computers on the programming standards committee ECMA alongside people from IBM, Siemens, and Ferranti. ECMA was an industry association started in 1961 to help standardise ICT systems, and it is still doing the same thing today. Sadly, my dad’s early death meant he missed out on the post 60’s explosion in the use of personal computers that came about as result of the invention of the microprocessor in the early ‘70s.

If this brief taste of the era inspires you to find out more, I can highly recommend the Sunday afternoon guided tour of The National Computing Museum at Bletchley Park  where you can see a working replica of the code-breaking Colossus computer that was used there in 1943.

All fascinating stuff, but of course, I was just a young child while this was going on, and although I can remember my dad using words like Algol, Fortran and Cobol at the tea table, I could never make sense of it at the time.  However, I can remember steam trains and cars without seat belts, and in 1963 we went on a package holiday to Yugoslavia, in a turbo-prop plane. There was a sense of the world changing fast, of a new era coming in. So, what kind of world did the geeks inhabit?

In the mid ‘60s we moved into a brand new housing estate in Cheshire so Dad could work at English Electric at Kidsgrove. The brave-new-world of the 1960’s not only had computers, it also embraced vivid colours and funky gadgets … I well remember living with wallpaper that required sunglasses to be able to look at it in the day, and design statements such as our orange perspex cube lamp and glass-topped table. Not to mention my dad suddenly taking to wearing patterned shirts and throwing out our large radiogram in favour of a set of the latest Quad hi-fi equipment, which he then put on our Danish teak wall shelves …

With Dad being into technology, we were one of the first families on the estate to have a colour TV in 1966 and I can remember friends coming round just to watch the test card! We also watched the moon landing in 1969. I remember being surprised as a 9 year old that no-one had been to the moon before.  Another trend was Saturday visits to the ‘Freezer Centre’ to buy frozen food for our new chest freezer.  Packaged food like chocolate mousse in a plastic tub replaced homemade junket and we made fizzy drinks with a soda siphon on Sunday lunchtimes. We were the computer generation, and we were Modern!

Children’s clothes changed too during this decade and my sisters and I went from wearing knee-length handmade (sometimes hand-smocked) cotton dresses to short skirts made of synthetic fabrics such as crimpoline. In the last year of primary school, I was proud of owning a chain belt and ‘wet-look’ skirt, but really coveted my friend’s patent white boots!

In the 1980’s of course, we saw the miniaturization and the popularisation of computers. From being so big that they needed their own rooms they could suddenly sit on a desk-top, and from being the province of the geek, they became the toy for everyman. The price dropped and the power rose, exponentially. In came the Sinclair ZX and the Commodore 64, the BBC machine and the first Apple computer. The mouse appeared and the use of windows and icons, and all the things we take for granted today.  My dad would have loved it if he’d had the chance to make the journey from Leo to the iPad, though I suspect he would have thought his generation lived through the most exciting time of all, when it was all new and the possibilities were just dawning.  Perhaps he’d smile if he knew that I work in ICT and that I get excited by the possibilities …