Encoding and Decoding

My most recent article has been posted over on the OSC IB Blogs site: Encoding and Decoding. I've re-posted it below. Visit the OSC-IB Blogs site and explore the posts on other areas of interest for students and for teachers.

Anyone connected to ICT and education is familiar with the word "code" - and recently "Teach the kids to code" is all the rage. It usually implies that we should teach kids the fundamentals of computer programming. (In this post I'm going to use the word "kids" as a code word for "learner of any age".)

But if you think about it, we also teach kids to code, as in reading and writing, all their lives, all the time.  Let's explore this thought a little:

Coded messages
Most kids love exploring the idea of speaking and writing messages in code.  (Did you ever try Pig-Latin? Idday ouyay everway ytray Igpay Atinlay? )   Can you decode the sample of pig-latin in this audio file?

Look at the links below to refresh your memory about simple codes. (sedoc elpmis tuoba yromem ruoy hserfer ot woleb skinil eht ta kooL)  Perhaps you would like to practice with Sherlock Holme's Adventure of the Dancing Men.
 Dancing Men Cipher - can you decode it?

Visit the links below for more digital ways of honing your coding skills:

Security and historical codes
Although the stories of codes used during World War II are fascinating parts of history (Navajo code breakers, and Bletchly Manor come to mind),  Morse code is a more useful and easily learned "real" code.  Can you decode the sample of Morse code in this audio file?


Teach the kids to code!
Teaching kids to code has literally become child's play. Coding is thinking and planning in order to make things happen, and most people can do that, and indeed, spend their days doing it constantly in one form or another.  Look at articles linked below for more thoughts about why formal coding is an important part of any education:

"Coding isn't just for computer whizzes," says Mitch Resnick of MIT Media Lab, "it's for everyone." Watch this 2013 TEDx video in which Resnick outlines the benefits of teaching kids to code, so they can do more than just "read" new technologies.

Computer code
On his webpage, David C. Zentgraf  writes to us all about why anyone who reads and writes on a computer - even if it is only emails - needs to know some code background. "A computer cannot store "letters", "numbers", "pictures" or anything else. The only thing it can store and work with are bits. A bit can only have two values: yes or no, true or false, 1 or 0 or whatever else you want to call these two values. Since a computer works with electricity, an "actual" bit is a blip of electricity that either is or isn't there. For humans, this is usually represented using 1 and 0 ...To use bits to represent anything at all besides bits, we need rules. We need to convert a sequence of bits into something like letters, numbers and pictures using an encoding scheme, or encoding for short." His article is long, and interesting.  I urge you to get a cup of tea, and at least skim it, bookmark it, and go back to again another time.

Encoding and decoding - as in "reading and writing"
Encoding and decoding are the building blocks of reading. Words, visuals, media - whatever your brain needs to understand and/or produce. "Decoding means translating written words into the sounds and meanings of spoken words (often silently). Encoding, or spelling, is the reverse process. The skills used in encoding are usually developed alongside decoding skills and reflect similar learning.” (Read more about the nuts and bolts of encoding and decoding language in the first link below).
On his web page, Kosarra writes about encoding and decoding data in charts, but his diagram describes the process in any medium.  Writing about making charts from data, Kosarra says "When a program draws a bar chart, it calculates the length of the bars from the numbers it’s supposed to represent. When it draws a pie chart, it calculates angles. When it draws a scatterplot, it looks at two numbers for each data point and turns those into coordinates to draw a shape. We understand the encoding part very well. There’s nothing mysterious about how a chart comes about, it’s a mechanical process."  He then describes the process of decoding various chart styles. "When it comes to decoding, things get a lot messier. What do we decode? We like to assume that decoding just reverses the encoding: we read the values from the visualization. But not only don’t we do that, we do many other things that are surprisingly poorly understood."  That happens with reading and writing words, too.
Image by ROBERT KOSARA https://eagereyes.org/basics/encoding-vs-decoding CC-BY-SA

After all this, have you thought a little about where, what and how you consciously and unconsciously use code?
"Communication" Image in the public domain

The Right Question

My most recent article has been posted over on the OSC IB Blogs siteThe Right Questions. I've re-posted it below. Visit the OSC-IB Blogs site and explore the posts on other areas of interest for students and for teachers.

This morning I read this post by David Hoffeld, on FastCompany: Want To Know What Your Brain Does When It Hears A Question?  "Questions hijack the brain. The moment you hear one, you literally can't think of anything else. And that can be a powerful tool."

I began to think about questions, specifically Inquiry Questions as they appear on IB unit of inquiry planners...and I wondered if the research described in the FastCompany post (focused on sales and management) would be useful to us in education, too.
MRI scans of the human brain; image in the public domain[
Hoffeld writes that "Questions trigger a mental reflex known as "instinctive elaboration." When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process. And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can't contemplate anything else. Research in neuroscience has found that the human brain can only think about one idea at a time. So when you ask somebody a question, you force their minds to consider only your question."  His article then lists and links to several brain research studies looking at questioning.

So, do good inquiry questions  "aid in the teaching and learning of essential understandings" ? (DP Approaches to Teaching) We hope that these questions will take over our students' thought process, provoking further questions, driving research - inquiry, action and reflection.

This interest in good questions is not new - we find reflections about inquiry itself since humans first were able to record their thoughts:

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he's one who asks the right questions.” (Claude Lévi-Strauss)

“I think that probably the most important thing about our education was that it taught us to question even those things we thought we knew.” (Thabo Mbeki)

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” (Eugene Ionesco)

“[…] The art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” (Georg Cantor)
“The marvelous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering.” (David Whyte)

The next question is, how are good inquiry questions for a specific unit of inquiry crafted?
The IB has published a handful of videos about Approaches to Learning In Practice, which do not offer the possibility of being embedded in a blog post.  I urge you to go to this link and watch the video "Inquiry based and conceptually focused mathematics teaching" filmed in a DP maths class, at the International School of  Toulouse. Around the 4 minute mark you'll hear a lot of discussion about questions.

The video below describes 3 key points to remember in order to develop inquiry questions that are aligned with a unit's statement of inquiry and that scaffold students' learning over the course of the unit:

To end, there's an image on the TeachThought web site which presents you with 20 questions from the inquiry process. "...Hopefully you’ll find the following graphic–and the embedded stages and questions–helpful in your planning, or to distribute to students as they make sense of what could be a new (for them) approach to learning."