Thinking Skills & the Sphero Activity Mats

Thinking Skills in education, especially in my own limited experience over the years, have been confined to a box on a planning document or scheme of work. It’s only over the last few months that I’ve evaluated the role they play after listening to a fantastic presentation by Mr Tony Scullion at a conference in the North of Ireland. It was inspiring to be honest. It reinforced to me that developing Thinking Skills in the classroom really helps children to process information, make connections, make decisions and create new ideas. Since that conference a few months ago I’ve tried my hardest to develop Thinking Skills in my classroom as much as possible. 

The development of the new Sphero Activity Mats has really got me thinking. I’m in no way stipulating that if you use the fantastic Sphero SPRK+ and the Sphero Activity Mats in your classroom then Thinking Skills will be developed across the board. However, by allowing children to take part in coding activities that are cross curricular can be a good basis and another strong strategy for developing Thinking Skills, Personal Capabilities, Problem Solving, Logical Thinking, Collaboration, the ability to Manage Information and so much more, including Divergent Thinking - breaking a topic apart to explore its various components and then generating new ideas and solutions.  

Take a look at this video below of the Sphero SPRK+ navigating around one of the tracks on the Sphero Activity Mat 2.

While the SPRK+ navigates the track and eventually gets to the end safely, think of the learning that has happened to get to that point. Children will have used the iPad to program the SPRK+ to move with code. They will have worked together to estimate the length of time it takes the SPRK+ to move from one point to another. More than likely they would have had to try this a few times - trial and error. They would have been taking account of the heading of the SPRK+ as it turns at each corner. They may have decided to set the speed of the SPRK+ differently along each straight, which then in turn means they would have had to change the length of time it takes the ball to move from one point to another. This will have thrown up the fact that there would have been many, many different solutions and programs they could have devised to get the ball from the start of the track to the end of the track. On this particular mat, the Sphero Activity Mat 2, there are 4 reversible tracks which means that there are 8 tracks in total. Think of how many different solutions children can come up with and all the parameters a teacher could set in a lesson.

Again, I’m not saying that teachers should go out and get these and they’ll be on to a winner when it comes to working on length, time, speed, distance, fractions, decimals, problem solving, processes in Numeracy, position, direction, angles, bearing and headings. However after seeing these in use in the classroom I can honestly say that they are a very useful resource when giving children the opportunity to think critically, process information, make connections, make decisions and create new ideas.

Here is a link to a number of lesson plans for the Sphero Activity Mats -

There are a few more clips of the SPRK+ and mats in action below. The Sphero Activity Mats are available from the following resellers in Ireland and the UK, tap on them to continue:



The mats are also available on Amazon in the UK -

The mats are available in Australia from MacGear through Classroom21 -

If you are in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Estonia drop Exertis and email -

If you are a teacher in the U.A.E. you can purchase them from Denaster, drop them an email here -

Coding - accessibility across the curriculum for students and teachers

Curricular areas like mathematics and in particular music are becoming more accessible for students through coding. Here students from Holy Rosary PS in Belfast are programming their own complex light show.

I love listening to music. I listen to it every day. But as a teacher, I dreaded teaching music. I have no ability in terms of playing musical instruments, even a tin whistle would be out of tune after I played it!

So despite my passion for all types of music, my students never got the opportunity to learn about different types of music from around the world, or understand the importance of mood in music, or explore the tempo of a musical composition.

That is, until, I began to integrate the iPad into the classroom. The GarageBand app gave my students the opportunity to explore the strings section of an orchestra. They delighted in trying to play the opening cords of Bon Jovi's Living On A Prayer (I love the 80s) and they loved to compose original compositions that could be used as a backing track to their very own podcast.

Music, with the aid of GarageBand, became accessible to my students, but even better than that, it became accessible for me as a teacher, allowing me to plan a range of cross curricular lessons and activities that allowed students to become creative with music in areas like languages, mathematics and storytelling.

The iPad has many powerful accessibility features that helps those with visual, hearing and other impairments and gives them the ability to learn and create. Dictation allows someone to talk wherever they would type. VoiceOver helps those with visual impairment to understand what is on the screen and Guided Access is a great tool that keeps those learners who struggle to stay on task engaged in a particular activity.

The iPad is particularly amazing at making learning across all areas of the curriculum accessible for all types of learners, and for teachers.

I deliver training sessions for teachers who teach in Early Years classrooms right up to those teachers who work with students aged 18+. I see the mixed look of dread and puzzlement in their faces when they are just about to begin a training session on how to use the iPad in the classroom to develop coding within a number of curricular areas. However, within a few minutes, once they see how a particular app is easy to use, once they see how it links in with core curricular areas and once we take time to think about how coding can be integrated within curriculum plans, teachers become more confident in their knowledge and ability of how to introduce coding in the classroom. With the iPad, coding had become accessible for teachers. 

In follow up training sessions it warms my heart when these very same teachers tell me with great enthusiasm how a particular coding app has helped engage students in their classrooms. On a number of occasions teachers have told me how an app like Bugs and Buttons helps to engage students with a short attention span in an Early Years classroom in meaningful problem solving activities.

In my experience as a teacher and a trainer I can recall numerous examples of how coding has opened up learning opportunities right across the curriculum. One of the most powerful ways is by using the Parrot Minidrone and iPad to explore STEAM in the classroom and in particular develop students' abilities to understand mathematical outcomes. Students can work together to explore geometry and shapes, speed, distance and time by writing code using Swift Playgrounds that programs the drone to fly around the classroom, taking account of their learning.

You can take a look at how a drone in the classroom is used, tap here.

I recently heard of an amazing way a PE teacher in France uses drones in his lessons. Students calculate running distance and average running speeds. They then take this knowledge and they program drones to fly around a running track at an average speed that the students themselves have to match when running. The drone itself is a pace setter, amazing.

Over the last few years teachers have become more comfortable using block based coding apps in the classroom. The natural progression of this is to explore text based coding. Apple have taken account of this natural progression by creating the Swift Playgrounds app and the Everyone Can Code curriculum to support teachers in embedding text based coding in their classrooms. In terms of accessibility, students all over the world now have the opportunity to explore how to use text based code in engaging lessons.

This accessibility of text based coding has also given opportunities to access other areas of the curriculum like mathematics, music and art and the development of important skills like creativity and the chance for both teachers and students to be really innovative. The recent update of Swift Playgrounds in June has allowed students to program connected devices with Swift code. Teachers across the world are now exploring how devices like the Sphero SPRK+ can be used across the curriculum with Swift code. 10, 11, 12 and 13 year olds are taking part in activities like creating their own light shows with the SPRK+. They are listening to their favourite songs, listening to the different instruments used and timing the tempo of the music. They then write their own For Loops in Swift Playgrounds that programs the light in the SPRK+ to flash in time with the music. It is amazing to see this in action. Students feel very proud of themselves when they complete a project. Equally, I see this sense of achievement in teachers also as they know that they have created some really special learning opportunities through coding that were not possible without the iPad, Swift Playgrounds or Sphero and the SPRK+.

One of the most effective examples of how coding can open up access across the curriculum has been with the Learn to Code 3 resources in Swift Playgrounds. Learn to Code 3 is a powerful Playground that allows secondary aged students to explore more complex concepts of computer science, much akin to the concepts app developers use everyday. Students look at how to use graphics and assets in projects and place these graphics using coordinates. 

What I have been seeing over the last few months is that school leaders I've worked with have taken the time to look at how Learn to Code 3 can enhance learning in a number of other subjects like Geography, History and Science. It has been great to work with a number of departments within secondary schools to develop bespoke plans on how coding can be embedded across areas like History, Geography, Science, Mathematics and Physical Education.

Students are now exploring complex computer science concepts like touch events, variables and arrays and inserting sounds and editable text in projects. What is key in this is that they are exploring these concepts within topics like WW2 and the Spanish exploration/conquest of Central America. Students in Ireland are using Learn to Code 3 to pinpoint battles on a map of the country from the 1798 rebellion. A continuous comment I receive from teachers is that their students are telling them that they are finding areas like History, Science and Mathematics more interesting because they are creating their own coding projects that link directly to learning in these areas. A clear example of how coding allows both teachers and students to access learning across the curriculum.

Have a look here how students have created a project in Swift Playgrounds that explores the history of the Titanic and the geography of North Eastern Europe.

It's important that we provide as many opportunities for our young people to explore their talents, try new things and learn from their experiences. There are many, many ways that we as educators can make learning accessible for our students. If you want to, try introducing some of things I've mentioned above. Take a step back and watch young people work together to put together some truly amazing projects.

You'll be amazed at yourself for taking the chance to provide these tremendous opportunities.