While I’m writing my dissertation, I am teaching at an independent learning school in a small town in Southern California. The school has traditionally been packet-based, with very little use of digital anything.
Dr. Stephen Pietrolungo, the principal here, is working diligently to move the school into the 21st century. This week, he outlined several fairly simple ways to integrate digital tools, inquiry-based learning, and critical consumption of information in his blog as a kick-off to our launch of the international Hour of Code.
While the week began a bit slow, the students are in my classroom coding as I write this, and their excitement and enthusiasm is inspiring. The students are experimenting, asking questions, sharing trials and successes, and expressing their understanding of how to manipulate code. In addition to being a fun activity, these students are becoming comfortable with what is often seen as a daunting and impossible task.
Coding is often thought of as something that only certain people have the aptitude and patience to learn. Whenever I hear someone say we should teach kids to code, I always ask why, and often, the response is “because.” Learning to code teaches so much more than programming; it teaches learners to think about detailed processes, encourages using logical thinking strategies, problem solving, inquiry, discovery, creativity, the list goes on. But if we teach coding for coding sake without an inherent understanding of why we are teaching it, we are diminishing the import and impact of the lesson.
Furthermore, adults need to quash their own fears of technology, as their seemingly innocent and off-handed comments like “oh I can’t do that” or “well I don’t know how” send a message to budding learners that if they are uncomfortable with a subject, they can just brush it off and not engage with it. Instead, adults (particularly in school settings) need to constantly update their own understanding of the technologies their students use and encourage meaningful, productive use of the tools rather than dismissing them.
It is important that we do not integrate digital tools for the sake of using digital tools. Rather, we must teach learners why they are learning specific content and using new tools. In this way, we can help them to be innovative users of technology and critical consumers of information.
Steve PietrolungoDecember 8, 2015 at 11:25 am
Rebecca – this statement is so true “But if we teach coding for coding sake without an inherent understanding of why we are teaching it, we are diminishing the import and impact of the lesson.” Hopefully besides having the students do a coding activity, discussion can center around real life uses and who knows…some our students might have their own app soon in the APP Store!Reply
RebeccaDecember 8, 2015 at 12:16 pm
Indeed, Steve. Once again, it is the feedback conversations around the activity that really make the difference. By using these kinds of “transformative assessments” where learners are able to take part in their own assessment process and identify & fill in the “gaps” personally, they can make meaningful sense out of the activity rather than having someone else tell then=m what htey “should know.”
RebeccaDecember 8, 2015 at 12:22 pm
Steve, check out David adn Jeramie’s comments below. Let’s start a nice conversation here!
David JacobDecember 8, 2015 at 11:37 am
Yes – it is vital to understand ‘why’ – it makes the difference between knowing and learning. It’s similar in math with story problems – it helps the learner understand why it’s important to learn math and how it plays a part in daily life. It’s certainly easier to remember something if you understand why its being used the way it is. However, there are some people who just have an aversion to technology, and I try to give extra patience and explanations to them. Then once they understand the ‘why’ behind the procedure, they are much more likely to retain the information. Nice blog ^_^Reply
RebeccaDecember 8, 2015 at 12:18 pm
Agreed, David. When we know why, we can better understand how to apply what we are learning to new and different contexts.
David, meet Steve. I think you two would have excellent conversations. 🙂
Jeramie OliveiraDecember 8, 2015 at 12:14 pm
You know, I remember my programming classes in college. They were the most fun classes because of the trial and error and the fact you were required to mess up.
We are too focused today with being correct in class. people forget class is about making mistakes. Learning is not about being right, it is about the process of learning from errors.
One coding assignment was to write code to determine if a given year was a leap year using If-then statements (all we had learned at that point). Oddly enough, it is not as easy as it sounds… it is not simply dividing by 4.
We all wrote complicated code Some worked, some did not.
Then a few weeks later… we learned about the CASE FUNCTION.
The professor did the entire code that we spend hours on… in 5 minutes… and 4 lines of code…
Of course, he could have told use about the case function in the first place, but what would we have learned then?
The process was important. We learned not everything is quick and easy. We learned to persevere. We learned patience.
When people ask you to teach code, the reason is that we take so many things for granted with technology that patience and perseverance has been lost.Reply
RebeccaDecember 8, 2015 at 12:21 pm
This is such an important point, Jeramie. The current school culture tells students that failing is bad, and they are not taught how to fail productively, much less learn from those failures. Instead, our assessment processes have a “deformative effect,” making learners feel like failures even when they are not (see Torrance, 2012 for explication on this). The gamification movement is very important in teaching learniner to try and fail and retry, but I find that it can bcome too focused on point systems that undermine the actual learning. I hope you, Steve, and David can continue this conversation.
Jeramie OliveiraDecember 8, 2015 at 12:35 pm
I have taken a different approach with Algebra 1 and I am continuing to evolve the course. I was once stuck on the artificial “learn thins now” or “learn this for the test.” mentality. Now i look at a semester (and to some extent the year) through a modified student growth model. I am letting students retake tests, turn in late work (for full credit) and hoping to encourage students to not give up.
I purposely finish curriculum for the semester with two weeks of make-up/review time scheduled for students to have the opportunity to show me that they learned.
This was just a simple change in my “code” for class.
RebeccaDecember 8, 2015 at 12:49 pm
Awesome! When I design math curricula now, I center it around a project and try to connect it to some citizen science work. I’m working on teaching across domains, combining courses and pointing to relevance and connections as much as possible. We should share resources. 🙂
Alexandra BowenDecember 10, 2015 at 4:54 pm
One of the most memorable activities when I was in 5th and 6th grade was learning how to write computer programs in BASIC. I was a sponge… and loved nothing more than spending hours writing simple “If/then” looping programs. The process itself was very mathematical, and I thrived on its simple structure. Hour of Code is a wonderful way to get kids hooked! My husband codes in Perl, etc. for a living and I’ve been wanting to learn the “new stuff” and get back to my roots.
As an independent study school, I love that we have our Apex Virtual Academy. All of our languages are taught using Apex, and students have the opportunity to take just about any subject they want online/digitally. We have a lot to offer online already! I’ve had students take Health and Geometry online, as well as Spanish. Some of our students prefer the all digital method of learning, while others shy away from Apex. We even have a student currently taking AP Calculus through our virtual academy. Many of our teachers have been actively looking in to Shmoop and trying to find ways to make it work within our independent study framework, where we have to abide by fairly strict standards via CCIS. We have the wonderful opportunity at our school of having numerous resources at our fingertips, giving us the ability to differentiate instruction according to student need.
I love that our new Common Core compliant math program has a rigorous online component, as well! We are still working on writing the most appropriate course possible for our students, using a combination of paper/pencil and online resources.
I keyed in on your last statement. You are right… we cannot simply integrate digital tools simply for the sake of using them. They should enhance and improve our curriculum, rather than detract from it, as well as be motivating for students. I just completed my Masters in Mathematics Education program with Western Governor’s University (WGU) last month. The program was completely online and fit my needs. Student mentors were available for each class. Additionally, I had a mentor throughout my entire academic program that helped me “navigate the system,” keep me on task, and motivate me. She did for me exactly what I do for my own students at our independent study school. While I loved doing my work online, including the embedded resources from Khan Academy and Dr. Edward Berger (his videos are used in our new math curriculum), there were definitely times when I would have preferred a more traditional approach. I often would have liked my paper textbook to write all over, highlight, and take notes on, for example. Calculus and Abstract Algebra would have been much easier had I purchased the actual textbook! Going digital is great… and it does have limitations. Throughout my program, I experience exactly what my own students are going through. Independent study is hard!
I’ve had the privilege of working extensively with our new middle school math curriculum the past few months. I love the idea of incorporating, as you suggest, a citizen science project into student learning to make the content relevant. I love project based learning! I think it is important, however, to not lose sight of the scope and sequence of mathematical instruction. There is A LOT of content in the Common Core, not all of which can be covered through projects. I worry about there being too many holes in student learning, particularly in upper level mathematics. As I continue to revamp the middle school math curriculum, as well as help with our Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry curricula, I know I’m looking forward to taking a step back, viewing the concepts with fresh eyes and from a different angle, and incorporating more technology and a few inquiry-based learning projects. Programs like Geogebra and Geometer’s Sketchpad could work well for us! To cover all of the standards rigorously, though, students do have to engage, at length, with the paper/pencil mathematics content.
Thank you for your thoughts, Rebecca!Reply