Tomorrow, my classes and club will begin participating in the NCSS python programming Challenge 2014. It’s our second year and I’m quite excited as it’s a really fun challenge.
Like last year, I introduced the software programming and design topic using dance; except this time, I actually linked it to computational thinking straight away – decomposition, pattern recognition, pattern generalisation and abstraction, and algorithm design. Timing was on my side as the year 9s have been learning new dance steps in preparation for the Year 9 dance. Plenty of inspiration in terms of computational thinking processes, value of coding, control structures and even functions…with parameters!
There is so much hype on teaching kids to code – nearly 12 million views of code.org’s What most schools don’t teach and the rise and rise of many learn to code sites. There’s also the impending implementation of the Digital Technologies curriculum, etc. etc. etc. But for me, it’s far more than the hype – I actually love teaching students to code.
Learning to code is more than just about writing code; it’s the least of it, in my opinion. It’s all the other stuff about computational thinking and systems thinking and critical thinking and creative thinking. That’s a whole lot of thinking – and doing – right there!
With computation thinking, I think it’s important to point out that we all do most of this already.. in real life! Think of all the procedural and component-based stuff like recipes and routines we have, for example. What is less common is algorithm design, especially in school where we teach ‘tried-and-tested’ algorithms. This is true not just in mathematics where we teach (and test) mastery of algorithms but also in humanities subjects like English as we teach the “right way” to write essays, for instance. In schools, it’s rare for students to design their own algorithms, their own way of doing things. Learning to code provides opportunities for algorithm design, encourages it even. And I love it.
Systems thinking is taught in many subjects. We are surrounded by systems. We’re made of systems. But, it’s rare for students to make their own systems. Learning to code provides opportunities for designing systems.
Teaching kids to code can be daunting and having set “courses” do help. Learn.code.org is a good entry point for beginners (students and teachers alike). I also recommend NCSS python programming Challenge . Both are challenge-based and fun.
I also think it’s a good idea to expose students to the experience of learning another language, mapping similarities and differences – the meta stuff. This includes reflecting on problem-solving methods and attitude when faced with difficulty.
I enjoy doing the challenges with the students. Sharing the joy of wrestling with knotty problems and working out solutions. I love that I have a window to how they think. I love it when they come up with creative ways of thinking and solving problems. I love that they don’t ask “when I’m I ever going to use this?” because it’s fun just getting through it. I love it when they teach each other and work together and share frustrations and wins together. This, for me, is the fun stuff…and I’m lucky I get a chance to be part of it because I teach coding.
The best part is that I get to play along.
print (“NCSS 2014, here we come!”);
What’s it really like to work in IT? This is one of the questions we hope to answer in the Stage 5 elective course, Information and Software Technology (IST). One of the best ways to find out is to actually do site visits. Last year, we went to Google and Microsoft. This year, it’s Atlassian, one of the most successful Australian software start-ups which is now an international company.
Atlassian head office is in the heritage-listed Westpac building near Wynyard. The stark juxtaposition of the old and new is evident as soon as the lift doors opened. Enjoying free jellybeans washed down with free drinks, year 9 and 10 IST students listened to two Atlassians talk about what it’s like to work in IT, primarily as software engineers or coders as they prefer to call themselves, but also other roles such as UI designers and project managers. These women were inspirational as they spoke passionately about bursting stereotypes from a young age through to high school, university and then now, at work. They highlighted how software programming was a portable skill that could be applied in many industries as well as countries, paving the way for international travel and work opportunities.
After a quick Q&A, the coders left and were replaced by designers who ran a zoo-design activity that simulated the Agile Design approach they use at work. The girls were split into 2 Designer groups and 1 Customers group. Working with playdough, construction paper, markers, pipe cleaners and strings, the Designers set about creating their zoos, in 5 minutes. The Customers drew up a huge list of requirements which the designers attempted to meet. Customers also get to vote for the best design. After 2 iterations with more complex requirements and designs, the girls had a real sense of what Agile Design was as well as what the roles they also study about in IST entailed: Designers, Architects, (software) Construction workers and customers.
Finally, we were treated to a tour of two of several Atlassian floors. Teams corresponding to product suites sat together in one huge open space. The walls were used as meeting and writing spaces and anyone could add feedback long after the meeting had finished – a great idea that is sure to make its way into my classroom. There were also plenty of smaller meeting rooms with geeky names like TARDIS, Serenity and Death Star. There were plenty of breakout spaces including a pool room and dining room with the biggest bean bag and an area for playing board and video games. The video conferencing units were a literal nod to Portal much to the delight of one student who was a Portal fan.
The site tour showed a balance of work and play as well as a love of technology. The values of being an open company and teamwork came across really strongly. The tour concluded at the kitchen area where IST students helped themselves to a vast array of free food and drinks, including ice cream.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably know that I used to work in IT. I’ve only worked in banking, finance and manufacturing industries, however; nowhere near the cool factor of Atlassian. That said, I did enjoy some of the perks mentioned, i.e. good pay, exciting problem-solving work, variety of roles, international travel, flexibility in work arrangements and portability of skills – stuff I could still draw upon now as an IT teacher.
After a term break from PBL, I’ve gone back to it with both my 9 and 10 IST classes. I’ve been meaning to share the ‘idea’ but just haven’t got there (Is it really week 4 now?). Anyway, I’m glad I’m doing PBL again now as well as incorporating some of the things I’m learning as I do my Masters in Special Ed.
So then, in this post I’ll share my 10IST PBL plus a (rough) lesson plan that targets content (IST: problem definition, GUI design) as well as an example of teaching approach that promotes active response (one of the effective teaching principles I’ve learned about recently).
We’re about a third of the way in and most of the theory have been covered (via direct instruction) by now. However, I’ve noticed that while students ‘get’ the idea of what engagement looks like or what ‘good’ GUI looks like, I wasn’t convinced that they’ve wrestled with it enough to apply in their own projects.
(rough) Lesson Plan
So I designed this lesson to show how a topic could be presented online in three different ways. The topic is a probability problem popularly known as the marriage or secretary problem.
I divided the class into discussion pairs.
First, I showed the wikipedia version which provided a brief description of the problem. Discussion was first done in pairs and then as a class. This is the first time the class have heard of the problem so there was a lot of “I don’t get it” and a few, “yeah, I’ve encountered that problem heaps of times”.
Then, I showed this academic article version which provided, as expected, a more academic description of the problem and solutions. There were ‘whoas’ as we scrolled through the voluminous and dense text blocks and equations. Again, discussion pairs followed by class discussions. We got to unpack some of the GUI principles to do with form, function, navigation, layout, etc. just by comparing this with the wikipedia version. They were applying the content previously learned, both in terms of concept and language. Their analysis of GUI design is becoming more sophisticated and this is awesome.
Finally, I showed this NPR article with a sensationalist and attention-grabbing title of How to marry the right girl: a mathematical solution (thank you @fawnpnguyen for the inspiration!). We went straight into class discussions on this one and highlighted which GUI principles made this one more engaging, including the use of graphics and share/comment buttons – a feature they may well include in their projects.
There was also a bit more discussions when one of the students piped in that she thought the wikipedia version was more engaging with its neutral tone and predictable structure. This emphasised one of the key things in the design process, i.e. problem definition and how wikipedia addresses a different problem (and audience) than the other two. ‘Engaging‘ then, is relative (gotta love those lightbulb moments). Therefore, as they set off creating their own solutions (project product), they need to be mindful of the problem they are actually trying to solve.
Then, I asked them to create their own version of the topic in what they think is engaging. Students challenged themselves to learn more HTML and CSS tags and JS scripting, based on what they want to learn and incorporate in their own projects.
Sometimes lessons work according to plan, if not better. This was one of those. It can be better but I sure was pretty happy with it.
Discussions in pairs and whole-class with plenty of opportunities to raise and answer questions as well as working in pairs with plenty of opportunities to synthesise are strategies for active response to help with learning engagement. Students are constantly wrestling with the content from different angles.
An exciting footnote:
The student who preferred the wikipedia version went on to do more research on the marriage problem because she really wanted to understand it (she was in the minority, I assure you, but enough to make this ex-maths teacher a little bit happy). And in doing so, has illustrated yet again the beauty of tangential learning and the power of inquiry driven by curiosity.
It’s often said that good teachers are learners. I believe this to be true. A more recent realisation is the difference between being a student vs. learner.
I’m a student again – started with my Masters in Special Ed. I am learning heaps, for sure but as a student, I’ve re-discovered the appeal of procrastination, the panic of sitting an exam, the need for discipline and rest. My blog tagline is – love to learn – and there is that…especially when I choose what to learn. As a student, I have to learn what has been set out for me to learn and while there are interesting bits, there sure are boring and tedious bits.
Being a student can be overwhelming, a feeling I don’t associate with being a learner.
Faced with so many things to do, it’s like you don’t know what to do anymore. Or worse, “you can’t do anything”, as one of my daughters articulated. As a parent, I’ve seen my daughters overwhelmed by schoolwork; granted, they have healthy extra-curricular commitments (by healthy, I mean they have enough but not too much, not out every day). It’s painful to watch particularly since I don’t recall ever feeling that way as a young student.
and so I wonder…
Are we expecting more from our students today? Do we expect them to learn something new every lesson, in all their lessons every day? Do they have opportunities to enjoy what they have learned before they have to learn something new again?
As a teacher, or parent, would you like to be a student again? now?
One of the required reading for my Master in Special Ed course struck a chord with me (well, actually, several articles did but I’m just writing about this one because…busy!). (Beaman, R., & Wheldall, K. (2000); Teacher’s use of approval and disapproval in the classroom. Educational Psychology, 20, 431-446. )
Beaman and Wheldall found:
- teachers usually praise for academic behaviour (work, achievement, effort) – also see Dweck
- teachers rarely praise for good conduct/social behaviour
- positive correlations between teacher approval and on-task behaviour
- negative correlations between teacher DISapproval and on-task behaviour
- teachers respond more frequently to inappropriate (vs appropriate) social behaviour
There is a trend towards increased praise in the classroom and they posit it’s possibly also due to the change in operational definition of ‘praise’ to include non-verbal actions, e.g. gestures.
This made me reflect about my practice and how often ‘approval’ and ‘disapproval’ happen in my classes. Do academic behaviour and social behaviour have equal importance in my classes? Do my ‘disapprovals’ result in engagement or just look like it? Can I attribute on-task behaviour to my explicit ‘approvals’? Mind you, most of my students are well-behaved most of the time. So really, this should not even be an issue.
Still, I’ve never really looked at my classroom dynamics (social interactions) as a series of approval and disapproval – I wouldn’t normally even use these terms – e.g., I would never say: I approve of you using your mobile phone to capture notes on the board; I approve of you helping your peer; I disapprove of your coming in 5 minutes late every lesson…etc. I’m more likely to say: that’s a really good question; it’s not ok to talk while another student is speaking, etc. (maybe I say ‘ok’ too much?). There’s also the ‘look’ and that ‘tone’. haha.
Seriously, this is akin to feedback, for which I’ve used Petty’s Goals, Medals, Missions on a regular basis. In a previous post, I’ve written about my austerity in giving medals. I’m happy to report that I now make a concerted effort to balance out Medals and Missions, as best I can (@BiancaH80 was right that students do care about having both, preferably more medals than missions). Now, I just got to apply it to ordinary classroom scenarios; after all, every time we interact, we give ‘feedback’.