Rethinking Empowerment

No, I am not rethinking “empowerment” in the sense of is it a good or bad thing? But after reading a very thought provoking essay called  Empowerwashing Education by Benjamin Doxtdator  I am rethinking how I have used the term and what the term means and implies.

The first thing that jumped at me as I started reading was that if I am a teacher and I am thinking about that ways I empower my students, that still puts the starting point (i.e., the control) of the empowering with me. That is, there is still an oppressive or, at least, paternalistic tone to empowerment when considered in this way. So often educators think: I need to do things so that my students are “empowered.” I don’t like the idea that I am holding the keys to the empowerment of my students. I don’t like the idea they get empowered through me.

On the other hand, I do have power and privilege that was and is afforded to me at a very high cost to others historically, socially, and economically. I consider it a moral imperative to use that power and privilege I have to try to transform status quo conditions that disempower, discriminate and oppress others (in this context, my students). Isn’t it a good thing to want to and try to empower and help others?

My concern when reflecting on this is the question of who decides how my students are empowered? I confess that until I read this essay, I only considered it in one direction: to what extent do all the daily decisions I make as a teacher empower my students? If that is true, then isn’t that idea based on the assumption that empowerment is something done to other people? That sounds wrong to me now. He makes another point that is still resonating with me: he posits that the current use of the word empowerment in education is often meant more as “liberal” than “liberating.”

I think Benjamin makes it very clear that there is (and always was) a lot of context connected to the term empowerment but that current use of the term by educators (and by corporations) seems to have emphasized striving to support passions, innovation, design, voice and choice and deemphasized social justice, politics, activism and radicalism.

His essay ends with some sound advice and three questions to consider instead of using the term “empowerment” in a buzzword kind of way:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 2.44.45 PM

Be sure to take some time to read his essay: Empowerwashing Education

Play and Learning (Part I)

Why is it that the older children get, the less play seems to be connected with learning? Personally, I think the two concepts are nearly synonymous. Sometimes I read things that imply that play is great for young children but not so great for older, more serious students. Often, the notion is that all children need more formal instruction and they need to learn knowledge and skills contained in some syllabus or curriculum, something that mere play will not get them. The inference here is that play is informal (and less effective for learning) and instruction is formal (and more effective for learning). At least, that is the inference I make but I strongly disagree with thinking about play that way.

Nevertheless, I try to see the logic in this line of thinking that considers play a low level learning strategy. One needs only to consider any of the most serious professions that often involve life and death decisions, such as medicine and law enforcement or considering other activities where one wrong decision or oversight in planning might mean serious injury or death, such as rock climbing or scuba diving. All of these require the actors to learn knowledge and skills and execute them at a consistently high level of competence. I am guessing (I don’t really know for sure) that training in law enforcement or medicine probably involves highly detailed simulations in which the participants are playing the role they will later actually be in the real world. I would also guess that rock climbers and scuba divers don’t start out by climbing the most difficult faces or diving to record depths. They probably spent a great deal of time training and working up to higher and higher levels of difficulty and danger.

In all of these cases, I think there is a common factor in the training: a level of safety. Perhaps the condition that there is a level of safety could broaden the definition of play for people of every age? That is, that there is a built-in safety factor so that the player can explore and learn without fear of serious consequences. The play still has to have meaningful and real consequences in order for the player learn but maybe not injurious or lethal consequences. In everyday contexts, it is pretty well known that safety (physical and psychological) is a crucial condition for learning. In fact, it is also clear that children who are fearful or anxious experience great difficulty learning and chronic anxiety might impair future learning.

tiger-1099911_1280

Most mammals play, especially when young. Think of any litter of cubs that you have seen. There are lots of theories as to why mammals play but, surprisingly, very few have been proven by careful observation and research. Two consequences of play in mammals that do seem to be confirmed by research are:

  • development of social competence
  • increased brain mass and neural connections (cognitive development)

In my experience as an educator, my students have taught me how making things equates with playing; creation and play are deeply connected. Further, I think that if people of any age are creating things hey are exciting about, and sharing them with others, the experience is very meaningful and highly memorable. Experiences that are personal (but in a social context) and involve the creation of some kind of product are not merely experiences; they are extraordinary experiences.

I think we all learn something from every experience but I am curious about something: is there really such thing as a passive experience? Maybe all experience can be plotted on a continuum of extent of activation or something like that. If you can plot experiences in this way, I have another question: there a direct relationship between extent of activation and potence of learning? I have written previously about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (1, 2) and I think it is worth mentioning again. To me, flow is a indicator, perhaps the best indicator, of the extent of activation of an experience.

I strongly believe that one can say:

Flow indicates powerful, joyful, natural learning.

just as accurately as one can say:

Powerful, joyful, natural learning induces flow.

 

 

Learning factories

Here is an excerpt from an interesting blog post called The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education.’ 

Schools might feel like highly de-personalized institutions; they might routinely demand compliance and frequently squelch creativity. But they don’t really look like and they really don’t work like factories.

I disagree. I do agree that there was not as much intentionality, as some people have recently characterized it, to the initial design of both. I do think, however, the same sensibilities and values went into the early design of both factories and education systems. Many similarities continue to exist: siloed subject matter, grade levels, timed work and break periods (with bells to mark them), limited time to learn and to get work done, evaluation of work by superiors, sometimes there are uniforms, strict attendance and rules and consequences, transmission-delivery of knowledge (assembly line), and so on.

Whether the factory model of education is invented history or not, the parallels are there nevertheless.

samething!

Imagine you have a new job in a busy factory, on an assembly line where parts continuously come down the line that you need put together. They come really fast but you are new and can’t keep up. Just to reduce your anxiety and embarrassment, you quickly pile a large number of the parts into a big box beside you. Whew! Now, you can breathe. A few minutes later, a bell goes off and new parts are coming down the line. These parts need to be attached to the parts you got before. But those parts are all mixed up and piled up in a big box. There’s no time. And tomorrow, the factory is making something else. You’re getting really far behind but the speed of the assembly line does not slow down. So, in frustration, you quit.

After a bit of searching, you find a new job. This factory also makes things from parts but there is no assembly line. Instead, all the parts needed are organized on shelves in boxes around you. You are expected to start putting the parts together and eventually, you are told, you will get faster with more practice. The person who told you this is the person standing next to you who is doing the same job. You work next to this person, you can ask questions, and you can watch what they do. You like your new job and quite soon, you are very productive. But after a while, it’s repetitive, and ideas you had about doing it differently or creating new products fade away until you feel more like a machine than a person. So, in desperation, you quit.

Finding a new job this time takes much longer. Eventually, you do find one and the place looks nothing like the first two factories. It’s more like a workshop and the people there act more like a team. The workshop is not interested in conformity and standardization. They are interested in new ideas, new designs and new products. They are interested in looking at real problems and issues people face and trying to help people live better lives. They are also very interested in your dreams and passions. You take quite a while to acclimate to this new work environment because you had lost touch with those passions in yourself. Eventually, you realize you have a talent for seeing things in new ways and your ideas are valued and exciting to others. In this new job, you can be who you are not what someone else needs you to be.

Robinson points out that education should be customized for learners and the conditions for learning should be tended to, much like gardeners and farmers tend to their plots and fields, so that growth is not only supported but also flourishes. And individual talents and dreams are highly valued, they form the core of what each person starts with to build on and learn.

How to learn?

Give it a try. Google “how to learn.”

I was expecting to see various learning theories from psychology or philosophical discussions of ways that knowledge forms and develops in the mind. Surely something like assimilation or accommodation would be somewhere in the list…?

Google - How to learn

Google provided me with various links to online courses or articles promising to teach you tips and tricks of quickly memorizing information. There were also numerous tutorials and articles focusing on how to study. Lots of videos, too:

The focus of the video above, for example, is primarily improving your study skills or how to acquire new skills quickly. But there were also strategies to improve your ability to retain information.

My general take on Google search result rankings is that they are usually very pragmatic. I am guessing that that arises from the algorithms used to place them in the order they appear in the results, that is, they will be listed in order of usefulness, reasonableness and everydayness. So, let’s try the same search in Google Scholar and let’s use the ‘since 2016’ to get more recent results:

scholar 2016 how to learn

These results are more like what I was expecting the first time but they are still disappointing. I wonder if other’s experiences are similar to mine when I research. I find exciting, general titles applied to studies that actually look at highly specific affordances or phenomena. Take for example the link above Should we teach students how to learn? Interesting title. That encourages me to read the abstract. As it turns out, the abstract is as disappointing to me as the study. This is not to say the study is flawed or incorrect. The disappointment goes deeper than that.

There is a common assumption shared by most of the information found in my Google searches about “how to learn.” Most of the resources I found assume a transmission, delivery model of instruction. So some questions arise in my mind:

  • If one assumes the transmission, delivery model of instruction, how does that influence one’s beliefs about learning?
  • Are there objective facts about learning?
  • What if we place learning quality on a continuum, how do we assess how powerful, useful or long lasting learning is?

It goes the other way, too. Lots of real, peer reviewed research (but not all) has much to say about learning within the assumption of the transmission, delivery model of instruction. Therefore, one might predict that the reader will infer what learning is and means due to the assumption.

When I reflect back on the most powerful, memorable, and exciting learning experiences I have had in my life, none involved me being a receptacle for knowledge being poured or ‘delivered’ into my mind. The most powerful learning experiences (in a formal education setting) involved me being active player in the learning; there was choice; there was designing or making; there was a project; there was time to work through different versions; there was reflection and discussion with others.

Will Richardson, in his 2015 TEDx talk The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools, highlights the conditions that lead to powerful and memorable learning:

willrich

He mentioned in his talk that people identified these traits nearly every time when reflecting on the memorable, powerful learning experience in their lives.

But what does all of this have to do with how to learn? I am using all of this as a preamble to what I think is a profoundly insightful statement about how to learn:

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What is fascinating about this idea is that all new learning happens in terms of learning that has already taken place. Assimilation and accommodation of new concepts are not new ideas, of course. A crucial condition in education is that in order for one to learn new things, one must be well aware of what was learned before and how it connects to new experiences. That is, learners are in a constant state of adaptation of their minds. I think it’s an active process and one that involves continuously testing one’s understandings or creating things (concrete or abstract). This is one of the primary reasons constructionism makes so much sense to me.

I think this constant state of mind adaptation is analogous to living in and maintaining your home. Your home is made up of some number of rooms, each has a purpose, or a set of related purposes. Within each room there are things you need for what you do in that room. Those things are organized and positioned in a practical way; they are useful. And, as those things are regularly used, you learn to use them better and better… but sometimes they break, sometimes they are replaced or redesigned, sometimes discarded. Sometimes you add or install new things into your rooms. Learning isn’t like building a library or a toolbox where books or tools are simply added and stored (it can be but those things will probably be forgotten quickly). Learning new ideas and skills must have a context. They need to be connected to a purpose or function. And they need to be personal… or personalized.

In my home analogy, I am thinking that the rooms are like large, overlapping (or interconnected) domains of knowledge and skills; the contents of each room are models and tools that we use to think, figure out, solve problems, be creative, and so on. Some home designs are open-concept which is the idea that rooms are larger due to fewer walls, and they are rich, diverse environments where many kinds of things happen at once in that space. Other homes are more cellular or subdivided; there is an array of  smaller rooms that are more specific in function.

In education, I think a learning environment that is designed to be authentic, contextual and interdisciplinary will result in an open-concept structure in the minds of the learners that make and communicate there. If children are focused on understanding the connections between things that they see, make, and discuss, then I think their developing minds will be less claustrophobic and there will be fewer arbitrary divisions between what they learn in one instance and what they learn the next.

5 ways to turn the ‘hour of code’ into the ‘year of learning’

Last year I posted an article called Turn the Hour of Code into the Year of Learning. This year, I wanted to share a few ideas about how you might do that. After checking out some hour of code activities with your students (this year, officially, December 4 – 10), take a look at the ideas below – they might help extend the hour of code introductory activity into a long term, project-based learning adventure for you and your students.

1. Learn to code by starting your own coding project

Scratch-New ProjectMany teachers have told me they have thought about ‘doing coding’ with their students but they are hesitant because they don’t know how to code. One strategy that has worked with those brand new to coding is this: commit to three 45-minute coding sessions on your own time, at home, using the Scratch coding environment. Like any user, you create your own account on Scratch so that your projects can be saved and shared (your students should create their own accounts, too, for the same reasons). Then, spend those three, 45-minute sessions making something in Scratch that is enjoyable and interesting to you… hopefully you will choose to make something you are passionate about like an art project, or an animation, or a game, or a digital story.

The idea here is that when it comes time for you to introduce the Scratch environment to your students, you can share with them (authentically) the project that you are working on and excited about. Ideally, you can show them how you coded it and even continue to work on it in front of them, thinking out loud as you go. Don’t worry about designing lessons about each coloured coding block or giving them coding assignments to complete; that’s not the ideal approach. A proven and effective approach is to tell them that there are four “rules” for working on their Scratch projects:

  1. make something that you are passionate about
  2. think of your Scratch work as a project that might take days or weeks to complete
  3. learn by playing, tinkering and experimenting (think growth mindset)
  4. work with each other, your peers, to discuss ideas and share new skills

This is the 4P approach to creative learning outlined by Mitch Resnick in his book, Lifelong Kindergarten and used by his Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT. (In fact, you can listen to Mitch discuss each topic in these YouTube videos: creative learning, projects, passion, peers, play, creative society). Students will want to work longer and harder on collaborative projects they are passionate about. I’ve seen exactly that happen with countless students, including this one.

In early November of this year, when I outlined these “rules” to a grade five class for their Genius Hour projects, one boy said with a little smile, “those aren’t really rules… they’re sort of fun rules.” He was right; they aren’t rules. They are the foundation of a different learning paradigm and for building a creative, collaborative learning culture.

2. Think of coding as a literacy

MarkZThere is a well known code.org video called What Most Schools Don’t Teach. My favourite response in the video is from Mark Zuckerberg (at 47 seconds). I think his response best characterizes the idea of coding as a literacy. Thinking about coding as a literacy is the essential perspective that educators need, in my view, in order to move forward with helping students to use coding as a tool to express, create and explore ideas and concepts.

Most teachers would agree that reading, writing, speaking and listening are the working components of being literate; competency in each of these components is crucial to accessing and exploring new ideas, expressing one’s ideas, and learning, making, connecting, thinking. Computer programming is another literacy in which people can express ideas and make things by thinking mathematically and computationally.

To me, the code.org video sometimes seems to be saying that every kid should be learning how to code because the world will need more computer programmers in the future or that that skill will be essential in future jobs. But I think its just saying that learning to code at some level of competence will be beneficial to everyone, no matter what you do. Every kid in school won’t become a professional journalist or novelist even though they are learning how to read and write just like every kid who takes piano lessons does not become a concert pianist or piano teacher. Reading words, reading music and reading code are all not only useful skills to develop but learning each also helps you to think, express and understand.

Coding in education is not just about building a skill set. Thinking is such as abstract concept. If you are a teacher, you probably help students to “make thinking visible” in many different ways. To me, that’s a literacy. I think that anything kids create to make their thinking visible, that process and that product, qualifies as a media text. Thinking is more than just ideas… thinking can be feelings, dreams, fears, inventions, problems and solutions. Kids can make music, write stories, code games, build machines, and design new ways to solve problems. Coding, in this perspective, provides another avenue for creation and expression.

3. Plan a design-thinking, project-based learning activity

ScratchConsidering how design-thinking can help students learn is a popular endeavour among teachers right now. There are many great books recently published such as Launch and Invent to Learn. I think of design-thinking as a model for thinking both creatively and critically. Coming up with new ideas to solve a problem is important. But, design thinking also requires reflection and critical thought: How are our solutions solving the problem? Should we continue in that direction? Do we need a rethink? Do we need more information? Do we need to learn new things? Do we need to talk to other people about it? And so on…

I recently shared a long-term project in which I was working with another teacher to create a project-based learning experience for a Grade 4/5 class, rooted in design-thinking. Full details about the project are outlined in this article. Essentially, my teaching partner and I were interested in empowering students to apply their coding skills to create a computer game (using Scratch) for younger students, one that would make learning about fraction concepts fun and easy for them. We intentionally did not start with a design process flowchart. Through ongoing reflection, and a culminating reflection activity, we wanted them to build their own design-thinking process from their shared experience of designing the computer game.

One of the most important things to point out is that our primary focus/goal was not for kids to learn to code. That happened for sure but it wasn’t the main focus. More important was:

  • facilitating the project-based learning environment
  • helping them to share and discuss their ongoing work and learning
  • holding expectations that they were regularly reflective
  • establishing structures for them to be reflective and collaborate
  • supporting their creative and critical thinking efforts
  • maintaining an environment where playing, tinkering, experimenting, and sharing were not only acceptable but desirable

Coding in Scratch formed the context in which all of this took place. We thought of coding more like thinking made concrete and as a medium for expression rather than as a skill per se that simply needed to be learned.

4. Use programmable robots or controller boards

robotsIt wasn’t that long ago that, outside of LEGO Mindstorms (launched in 1998) or LEGO WeDo (launched in 2008), there wasn’t much else commercially available to children, teachers, parents and schools. These were among the first buildable and programmable robots. As the maker movement took root in schools, there has been an explosion of buildable / programmable robots available (e.g., Sphero, Dash & Dot, mBot, Ozobot). There are online stores that carry hundreds of robots and sites that help you choose the right robot for your / your students’ needs.

There are also programmable, or at least tinkerable, controller boards (e.g., Raspberry Pi, BBC micro:bit, Arduino, Makey Makey) that are designed specifically for students to make and build in educational contexts. Again, lots of online stores and sites that help you choose what you need.

Designing, coding and building computer programs that work only on a screen might be all you need. But, you can expand the possibilities and choice for students by exploring and arranging for access to robots and controller boards. In the beginning, programmable robots in education (viz. turtles from Grey Walter and Seymour Papert) where always real, physical, electromechanical robots. Providing access to real programmable robots expands the possibilities for designing, playing, making, thinking and sharing significantly. It also tends to make more sense to younger children who often prefer a concrete object to interact with rather than a virtual (screen-based) one.

5. Offer challenges but maintain student voice & choice

MLC-Nov262017I have always liked the notion of children learning skills and fluency in any domain from authentic immersion. Papert’s idea of a mathland, where children learn to become mathematically literate, has always resonated with me.  I think computers allow for diversity and the ability to individualize the way in which children want to explore, make and share their ideas about mathematics, based on their passions.

I think choice and passion are the priority for learning. Helping students to find what they love and then supporting their projects in that domain is time well spent. Sometimes, though, you can add challenges to the list of choices for students.

I continue to add to a Scratch studio a collection of ‘mathland challenges’ for students to try if they wish. The idea is they can ‘remix’ the Scratch code in a given project to make changes and explore and build concepts. These challenges are often deliberately connected to overall expectations outlined in the Ontario Mathematics curriculum. I did not create these challenges as assignments for students or as puzzles. They are meant to be examples of projects students could choose to explore ideas and concepts.

 

2D mapping project in Scratch

This blog is a reflection on a Scratch project I have been working on. I wanted to capture, at an overview level, my thinking and progression through this project.

The purpose of this post is exploratory and preliminary. I’ve started a collaborative inquiry with one of the teachers I am working with this year, and his class of grade 5 students on a year-long project to eventually move from generally non-reflective learning to intentional, reflective learning, especially within the domains of mathematical and computational thinking. I will be writing more about that inquiry in a later post.

In my Scratch project, I am trying to use an array in Scratch (called a list) to contain the parameters of a large, virtual map that could be used as an interactive world in which a game or adventure could take place. Ultimately, I want to generate a large map made up of tiles measuring 20×20 pixels. The overall map might be 100×100 tiles in size, perhaps. Initially, I am thinking I need to know at least three things about each tile of the map:

  1. Row position
  2. Column position
  3. Tile attribute ID (a number that would denote both the kind landform and what item, if any, would be available in that tile – e.g., grass, sand, water; grass + flower, sand + flower, water + fish)

Since Scratch only comes with the capability to create one dimension arrays, I decided to try to use three lists simultaneously, one array of values for each attribute; as long as I used the same index number, it would act like a three-dimensional array. As I thought about it more, I realized that this approach would not work. I could not get three lists to work like a matrix of values. What I needed was a two dimensional array that would hold whatever value for the Tile attribute ID. I cannot use a two Scratch lists (using the same index number) as that does not define a 2D matrix of distinct variable containers. I was stuck.

Anyway, quite a while ago, I created a first project that initializes and draws a map made of 18×18 tiles (and each tile was 20×20 pixels, as noted above). That seemed to work okay. The project that creates and draws the map is linked below. Note that you cannot move around in the map; it just creates a map and displays it on the stage.

I recently revisited this Scratch 2D mapping project again. In order to help me think about it, I simplified the problem. I thought of a 10×10-tiled full-size map, displaying 4×4-tiled window portion of the full map. I spent some time again considering how I might create a two dimensional array (using a function block in Scratch) but it was getting very complicated… needlessly complicated for the goals of this project.

I decided to go back to my original idea of using one list (array) in Scratch to store the Tile attribute ID value for each tile of the 10×10 square array of tiles. So, using this linear approach, items 1-10 of the array would correspond to row 1 and columns 1-10; items 11-20 would correspond to row 2, columns 1-10, items 21-30 correspond to row 3 and so on. The 10×10 map grid is simply arranged in a 100 item long list.

In order to display the 4×4 window onto the map, I needed to apply some patterning and algebraic thinking to the function that located the top, left corner (TLC) of the 4×4 grid of tiles. Now that I have written the code successfully, it seems simple now to reflect on it but I needed to think through the values systematically to make sure I had the pattern.

My idea was that the function would be passed one value, namely, the top left corner location of the 4×4 grid to show. The function would essentially determine the correct tiles to show from the linear array and the correct positions on the stage to stamp them. Before I wrote the function, I played around on some grid paper and drew this to get it visually clear:

2D map thinking

After doing this, I felt more confident about how to code the loops in the function and proceeded to write the code. Eventually, the code for the function took shape like this:

code

The inner loop draws the 4 tiles in the row, the outer loop controls which row is being rendered by the inner loop. I wrote the function in such a way that it could be later expanded to draw a much larger map grid, and a larger window portion to display. The go to x: y: block controls where on the stage the tiles appear.

Here is the project that contains the 10×10 full-size map and the 4×4 display window. You can play with it yourself and see that the it works to only ever show a 4×4 portion of the full 10×10 map. Use the arrow keys to ‘move around’ in the map.

The final task to complete is to write bounds checking code so that the arrow keys do not  move the 4×4 window outside of the 49 possible TLC positions (for the 10×10 grid). The problem is that I did not write the TLC-control variable code (arrow keys) in a way that will make bounds checking easy. I think that part of the code will need to be rewritten to be not only more efficient but also allow for easy expansion later to a larger window size and larger overall map.

With just a few changes, the overall map is now 100×100 and the viewing area size (window) is 20×20 tiles, where each square tile is 16 pixels wide:

This blog post is written to demonstrate the connection between an idea – a large, predefined map area being displayed within a smaller window – and the mathematical and computational thinking behind it.

The Ontario Mathematics Curriculum (Grades 1-8) defines 7 mathematical processes:

  • Problem solving
  • Reasoning and proving
  • Reflecting
  • Selecting tools and computational strategies
  • Connecting
  • Representing
  • Communicating

As I so often observe with students who are working on their Scratch projects, all seven processes are activated during work in project-based, design-thinking based coding-based projects. In my mapping project, without question, each of these processes was engaged at various times during work on the project.

This curriculum also divides mathematical concepts and skills into 5 strands:

  • Number sense and numeration
  • Measurement
  • Geometry and spatial sense
  • Patterning and algebra
  • Data management and probability

In my mapping project, I needed an understanding of and the ability to apply concepts & skills in three key strands: number sense and numeration, geometry and spatial sense, & patterning and algebra. I needed to figure out (and then write the code) how to determine the correct 2D pattern of 4×4 tiles to display from the 1D linear array of values, the correct placement of the 4×4 grid on the screen in response to the arrow-key input, and the proper overlay of the 4×4 grid onto the Cartesian coordinate system the defines the stage in Scratch.

Stay tuned for a later update about the bounds checking code as well as details of the collaborative inquiry with the teacher and his grade 5 students.

Learning Design by Making Games (in Scratch)

constructionism-in-pracDuring the summer of 2016, I read this book (left) edited by Yasmin Kafai and Mitch Resnick. I was inspired by Chapter 4 (called Learning Design by Making Games). In it, she described a study in which a group of 4th grade students spent one hour per day (over a six-month period) writing, designing and programming a computer game (using LogoWriter) for younger students to help them learn about fractions. One of the main conclusions of her study was that the students demonstrated a wide variety of approaches (top-down, bottom-up, and a mix of the two) to the complex task of game design. She also found that students learned things not only through the design task itself but also about design thinking as a concept.

Even though this study was about 25 years old, I knew the idea would still work with a modern class using MIT’s Scratch environment. I also knew it would be an empowering, design/computational-thinking project that would have strong connections to the mathematics curriculum content and processes. I was excited to see what current junior students could learn about design and computational thinking, and mathematics, from this kind of project. In early October 2016, I found a teacher and a Grade 4/5 class who would take part. Starting in January 2017, we partnered with a Grade 2 class in the school (whose students became the target audience for the older students’ computer games).

It was initially planned as a year-long, project-based learning task. It would also turn into an inquiry about design thinking. We did not provide students with a pre-made roadmap for design thinking. Instead, we chose the constructionist route; students were invited to build their own concepts of a design process throughout the project and, especially, at the conclusion of the project through several consolidation and reflection activities.

It wasn’t feasible for the students to work on their project daily as in the original study. It turned into one weekly, 80-minute session. The whole process spanned a 9-month period at the school and unfolded in five phases:

Phase 1: Preparation (October – December 2016)

Students in the grade 4/5 class developed basic competency programming in Scratch using creative learning and the MIT research-based approach utilizing “projects, passions, peers, and play.” Our objective was for students to take the time they needed to build enough fluency in Scratch programming so they would be ready for the design challenge of the fraction game.

The following video was recording in December, 2016, during Phase 1. This student was in the initial stages of designing his own Scratch version of the slither.io game:

Concepts such as variables and the Cartesian coordinate system are not part of the Grade 4 or 5 curriculum; however, most of the students gained a working knowledge of these concepts because they were essential mathematics needed to make the games and projects they wanted to create during Phase 1 (note: students had complete freedom to follow their passions and to choose their own projects in Phase 1).

Phase 2: Project goal & Empathy (January 2017)

Students learned the project goal (“design and write a computer game, using Scratch, that makes learning about fractions fun and easy for primary students.”). The students quickly realized that they lacked knowledge about the Grade 2 students. A 90-minute session was organized for the following week in which they proceeded to conduct interviews with students in the Grade 2 class. The Grade 4/5 class made observations of the Grade 2 students and their thinking about: 1. their current understanding of fraction concepts, and 2. what makes a computer game fun for them. After the 90-minute session, the Grade 4/5 students debriefs and compiled a master document of observations, ideas, impressions, ideas and further questions.

This is page one of the master document created during the debrief session (after the initial meeting time with the grade 2 students):

debrief

Phase 3: Cyclical Design Process (January – May 2017)

Students worked on their educational computer game product once per week for an 80-minute session. Each student has access to either a Chromebook, laptop or desktop computer. Once per month, the Grade 2 students visited and provided feedback on the developing games. In the image below, the older student is asking her younger grade 2 partner questions about what he thinks of the game:

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Grade 4/5 students blogged about the feedback from the younger students and on their own plans for their game. I interviewed the older students about both computational and design thinking concepts. Regular sharing and discussion sessions took place between students, face to face, and in online environments (Google Classroom site, blogging site).

Phase 4: Launch (June 2017)

Students prepared for a special “Launch Day” for their computer game product with the Grade 2s. This looked very much like the monthly feedback sessions but the excitement level was at maximum.

This video is one of many recorded on Launch Day in which Grade 2 students played the final version of the fraction games.

After Launch Day, students collected final feedback from Grade 2 students regarding their games, how well goals were met, and how well feedback provided in earlier sessions was implemented into the game designs.  This Scratch studio still contains working copies of each of the fraction games.

Phase 5: Consolidation & Reflection (June 2017)

After Launch Day, students were involved in two collaborative consolidation activities and one major reflection activity regarding the “design process” as it applied to making computer games and as it applied/applies to future contexts in which they might see a need to apply design thinking to solve a problem.

Below is a photo taken during the second collaborative consolidation activity in which a collective design-thinking process flow was being developed by the whole class based on their cumulative experience over the design process, January to June:

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Below is a sample of four reflections written by Grade 4/5 students (using their blogging site) during the final reflection activity. They were asked to respond to this question: “How could you use the design process that we created together [during the collaborative consolidation activity] to help you design something else in the future?”

“I could use the design process that we created to design something else in the future because designing games are very similar to designing other things. I would first think of an idea for what I am designing and then I would carry out the plan that I thought of. After I have a rough idea of what I am going to be doing, I would start designing. Once I have a first copy of my design, I would either go to other people for feedback or make it better myself depending on the situation. Then I would use the feedback to make my design better and come out with the final product.”

“I can use this design process for celebrations, designing football plays, or rearranging basically anything! This design process is a lot like many other things in life. Think, get feedback, do, fix, get feedback, do, fix, and repeat. Doing scratch is basically a life lesson. It teaches you to look over, and keep fixing. The activities I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, are examples the follow the same format of do, fix, repeat. That is how the scratch design process is like designing many other in real life activities.”

“I could use the process to make a city. it could be real or made from blocks. I could experiment with the blocks, sketch a rough idea and think of what It will look like. I will see who is in the city and make and build buildings and houses to suit them. I will ask the people who live in the city about how they want it to look and where they want it to be. I will plan and sketch out the city and fix any problems I may have such as one building too close to the other. I will make my city better and expand it. I will test it and go through each building and ask the people a final time about how it looks. then my city will be officially open!”

“The reflection process that we created can be used in many ways other than just scratch. For example, designing a custom chair. First you experiment with creating the chair. Then you ask the person that wanted you to make a chair how they want it to be made. Then you can imagine the way it would look. After that, you enter the design loop. You create, then ask for feedback, and then you reflect. Finally, you make your last improvements and ask what they think about the chair. If they like it, you were successful! Good Job. But this comes to show how the design process can be used in many different ways. Many other things that you can use the design process on are designing parties, bedrooms, houses, buildings, your new coffee recipe, your frying pan, your table, your couch, your cupboard, your computer, your balloon, your book, your floor, your building blocks, and even a plastic bag! This comes to show how many things you can use this process on.”

A critical thinking paradox

Okay… indulge me! Try this experiment:

  • Activity #1  – Think of a topic in which you have a strong interest, and broad, expert knowledge/skill. Then, search the web and find three really good sources of information for that topic.
  • Activity #2 – Think of a topic in which you have no interest, no knowledge and no skill (in my own case, I might choose ‘the history of rug making’ or ‘how to successfully run a large law firm’). Then, search the web and find three really good sources of information for that topic.

If you are anything like I am, or like the many students who tried this experiment, you felt quite confident in your choices for Activity #1 but then felt rather lost making choices during Activity #2.

I am also reminded of the times when I happen to listen to morning talk radio or read op-ed pieces. When the topics are education or learning related, I am almost uncontrollably critical, evaluative, questioning and reflective. For most other topics, however, I might easily find myself convinced of the author’s viewpoint because it sounds reasonable or well-informed. The truth is I really don’t have an accurate understanding of the full context or background behind many issues.

And it is not as simplistic as this in practice; I could pretty quickly plot my level of expertise in any topic on a continuum, ranging from ignorant to expert. My contention is that the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to ‘think critically’ about information related to that topic.

I have always felt regular pangs of sympathy when I have worked with students and tried to facilitate their efforts to evaluate information they find online. They usually faced this paradox: A student doesn’t know about ‘something.’ Student looks up information about ‘something’ online. Student finds endless information about ‘something.’ Student has great difficulty knowing if the found information is ‘good’ information or not. Frustrated, student uses the first few Google search hits for ‘something’ as their sources of information. Does this sound familiar?

So, the Catch-22 is that the more one knows about a topic, the better one can think critically about that topic, and the better one can evaluate the value of new information related to that topic. However, the opposite is also true and that’s a wicked problem.

So, in response, I have endeavored in the past to provide students with ‘strategies’ for evaluating information they found online. Here is an old screenshot of one such set of strategies that I first assembled around 2002:

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Early example of a ‘critical thinking’ strategy list

You probably see a lot of problems with using this kind of an approach. After using this with my junior and intermediate students for a few years, I did see some good things that came from it but, primarily, it had poor results. The good thing was that the students were learning about some characteristics of information and knowledge such as currency and bias. But the bad thing was that this list made the act of critical thinking even more daunting for my students. How do they know if someone is an expert or not? How can they really be sure if the information is up to date? Or, how does one really figure out purpose or bias when students have neither context nor background knowledge?

So, I still don’t really have an answer but I continue to learn and try new ideas and approaches with students. So far, I have learner that:

  • Learning to ‘do’ critical thinking, and learning about epistemological concepts, cannot happen in a few lessons or even in a unit. It is an ongoing, every day, all the time conversation. It’s a skill with many facets and dimensions like social skills or collaboration skills.
  • The more you know about something, the more you can make connections to other knowledge, and the better you can be critical about new information that comes your way.
  • Leading students through a series of engaging exercises and discussions about epistemology works better than trying to teach a set of ‘critical thinking considerations’ as displayed above. Fun exercises (such as ‘why no one knows REALLY knows how many moons Jupiter or Saturn has right now’ or ‘spot the fake web site’) can spark ongoing discussion about these ideas.
  • Adults tend to have an easier time being critical about new information because they have lived longer than children, have more experience, made more mistakes, have more knowledge, and so on. Many adults have general background knowledge about a wide variety of topics that at least gives them something to think with when being critical about new information (even they are not experts in the topic).
  • Thinking critically about information is ESSENTIAL for children to practice every day. One of my generation’s KEY skills was FINDING useful information. With today’s young learners, one of the KEY skills is thinking CRITICALLY about the information they (easily) find.

Other related things I think about:

  • What if the ‘expertise’ a person has involves information that might be widely considered spurious (e.g., government conspiracies, alien abductions, moon-landing hoax).
  • What constitutes truth when it comes to ‘news’ online? How can students navigate what is referred to as ‘fake news?’ Is the term ‘fake news’ just a trendy term meaning ‘biased news?’

I’m looking forward to learning your critical thoughts and ideas about this post! 🙂

Modern Literacies

I received an email from a teacher colleague last week and it contained a single sentence–a question: “I wonder if you might give me your definition of modern literacies?”

I was intrigued, not only by the question but also by the reason behind asking it (which she explained in a later email).  In any case, I did have some ideas about this but I never really worked it all out and wrote it all down. After writing back to her, I started to look up other people’s ideas and definitions and found a wide range of explanations. I find the topic of literacy and media, old and new, fascinating.

So here is what I wrote back. (Please comment at the end of this post to discuss. I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts on this.)


When I think of a child who is developing literacy, I think of him/her as developing competencies in both consuming and creating information in different media. By competency, I mean that students are making meaningful connections to their current knowledge and thinking critically about information they are consuming. Likewise, by competency, I also mean that students are communicating clearly when relating their ideas (expression) and effectively considering the needs (and characteristics of) the target audience(s) for the information they are creating.

I think the word literacy could be used to describe competency at different levels. For example, one could say any of these three things:

  1. How well do you use social media to share and learn? (How literate are you with digital media?)
  2. How well do you use Twitter to communicate? (How literate are you with Twitter?)
  3. How well do you use hashtags on Twitter? (How literate in hashtags are you?)

Regarding the idea of modern literacies, I think literacies involving media that are newer (e.g., YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, wikis, blogs, texting, email, etc.) one could discuss the development of literacy in each of these media and each could be considered a modern media, each with a corresponding literacy. There is certainly a fair amount of overlap of competency in each of these but I think there are also medium-specific competencies that are unique.

Additionally, I think the term modern literacies should be considered a relative term–what exactly it means would depend on the period of time or generation you are talking about. TV media would have been a modern literacy in the 1950s and 60s. When I reflect on the importance of media-specific literacies, I often think about a very well known (and well studied) debate that took place between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. It was the first televised debate in the US. You can watch it below.

When watching the video, you can see how relaxed and healthy Kennedy looked, but Nixon looked thin and often very uncomfortable. There’s a good article from TIME called “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World.” This debate is an excellent illustration about how a medium conveys far more information than the raw information contained in the spoken words. People who heard the debate on the radio felt Nixon won. Those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won. By 1960, 88% of households had TVs. Kennedy ended up winning the US election as we all know.

 

Show me the math!

Where is the math in coding? As much as I think that the connections between coding and mathematics are obvious, I think that there is a process involved in noticing and noting when mathematical concepts are demonstrated–some are clearly in use in students’ code and are easy to notice; other concepts are also in use but are more difficult to identify. I have always liked to think that code is thought made concrete. One of the greatest benefits of students learning through coding is that their thoughts become concrete, visual, manipulatable, discussable, viewable, and so on. This single affordance of code written by students makes seeing the math and the thinking possible!

Assessment for / as learning

Being in a teacher role and finding the mathematical and computational thinking in a student’s code in the midst of a group of busy students is not a simple process. I think it’s a skill, but one that can be learned and practiced.

Moreover, being in a learner (student) role in the classroom and finding the mathematical and computational thinking in one’s own code is also a skill and one that is worth practicing, as well.

When the teacher identifies mathematical concepts at work in a student’s code, and takes the time to notice it and have a conversation about those concepts, that’s assessment for learning. When the student identifies mathematical concepts at work in their own code, and takes the time to notice them and have a conversation about them, that’s assessment as learning. Each of these strategies should drive further learning, exploration, tinkering, and reflection. Both of these kinds of assessment need to be active all the time and structures need to be put in place to support them. Quality assessment for/as learning do not happen by accident.

Finding the mathematics at work in student programs

Even to a beginning Scratch user (student or teacher), I think the following example from a project created by a grade 5 student called Marie (not her real name) is clear and compelling.

After a few sessions of playing with Scratch and learning how it works on a basic level, there was a student sharing session where she learned that Scratch can draw things with a pen. The class was challenged to draw two-dimensional figures using Scratch. She wanted Scratch to draw a triangle (that week, the class was also in the midst of constructing various triangles on paper with protractor, pencil and ruler). This is the first attempt by the student:

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There is a good amount of mathematical thinking to notice and note here. Even though no triangle was drawn, the code clearly demonstrates that Marie:

  • knows that the sum of the three angles of any triangle is 180°
  • knows that an equilateral triangle has three sides of equal length and three equal angles, each 60°
  • is trying to transfer the steps in her paper and pencil drawing strategy to the Scratch environment

Why didn’t it work? This did not need to be asked; Marie said this aloud to herself. But then, her mouse started to click the green flag over and over, faster and faster.  Her screen looked something like this when that happened:

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“Oh look! A hexagon!” Some students around her looked over to see what was going on. Marie then proceeded to change her code. Very quickly, it looked like this:

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She had meant to draw an equilateral triangle but she managed to draw a regular hexagon instead. After a fair amount of excitement and sharing, I reminded her about what a student had shared during the one of the previous sessions about the repeat block.

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Whatever the repeat block has in its mouth will repeat the number of times indicated. The result:

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Repeat blocks and looping logic in code can be applied to various concepts. This example shows a geometry and spatial sense idea where specific regularity and repetition of line lengths and angles result in different figures. Let’s get back to the triangle. Marie was simply asked by her teacher after the discovery of the hexagon: Now, what’s going on with the triangle? Marie changed the 6 to a 3 in the repeat block:

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So Marie and I had a conversation about her work. I asked: “Where are the three 60 degree turns. They have to be there because I see them in the code. What is going on?”** (see note below) This was enough of a prompt and an encouragement. Nothing was wrong with her thinking. But she realized pretty quickly that there was a difference between her drawing an equilateral triangle on paper and getting Scratch to draw one. Through some more conversation, she narrowed it down to something like: I am doing something extra when I draw it on paper that I left out in my code. Something was missing.

I came back to her about ten minutes later and saw that she made some revisions to her code and she had a protractor in her hand. She showed me something interesting. “I found the three 60 degree turns” she said. And there they were:

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She explained that Scratch turns 60 degrees clockwise starting from whatever direction he was facing. Looking at the protractor, she could clearly see now that he needed to turn 120 degrees after drawing the lines each time. She changed the 60 to 120 in her blue turn block:

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The great part of using Scratch as a tool through which students can learn concepts is that there is both a meaningful, logical experience in which a product was created as well as a safe, social component where other students or a teacher can have a conversation about the thinking and figuring out as it is happening.

“I’m going to write my blog post now,” Marie said. She knew that was always part of the process and a reflective blog post was a requirement not only for consolidation but also for later reflection during a future time when this experience could be used, transferred, incorporated, remixed, and so forth.

At the end of all this, I think I said something like: “Great! Can’t wait to read it. And I can’t wait to see what you do with the hexagon you made before!” Looking back at observations from the week before, not a single student in the class had accidentally created a hexagon when drawing a triangle using paper, pencil and a protractor. And I would be surprised if Marie did not know now, simply through hard play, that each interior angle of a regular hexagon is 120°. 

This post was about Marie’s geometry project on Scratch as well as a few observations I made and conversations we had. But there was a whole class of other students exploring geometry through Scratch. Check out what Karanvir was doing with a right triangle:

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** “Where are the three 60 degree turns. They have to be there because I see them in the code. What is going on?” — I am always learning how to best converse and talk to students during their thinking and figuring out. My biggest goal is to not do the thinking for them, and more: how to spark, encourage and pose good questions that provoke or prompt thinking in different directions. There would be a long list of ways to respond to Marie at this point. In my opinion, one of the worst would have been something like: “Oh look – I think you need to put 120 instead of 60 in for your turns. Try that and see if you get a triangle.” This could easily be seen as helping the student be successful. I get that. But the point of the whole exercise is that the student learns that a tool like Scratch can help them to think, experiment, play, share and discuss.