For the last 3 days, I’ve been at MIT at a Creative Computing workshop. I applied for this a while back in hopes of getting some ideas for using Scratch in my classes. I got a lot more than that. You know how you go to a workshop on using technology a, and you end up going through a step by step walk-through of how to do things? And you spend the whole time with your face staring at a computer screen? Well this wasn’t like that at all. The focus of this workshop was clearly on pedagogy and learning, thinking about how kids/people learn and then how the technology fits into that paradigm. When I use technology in my teaching, that’s how I approach it. And I’ve always tried to do that when I teach others how to use technology, to a greater or lesser level of success.
The first a-ha moment I had was during the introduction and Mitch Resnick showed a chart that illustrated the decline in computer science majors. Industry and others have bemoaned this fact. As he talked about this decline, he noted that while it was real, it probably wasn’t the whole story, that perhaps people who study other topics go on into careers related to computer science. He then connected computing to writing, suggesting that when we teach a writing class, we don’t expect those students to go on an become professional writers, but we do expect them to use writing in their schoolwork and jobs, and to have a reasonable understanding of the principles of writing. The same should be true of computing. We should expect that while a few students may go on to become computer scientists, everyone should have developed skills in computational thinking through a computing class.
There’s always been a real tension between those who espouse a “hard core” approach to teaching computing, and focus on students learning a particular programming language and those who are more interested in having students grasp computational principles. The former approach tends to turn people off to computing, especially those in underrepresented groups, while the latter is interested in spreading computational thinking concepts more broadly as well as potentially attracting different kinds of people to the field of computer science.
A second a-ha moment came during a storytelling talk by Kevin Brooks. As he talked about telling a story to audiences that spoke different languages, I started thinking about the way that technology and computing are a foreign language to many people. So there’s sometimes a disconnect between what we are talking about and what our audience (kids or teachers) hear. We have to use different tactics to make the connection. And we also have to be sympathetic to the learning curve. No one learns Japanese in a day.
My final a-ha moment came when Eric Klopfer started talking about games. As someone who is a gamer and reads the literature on gaming and education, I had heard a lot of the ideas he was talking about. To most people in the room, though, it was all new. These ideas have been around for a long time, but they’re just barely out there and they’re certainly not filtering very well into our education system. It struck me that it takes a very long time for ideas that come from research to get put into practice. And sometimes that lag is seriously detrimental. The kids are mostly already there, but they’re only there outside of school. If we can apply these ideas in school and sooner, we might be able to better meet the kids where they are.
Notice that none of my a-ha moments had anything to do with figuring out some specific aspect of Scratch, though I did figure some of those out, too. And I got some great ideas for how to use it in my classes. But mostly, I learned that my thinking about education and learning applies to computing as well as it does to writing and that gives me a really strong foundation to work from.