Sunday, January 22, 2012

What Do You Want Your Learners to Learn?

These are the questions for this weeks P2PU class

  • Who are you trying to help?

D. Rillin Kill Age: 6 (going on 16)
Always wants to know why.  Finds the worksheets and seemingly arbitrary rules boring.  She does not understand math and why we invert and multiply.  Enjoys drawing and chatting with friends. Likes games and puzzles.  Her friend Sadie is home schooled and she wonders if that would work for here too, but her Mom worries about where she will get the material and books to teach her. 

Grandma Moses is concerned about her grandkids: Bela Bartok who loves music and composing, Ira Caull who loves storytelling and animation and her grandson Horatio Algebra (location unknown, but could be any number of places) who really likes math.  Her village just received a bunch of these new fangled laptops and she is wondering how her kids can use them to learn and better their lives.

I.M. Shirley Wright is a teacher. He is bright and likes to be the one who knows everything.  He now has to adjust to these computers in the classroom, which he has never used before and kids seem to learn faster than he does.  His main fear is that the kids will find out his middle name is Shirley and make fun of him.  He prefers they call him Mr. Wright.

What will they be able to do (or do better)
after learning what you're trying to teach them?

What I want them to learn depends on what I am teaching, but in general I strive for these three habits of mind:
  1. Learn to test their ideas (and the ideas of others)
  2. Get in the habit of reflection
  3. To know (or at least try) things multiple ways

Now Greg asked us to be specific and to describe "the simplest task they care about."  I agree whole heartedly that kids learn best when its about something that matters to them.  The challenge is how can you teach something that matters to a class of 20 to 30 kids?  Perhaps some kind of self selecting set of options where kids learn programming concepts around different topics (art, music, stories and games) or one class where the different topics are taught and then during the class kids will have an opportunity to work on what matters to them.  The Scratch Curriculum Guide Draft seems to take the latter approach. I also like that the guide has "Reflecting" sections in each lesson. I have not used this Guide to teach a class yet, but will try to do so some time this year.

Okay so, Greg also asked us to be specific, so let me try to give a specific example of how I try to teach the three habits listed above.  So ...

1. Learn to test their ideas (and the ideas of others)
I will often say things that are obviously false (like "As we all know Sun rotates around the earth" or "The earth is flat").  Then when I get the stunned look on kids faces, one of them usually corrects me and says the Earth rotates around the sun.  To which I will respond, how do you know?  They will usually tell me their teacher told them or they read it in a book. At which point I will ask do you believe everything you read (or everything a Teacher says?)  I will then point out to them the obvious fact that if they watch the sky, they can see that the Sun is moving or how can the earth be round? Why don't people on the bottom fall off?  This also leads towards lessons on you can't always believe your senses (for which optical illusions are a lot of fun and I have them create some).

Okay, so how does this relate to programming and webcraft. Good question, I diverge a lot when I teach :)

If you read my other posts you will probably know that I use Etoys a lot (I also teach kids python and math).  Later I will try and post a video using Etoys to explain how I would teach the above three habits of mind.

How can you tell during the scope of your teaching that they've learned what you hoped to teach them?
Well I teach mostly homeschoolers and develop "educational" material for OLPC/Etoys.  In the first case when I work with kids directly I do not give final exams (or any exams).  I ask them to work on projects they are interested in and then ask them questions and listen. In these cases the classes are small at most 8 and I can manage it. Of course the problem is this does not scale.

In the case of OLPC users, I never see the kids who use the software, most don't have internet connections and even if they did, I am not sure how I would get feedback on their thinking, other than asking them to write about what they learned.  I could ask them to write two scripts to do the same, thing but that would be BORING.  This is a real challenge.

One potential way to deal with this (at least the reflection part) would be to have them do the Mathematical Shapes challenge and then have a page that shows them the scripts they wrote for each challenge. This would get them to look at what they wrote and I could ask them to what's the same and what's different about these scripts.

One final and I think important point.  Sometimes kids learn things which are NOT what you hoped to teach them but are important lessons anyway.  Its important to be open to different directions kids may take, even if they are not the ones you intended.  If they are going off in a different direction, it is most likely because its something that is more interesting to them, and thus they will learn.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning - Part II

One of our first tasks is to review this post on the Software Carpentry blog, which compares Greg's attempt to teach online with these research-based best practices.

The following are the recommendations my responses to recommedations 3 & 4 of the research study, along with my thoughts and reactions to these recommendations and how to apply them to teaching young kids 8-16 programming:

3) Combine graphics with verbal descriptions. Combine graphical presentations (e.g., graphs, figures) that illustrate key processes and procedures with verbal descriptions.   

Here I think I do fairly well (although more with math than programming), in providing visual metaphors/analogies for concepts and on occasion creating animations that kids can play with. Where I need to improve is thinking about how to move them from the visual metaphors to working directly with the abstract.

4) Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts. 

Connect and integrate abstract representations of a concept with concrete representations of the same concept.
So I can only think of one case where I succeeded at this, that is where I had the kids program themselves (they were the turtles who had to walk a square vs drawing one).  This worked well in that it helped teach the kids the need for precise formal language. 

Now one area I would like to try and I think fits this are the algorithmic sorting dances similar to this one: