Playing with Toys
Part of the fun of teaching pre-service teachers about digital technologies is that I get to play with them. This year I got hold of a pair of the cutest little BeeBots (https://www.bee-bot.us) as a way of introducing coding to some of my teacher education students.
It was hilarious watching adults trying to work out how to program the BeeBots to follow masking tape on the floor and having to think about the commands they would use. I provided them with laminated cards that replicated the BeeBot commands and had them convert their instructions to an algorithm. We started with 'programming' a student as a whole group, which I believe was helpful way to introduce computational thinking in a non-threatening way.
I had them play on Kodable as well, some on my iPad some doing paper-based simulations. Again I asked them to develop the algorithms to direct the Kodable characters to their destinations.
What was rewarding was the high level of engagement as they developed their responses to the challenges at each work station. What was interesting was watching their varied reactions -
some of the students took to this like ducks to water, whereas others found the terminology intimidating. Most were ok with the concepts.
For those of you who haven't come across these types of programs, the tools I used have been designed for young children (2-8 perhaps) to introduce them to foundational coding and computational thinking skills and techniques. They both require you to code, but at quite simple levels.
However, a progression to Scratch started to raise the anxiety levels. Too many possibilities!!
So, my initial reflections:
- I was surprised at how few had any experience with tablets. Most had laptops and smartphones but very few had tablets or had used tablets. The idea that these tools have become part of a teacher's toolkit was a revelation to some. My concern is that the majority of primary schools in Victoria are acquiring iPads at a great rate - will my pre-service teachers be prepared to teach with these tools if you they not familiar with these tools?
- Some of the pre-service teachers were resistant to exploring coding, despite a very gentle introduction to the terminology. Some switched off and relied on their partners to carry the intellectual load. Will they adopt the same stance when they are teachers, being asked to integrate the new Digital Technologies into their classroom curriculum?
- Setting up a variety of workstations where students worked in small groups or pairs was a successful strategy that was particularly helpful for those pre-service teachers who were resistant. Will they adopt a similar strategy in their own classroom when faced with children who are lacking engagement with coding (although who can resist those cute BeeBots, I ask you?)
- This took time - and within my own curriculum I don't have enough time for my own students to master these tools and importantly the thinking behind them about computational thinking.
- I don't think all my pre-service teachers were all believers that teaching coding was important, certainly not as important as teaching literacy and numeracy.
My bigger questions, however, relate to how teachers in schools are reacting to the new requirements to teach coding, algorithms and computational thinking in general. Will these same reactions I saw amongst my own pre-service teachers is be played out amongst teachers in primary schools? Will teachers incorporate these strategies into their classroom practices or will we see a reversion to the weekly IT class model, where a specialist teacher takes the students in Digital Technologies classes that focus on computational thinking? What might such a strategy be saying to the students? That digital technologies is something separate to what happens in the classroom everyday, that it is something that only people with special skills can do? Does positioning digitech as something that is a specialist area of study fly in the face of the intent of the digital technologies curriculum in Australia and other pushes to incorporate 'coding' into schooling that are gaining popularity across the world? Or should we be positioning digitech as a specialist subject area, and resource it appropriately with equipment and teachers skills in teaching it? Will forcing reluctant teachers to squeeze one more thing into their already crowded curriculum result in our students missing out on quality instruction in the digitech area. Will schools who employ a teacher skilled in this new curriculum area and capable of teaching it be more effective at achieving the sort of learning outcomes intended in this new curriculum?