flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

A few years ago, when every second student was reading one of the books from the Hunger Games series, I was asked by a student whether I had read them. I explained that I hadn’t. Shocked, the student questioned how I, an English teacher, couldn’t have read them. I asked the student whether he had read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Confused, he said no. I asked him, why, even though it was considered a classic text of the Western Canon, he had not read it? Surprise to say, the irony was lost on him and the conversation did not go much further. With a feeling of shame, I subsequently went off and read the whole series.

In many ways, I think that the debate over coding in the curriculum follows the same lines. Many call for its inclusion with little explanation why. Another thing to add to an essentialist curriculum. Often the debate is about what is being done and whether staff are adequately prepared, rather than clarifying why coding is even being taught and how we should actually go about it. The first conversation that we need to have though before all this is surely what constitutes coding.

For some coding signifies a bunch of characters used to make the web, others it is about making things happen, for some it is all about the app culture associated with going mobile, while for others it is deeply connected with the formulas, flows and algorithms associated with computational thinking. The reality is that coding means different things for different people in different contexts.

In a recent episode of the #2regularteachers podcast, John Pearce suggests taking our understanding of coding beyond the tool or application, instead considering it as a ‘way of thinking’. For example, rather than seeing a Raspberry Pi as a mini computer which allows you to play Minecraft, we need to consider the affordances that it allows, such as programming a camera to capture an experiment at regular intervals or detecting wifi signal to map free internet points around Australia.

For years when I taught robotics with Lego Mindstorm, I would spend weeks getting students to learn the intricacies of NXT before exploring the possibilities of making. This year I decided to skip the weeks of instruction and instead focus on just making. It was not long before students realised their limitations and dug into the possibilities associated with programming in order to improve their designs. With a purpose, they worked their own way through the various tutorials provided.

The challenge to me is to go beyond the question of instruction and understanding of different languages. Beyond debates about fitting it within an already crowded curriculum. Instead the focus should be on creating the conditions in which students are able to take action and create new possibilities. Maybe this involves Minecraft, Ozobot or Spheros, maybe it doesn’t. Most importantly it involves going beyond worrying about training or competency, as Ian Chunn would have it, and instead embracing the world of making by leading the learning.

So what about you, what does coding mean to you? What have been your experiences? Positive and negative. What do you see as the biggest challenge moving forward? As always comments are welcome.


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flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

It all started with one students asking, “Can I please get the Lego out?”

As I had promised the students that they could choose their own activity if they had finished off their work, I got the tub out and the student in question set himself up on the floor. As the session unfolded, student after student came to the meeting place. What started as a case of putting this piece with that soon turned into some sort of battle with the rules of engagement created as they went. What was most interesting was that many of students involved had been bickering of late, unable to play well together either in class or out in the yard, arguing about this rule or that decision. However, for the hour in which they built, not one student complained. Instead students successfully negotiated each step along the way. The only issue I had was that students didn’t want to stop.

When I think back over the year, many of the moments that stand out the most are those that involve students getting hands on:

  • Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden: Stemming from Stephanie Alexander’s initial pilot program at Collingwood College, the aim is to provide students with a ‘pleasurable food education’. That includes an understanding of foods and flavours, as well as an awareness of seasonal produce and waste. It encapsulates many of the aspects associated with permaculture. Instead of focusing on textbooks and set curriculum, SAKG focuses on cause and effect in order to develop a more sustainable food mindset in a collaborative manner.
  • Camp: Whether it be the Year Nine’s exploring the geography of Tasmania or the Year Four’s working in teams to build huts, too often camps are the only time when students get to learn together outside of the confines of a classroom. What is interesting are the conversations and connections that arise out of these seemingly uncommon situations. Often this is a consequence of students been placed in contexts where the only way to work through problems is within a team.
  • Digital Leaders Group: A lunchtime group with the purpose to support students in having more of a say when it comes to all things digital. Although it has not necessarily delivered in regards to student leadership, it has provided a voice and choice for students to tinker and explore with technology. Whether it be competing in a robotics competition (an extension of the elective program into Years Five and Six) or exploring different maker products, such as Raspberry Pi and Little Bits. Students worked together each week focusing on the cycle of what Stager and Martinez describe as ‘think, make, improve’.  
  • Hands On Learning: Designed to support disengaged students from different age groups, the focus is on fostering talents not normally recognised in the classroom. Using project-based learning, the program has included such projects as designing on a budget, building a garden and restoring old furniture. The overall aim is to help young people develop the skills and abilities needed to succeed in work and life like collaboration, problem solving, communication, resilience and empathy.

All of these examples have left me wondering how we might create more opportunities for students to engage in hands on learning? More importantly, experiences that are a part of the core curriculum, rather than just the margins. So what about you? How do you enable making in your classroom? Are there particular programs you run? As always, I would love to know.

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