Students Learning to Code: Scope & Sequencing Tensions?

Vivian Naples

Beautiful building in Naples…

 

This is week 4 of the Learning Creative Learning MOOC delivered by MIT’s Medialab and developers of Scratch computer programming language for children. We’re covering the 4 Ps of Creative Learning:  Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play.  We are covering “Peers” this week.

While working with my Peers this week, we started a discussion thread about the role of Scope and Sequencing in order to optimize learning for our students in terms of Coding and Computer Sciences.

While in Rome…

I’m on holidays (in Rome!) so have been very busy running back and forth between one “colossal” and another “colossal”. Always thinking about the endeavours and works of Man.  I was in Pompeii yesterday thinking all of this: “the ambitions of Man, his works, his wealth” and it all vanished in a few minutes. The ancient Romans built for their glory and it lasted for the Ages. We can’t hope to build like them so that our structures will last for millennia. What are we doing, then? and what is the point? 🙂

Though I’ve been occupied for the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking of the place of Scope and Sequencing of Computer Sciences in the elementary school.  This was spurred on by a conversation I’m having in the Learning Creative Learning course.  I couldn’t really answer with what I thought in a few lines, so I decided to make a blogpost of my answer.

Teacher’s Time to do some Inquiry-Learning

The exciting thing about Computer Sciences in the elementary school curriculum is that this is new territory for teachers, so we don’t have any pre-conceived notions or much experience with which to direct us. It is real “Inquiry” learning and the teachers are the students, for a change.  We have a chance to do an amazing job with this “new subject” or mess it up and spoil it.

So, in keeping with the theme of my Roman holidays, let’s build something with vitality that will last the ages… 😉

I’m actually one of those people who love linear processes. I touched upon this when I blogged during the first week of the LCL course: Everything I Learned, I Learned in Kindergarten.  In my blogpost, I explained that I am a “concrete sequential” thinker. I’ve since done a bit more reading and actually, I am an “abstract sequential” thinker. The abstract part of me causes me to think as I did in the above third paragraph and to wax philosophical as I did.  I am still “sequential” though; I love Scope and Sequence charts more than most!  🙂

I think there are definitely areas that a linear Scope and Sequence are important: math, reading, music.  It’s important in math as math is about the symbolic when we can’t always touch the physical counterparts. For reading, we tried to throw out the scope and sequencing of phonics teaching with the Whole Language movement. That didn’t work out and we’ve abandoned Whole Language, since. Basal Readers and phonics programs are back in force.

With something like Scratch programming language, children are actually manipulating “blocks” and the symbolic is not divorced from the physical like math studies. The blocks in Scratch are the like the “Base-Ten” manipulatives we have in Math.   So, I’m not too sure it’s at all that necessary for children learning with Scratch to follow ANY prescribed Scope and Sequence.   By the way, I believe that we should be using physical blocks and manipulatives right through elementary school.  I still do and I use Math-U-See.

With Scratch, students are physically manipulating something and able to see the effects of their manipulation right away.  They are learning 100% of the time, even if they’re not learning what we think they should be learning at the time… 😉

So, maybe I’m simplifying the argument a bit too much but because Scratch is not divorced from context and the symbolic is not divorced from the “physical”, I don’t think we need a Scope and Sequence from a pedagogical point of view.

Scope and Sequencing at odds with Student-Led Learning?

Adults like to go towards  an outlined Scope and Sequence. It’s our comfort zone. Yet, I’m not too sure it’s always the best pedagogy. When we talk about 21st C learning and Inquiry Learning in the PYP, we’re letting the students lead the way. Their way isn’t necessarily the same linear way that adults would choose.

I see examples of children working “ahead of the scope and sequence” all the time when they are engaged on some sort of project on a computer. With Scratch, I’ve seen children working in a X,Y coordinate plane without ever having “learned” what is a negative number.   My youngest was 8 years old and he was always plotting things in Minecraft using decimals. They were long strings of decimals too: ex. x= 4.0123456  y=14.7890134 He already knows to shorten the decimal when he uses them, however; he has no understanding of what decimals really are. The teacher in me wants to ask him, “Do you know what those numbers means?!” But, I keep my mouth shut. 😀

Kodály Concept of Teaching

The discussion about whether students should be working “ahead of their understanding” (They are in computers, whether we want them to, or not!) reminds me about the Kodály philosophy of teaching music. Kodály starts with children as young as 3. Children that young aren’t going to respond to didactic teaching where the teacher stands at the front and tells them stuff they need to understand and learn… Kodály curriculum has a very strict Sequence in terms of concepts and skills in music education.  However, the learning starts with children playing in music, applying the concept, and then creating with the concept before they even know what they are doing, actually.  The role of the teacher is to sequence the songs, games, and dances.  There is really no Scope as students can sing “things” with musical components beyond their understanding.  They are not limited by their lack of understanding of music concepts from experiencing and playing within them. (Sorry, but this is hard to explain.  Here is a very simple example to help clarify a bit:  ex. Students can sing sixteenth notes way before they have the capacity to understand what fractions are but sixteenth notes are fractions of a beat in music.)

Students apply the concept before they even know what the concept is, or can put or verbalize a label for it. So, for example, if the teacher wants to teach the student the concept of “beat”. The students would spend weeks? months? years? (depends on their ages) clapping, tapping, snapping the beat while singing, dancing.  They would progress to creating music using the “beat” but still not knowing what a “beat” is (hitting triangles, drums, etc.).  Students spend an inordinate amount of time applying and creating with musical concepts until they have internalized it on their bodies.   Then, as the LAST stage, the teacher does something Kodály calls “make conscious” which is to give them a mental construct, understanding for what they’ve already internalized.  The teacher says to the students, “When we were doing x,y,z,… that is actually called the BEAT.” By that time, the students are more than ready to integrate this new concept in with their past experiences.  They have now “learned”.   The light bulb goes on for all the kids without a lot of pain or tears.  Then, they off and running onto the next concept…   Another example: So, for Melodic learning, they would sing, dance, listen to many pieces of music with a minor 3rd interval (called So-Mi). After several weeks? months? when the students can reproduce the interval (sing it) and are creating their own songs with it, the teacher makes the concept conscious:  “Students, this is called So-Mi.”

Tension

I think Scope and Sequencing is sometimes more for the teacher’s comfort, accountability to the State (to provide evidence for past use of funding and to ask for further funding), accountability to Parents (assessment and reporting) etc. more so than for Pedagogical reasons. This is the Tension between “Play” and “Scope and Sequence documents”.  This is the Tension between “Education” and “Schooling”.

…don’t do as the Romans did?

Back to Rome and “building things”…  As teachers, we have an opportunity to lay a foundation and build Coding into the curriculum.  Let’s be careful that we are not putting a “new subject” into an old and tired framework, thus killing the life of it.  This was brought home to me when a teen student I don’t know tweeted me and asked me for the solution to Stage 15, puzzles 8 & 9 from the 20 Hour Code.org.  I’m guessing he was stuck and googling for help and came across my blogposts about Code.org (I blogged all the stages as lesson notes for myself.) In his tweet, he asked for the solutions as he needed to finish the assignment and would be “marked and graded” for it. When I read that, I was very surprised that something “fun” has been turned into another school assignment for marks.  I then felt so sad thinking that if teachers are doing this around the world, they’re killing any love of Coding from the get-go.

Assessment

This begs the question: “So, do we REALLY HAVE to assess it?” We’ve lived several millennia without Computer Sciences as a school subject. Now, that we want to have it as a subject, do we HAVE to assess it? Because the need to assess it is going to make Coding go the way of Math studies (and we know what most students feel about math…).  It might become one of the strands of Math where we “have” to study it, study it for marks, follow a Scope and Sequence divorced from any context important to children, stripped of any enjoyment…

Which direction will we take?

That would be a huge shame if that’s the direction we go… I touched upon this in this blogpost discussing motivation while learning how to Code.  I thought that all kids love playing games on computers ALL the time. It certainly seemed that way in my household. So, I was gobsmacked when my 9 year turned down computer time when I said he could work more on the Code.org stages. The program has a great linear Scope and Sequence that worked for me, as teacher and administrator of it. My son had become bored part-way, found it tedious, and was not motivated to solve puzzles anymore. He turned down the computer time (see his Mom’s jaws drop!).  He had started to get the puzzles “wrong” and wasn’t motivated to persevere and try again. This was not from lack of ability, but from lack of motivation.  I know that because I’d seen him do much more complex things with Minecraft. He told me that the puzzles were “too hard” for him.  I didn’t believe that for a minute but he honestly saw it that way.

Anyways, when that teenager tweeted me and when my son turned down computer time, a red flag went up in my mind.  Here we have a chance to make a new “subject” in school. How are we going to do it?  Children do love to play, to play on computers, and to play at learning how to Code etc.  The motivation and engagement seem to be naturally there… What are we doing with it?

Leave the Scope but take out the Sequence?

Maybe we need to take on the Kodály model where students play at skills, create with skills etc. until they’ve internalized it and then we do a short mini-lesson “making conscious” what they’ve learned to do already.  Maybe a “Scope and Sequence” should be a check-list of concepts and skills without any order specified.  The order is what the child takes on as he/she tackles projects.

Laying a foundation and making a direction

I’m excited to be a part of the first generation of teachers laying the foundation for Computer Science as a curriculum in the Primary/Elementary school. I’m in an International School context, so we’re not really subject to State control of curriculum. I do understand that State and Parent accountability (evidence of delivery and assessment) are important for funding and other “lawful matters”.

Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose

Since I am not subject to outside State control, I think more towards Daniel Pink’s factors for Motivation when I think of Scope and Sequence or Curriculum:  Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery.  Whatever Scope and Sequence we lay down in whatever part of the world, I would hope that these things would be explicitly put into the Computer Science curriculum.

The “Autonomy” aspect is a BIGGIE.  How much of Scope and Sequencing goes contrary to Autonomy (for both students and teachers)?

“Purpose” means making sure that skills are not taught or practiced outside of meaningful contexts.  Projects have meaningful contexts and an inherent drive for “Mastery”. Puzzles for the sake of solving the puzzle? —-limited meaning and the rewards for Mastery are short as they only last until the next puzzle.

If the curriculum doesn’t explicitly integrate aspects of Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery —-then I hope teachers would take the freedom that they have (however little in some cases) to navigate the curriculum keeping these things in mind.

We get a chance to build something with vitality for posterity.  How will we build it?

Pompeii Small

Ruins of Pompeii

 

Roman Ruins

Roman Ruins

 

(I’m off to see the Roman Basilicas and Catacombs now… Can’t wait to see what the Catacombs will do to my thinking!  😉 )

What do you think about laying down Scope and Sequencing in terms of Scratch and other “learn to code” programs for elementary students?

~Vivian

 

About Vivian

Vivian @ChezVivian is a Canadian-born Chinese, currently living in Switzerland. She has also lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia. She holds a M.S. (focus: Educational Technology Integration), B.Ed and a B.A. and graduate studies in Kodály and Orff music pedagogy. She is an elementary school classroom generalist, but has also taught as a music specialist, ESL/EAL and also in Learning Support. Most of her teaching career was in International Schools in Hong Kong. She is excited about the IBPYP and the possibilities of using technology to Inquire. Recently, she has been looking at the opportunities that computer programming gives to put #TECHXture back into the hands of children. In other words, technology need not be just about looking at screens. It can be about building things with our hands; and computer programming levels-up what children can do with the things they build---encouraging higher thinking skills. She is a Coetail Post-graduate Certificate grad ('13-'14), a former Coetail Coach and one of the co-founders of #CoetailChat. Her blog home chezvivian.coetail.com curates her assignments for Coetail and her M.S. graduate studies about Educational Technology integration and anything else educationally-related that she feels inspired to write about. Her twitter tagline sums it up: "Mom to 4, Mentor, Educator, Musician (in that order)".
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