On Wednesday, Glen A. Jones of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education wrote about some things educators should do to prepare for the return of students to school. Here, Michelle Cordy, who teaches Grade 3 at the Thames Valley District School Board, discusses the lengths she went to in preparation for the upcoming school year.
My back-to-school preparation included a trip to Berlin, a meeting with a theoretical physicist, and of course, setting up my classroom.
I’m sure you can picture the process of setting up the classroom. It involves organizing the desks in groups with student’s names taped at the top of each desk and a sharp pencil on top of a notebook in the middle.
The classroom organization is really the last step in getting ready for the new school year. Much before then, I had decided this was going to be the year that I would find a way to integrate coding and computational thinking into the classroom. But, I had a huge obstacle: at this moment: coding and computational thinking isn’t overtly in the Ontario curriculum.
A teacher engages in professional learning all year long, but what about learning about how to teach something that isn’t officially part of our curriculum and yet everyone seems to be calling for? To prepare to teach something like that, I needed to take serious action.
I travelled to Berlin to take part in the Apple Institute. I was excited to be selected to participate particularly because Apple had just announced Swift Playgrounds which is the company’s solution for teaching students “serious code” in a “seriously fun way.” Getting a preview of the Swift Playground app from the product development lead was a special treat. Not only that, but I had the opportunity to meet with standout teachers in the area of coding and hear their success stories in their classrooms from all over the world.
I respect that I am a teacher in a publicly-funded system which means that it is my job to teach students the Ontario curriculum. I don’t think I have the right to think up things to teach and just go for it. However, coding and computational thinking is a big topic all over the world that I feel I can no longer delay. I must do my best to make sense of it and then teach it in a way that complements the curriculum.
Near the end of the summer, I had two amazing days with more incredible thinkers in this area I spent a day with three scientists at SciNet, an organization that uses supercomputers to help scientists analyze massive data sets. The day was led by a chemist, a physicist, and a theoretical physicist who seemed frustrated that undergraduate and graduate students appear to be lacking in the skills and thinking required to work with big data.
The key learning for me was a deeper understanding of the importance of data analysis and the essential role coding plays in solving problems that don’t fit existing models. Isn’t that what our students are going to face in the future? They are going to have to solve problems that require totally new ways of thinking. The current ways of doing things aren’t going to work. The question should not be focused on how our students are going to find solutions to challenging problems. Instead, it should be: how are young people going to begin solving these problems in new ways?
I must admit, at one point they were explaining something about Einstein's theory of relativity and I burst out laughing. They all looked stunned and confused. I then asked them to picture my Grade 3 students. I said that some of my students are still one-steppers. In other words, they can only manage one step on a staircase at a time. The scientists all face-palmed in unison as they thought of their own children at that age. In that moment they were confronted with the challenge of teaching complex knowledge to a variety of age groups. As a Grade 3 teacher, I need to translate these ideas to an appropriate level for all my students, including the one-steppers.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to do all the hard work of figuring out where computational thinking fits in the curriculum on my own. Others are doing a lot in this area. Near the end of August, Wilfrid Laurier University offered a full-day workshop lead by a team of researchers and teachers
I got two very different messages from this event. I left wondering if computational thinking is an educational tool or if it’s a means of thinking in and of itself. An example of an educational tool is teaching math through music or games. It’s a way for us to engage learners in order to teach content. Using computational thinking as an educational tool could include having students use a programming language such as Scratch to do a probability experiment in order to learn about probability. In this case, coding and computational thinking are a means to a curricular end.
On the other hand, computational thinking might also be seen as a particular type of thinking, like design thinking or critical thinking. For example, computational thinking could help students understand how to break a large problem down into smaller components. Instead of being a way to teach, it would become a method to understand the world and approach challenges in life.
In just a few more days I get to meet my students all decked out in back to school gear and fresh lunch bags and backpacks. As those little ones file into my classroom for the first time, it won’t be obvious to them that our year will include coding and computational thinking from the moment they walk in the door. That will come later. What I hope they will see is a tidy looking classroom and a well-rested and inspired teacher who can’t wait to make a new journey with them. I can’t wait for my class list to transform into a little line of the coolest people I know.
Michelle Cordy is an Apple Distinguished Educator, Google Certified Teacher, and holds an M.Ed. in Mathematics and Science education.
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