Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts About This Coding Craze

In 1976 I set off to the University of South Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship to major in Math and Computer Science. In 1986 I was taking courses in computer architecture and the language ADA as I worked on my master's degree in Engineering. In 1992 I helped teach a computer class to teachers while being a graduate assistant and getting my master's degree in Education. I hope you believe that I get the importance of using computers as a tool.

Now, everywhere it seems, I keep reading how important it is for students to learn coding. I know the value of understanding the set up of code and algorithms. I can still remember my first assignment in the Fall of 1976 using PL1/PLC. It was to write a program to determine how many cars went through an intersection. The cars approached from each of the four cardinal points at different rates. The length of time the red, yellow, and green lights stayed on also varied. I may have loved math but this was a new animal and it hurt my brain.

But do we need to have every student take a coding course? And where, please tell me, do we get people qualified to teach these courses? I fear that the "Teacher as student" idea will trickle down here and will waste a lot of student time. Without proper guidance I see students going to places like Code.org and playing games. Oh they are being exposed to coding but are they learning the code or just the shape of the icon representing the code? And how many of the English, Math, Science, Social Studies teachers are going to really figure out how to work coding into their curricula?

Will administrators jump on board this coding train, having no understanding of coding themselves, requiring their teachers  to embrace this "coding stuff?" You bet they will. If there is funding and parent demand there will be administrators turning this demand on its head and requiring teachers to figure coding out.

I saw (and am still seeing) this with the topics of PBL, Inquiry, and (lately) Design. These are ideas that, when done well, are incredibly valuable and help students go deeper in their understanding of content. Because of publicity superintendents and principals get excited about things that will make their students be the best students. Suddenly they say things like, "This PBL stuff is good for our kids so lets get some training in it!" Grants get written and training begins. But soon the funding for the training dries up. And then we hear them say, "Now that we've trained some teachers, we need PBL to be done in EVERY classroom!"

But the schools/districts rarely get to the level where instructional coaches, assistant principals, and principals understand what they are seeing in the classroom.  It follows that these same academic leaders can't help their teachers grow in this new "PBL world" that they have created.

Will this happen in the world of Coding? Sadly, I'm leaning towards, "yes." Why? I'm willing to use myself as an example.

At my school parents and students demanded a computer science course. I was hired to teach Design Thinking, but I had a computer science background. So I was asked if I would teach a section of computer science. With very little time to come up with a plan, the school year started.  I decided that I would see what these students wanted in their computer science course. When I asked them I got the following: App Design, Web Page Design, Game Design, Coding, and Movie Creation. I let the students self-select into each of these areas and we spent the first semester exploring these topics with me as "facilitator of learning" and "calendar enforcer."

There was some good news from the semester.  Many of the students went way further than I thought they would go and learned more than I could ever have helped them learn. And, most of the students learned about what I expected they would learn in a self paced course. And, of course, there were some students who "also participated" in class. It was a pretty normal breakdown for students for any class and in any content. Nothing surprising there.

Still, I can't help but wonder what these same students could have done with a teacher who was at the school to teach students all about computers and coding. We're a small, academically oriented school with great parents and staff.  Hopefully, we will have a certified computer science teacher - or, at least, a person who loves to immerse themselves in all things computers. I'm not that guy. And, because I HAD to teach computers, I haven't put forth the effort required to make the course be truly awesome.

I find myself wondering: "how many teachers are going to be required to 'put coding into their course?'" If you aren't into computers, you aren't into computers. I love working with them and I want the latest app to use on my mobile device. But I'm not a person who spends hours coding. And I'm not a "maker." It isn't fair to my students to have me be their computer science teacher. They deserve better.

Schools and school districts are jumping on the coding band wagon. But do we suggest that all students learn coding when there aren't teachers in place to make it happen? It's hard enough to get a quality math teacher; or science teacher; or English teacher; or social studies teacher.  We need teachers who are passionate about their subject. Let's build capacity with computer science teachers before we suggest our students all take a class in coding.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Using An Old Challenge to Teach Project Management

When I talk with teachers about getting started with PBL I often tell them to think of something they have seen done before and take the idea and make it their own. But I also caution them to think of their content first - what are the verbs and nouns in their standards? Unless they are incredibly comfortable with their standards it really doesn't make much sense to start with an idea and try to fit the standards.

Now that I'm teaching Design this frees me up to be more creative and experimental with where I ask my students to go with their learning. Unfortunately I have 7th graders who have been living, for at least a few years, in the world of "Learn the Content -then-Do a Project." In addition to teaching them about the Design process I have to teach them the the PBL process.

I'm attempting to create a classroom of asking questions, taking chances, making guesses, trying new things, and thinking about the client. Through the first semester my students have worked on projects that were centered on content standards for their science and Texas history classes. In science they needed to understand forces for the Rube Goldberg Machines they built. In Texas history they needed to understand French and Spanish settlers/settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries in what is now Texas to build models.

The content might have been for other classes but the creation and building were accomplished in my classroom. Now, with this next project, my students will be working for me (and for themselves). We are embarking on my version of the Cardboard Chair Challenge.

You might have guessed from the title of the project, that the main idea is to build a chair out of recycled cardboard and glue. But there is SO much more I want them to learn about managing a project. This, in reality, is a project management project.

To keep them focused on creating the chair and to make things interesting I have created an opportunity to have the students present to parents. There's nothing like an authentic audience to up the ante. To be honest, I don't really care whether they successfully build a chair in the short time period I have given them (but don't tell them that, shhhh.)

Things I am focusing on:
(1) Roles. In this project everyone has an individual role and everyone is responsible for making sure the final products are completed. There are 6 students in just about every group and I have 6 roles in each group. The roles are Group Leader, Work Leader, Group Liaison, Web Site Designer, Artistic Leader, and Promotions Leader.  For the first two weeks I'll be meeting with each of these role players every day to ensure they are on top of what needs to be done to be successful.
 (2) Leadership. Related to their roles, everyone in the group is responsible for something that they will need help with. Will they step up and be a leader to make sure the group is successful. One role I will be working very closely with is the Work Leader. I expect the Work Leader to create a Team Accountability Form and use it every day. The Work Leader needs to be on top of what every member of the group is doing and where they are on their individual time line.
(3) Working on both individual and group work. Can they work together on their product (the chair) while also working on their individual assignments based upon their roles?

I want my students to understand that their is a lot more involved in successfully completing a project besides the final product. My students are competing to create the "best" chair possible using just cardboard and glue. But they are also learning how to work together as a team.  And with that, I can truthfully say: I want them all to be winners.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I Go From Project Idea to Project Launch (PBL with a DT Feel)

I've just completed a pretty darn nice 2 weeks off for the holidays. Tomorrow I head back to 2 days of PD before the students come back to me on Wednesday. I've been spending the last couple of hours fine tuning my first design project of the year.

This is my first year of teaching MYP Design at Meridian World School. And so I've been creating as I go, as far as what I cover next with my students. Things that work this year will be tweaked and recycled for next year. Things that didn't go so well will be revamped or scrapped for next year. It's all part of the DT mindset and, either way, I learn a ton along the way.

Back in August (2015) I decided that I wanted to do a Cardboard Chair project this year. There are several versions out there but I chose to follow this one. I modified it, as necessary, to meet the level of my 7th graders and the time I wanted to spend on this project. The beauty of this is that I am working with something that has worked in the past.

I took the major parts of the project as written ( Research, Design Sketches, Drawings, and Model) and I added a beginning (Admin) and an end (Build and Presentations). Then I went through each of these and wrote out some sub-parts. For example I listed time for building and presenting the prototypes for feedback prior to their final build.

Next steps were to figure out how many days and weeks it would take and to look at the school calendar and see what things might impact these times. In doing this I noticed that our Diploma Program (DP) students will be doing their Group 4 Projects at about the same time I wanted to finish my project. I had my Authentic Audience - DP Parents can help pick the design champions.

As I worked backwards on the calendar I started filling in the key steps and, before I knew it,  I was back to early January and I could start finalizing my plans for these first two weeks of the semester.

Let me go through my checklist:  I have a project launch day where we will assign groups, write group contracts, and do the Question Formulation Technique (QFT);  I have a presentation day and an authentic audience;  I have days for research on key components for my subject area (Form, Function, Resources);  Students will explore empathy through their design plans; and, Students will do research, create sketches, and will build prototypes to get feedback prior to their final build.

I have been able to marry most of the Gold Standard PBL elements with most of the Design Thinking elements.  This will be a five week project from launch to final presentations. It will encompass the majority of the first six weeks of the grading period. I'll need to add assessments and plan for materials but, in the end, I am all set for the first 6-weeks of the semester. In a couple of weeks I'll be ready to start finalizing my next project. I've already approached a gym teacher to design some exercise mats. I'll write about that one soon.

Things That Piqued My Interest This Week (weekly)

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