Saturday, August 09, 2014

A class that showed me what learning looks like

Last year, I began teaching an elective class in year 10 called "Big Ideas in Computer Technology". The first class had 12 girls in it and, this year, the number grew to 17. I was blown away with the number since, in year 10, the girls can take only three electives across the year and the offerings at our school are mind-boggling.

How the learning was structured
This year, I really wanted to work with a principle I learnt from a video by James Paul Gee which I reviewed earlier. Using computer games as a metaphor, I saw my role as designing the learning in such a way that the students could have enough guidance at the beginning - the first two levels of the game - and then learn through experimentation, discussion and some help from me.

The course had two units that everyone undertook: Visual programming in Scribble and some exposure to Cryptography. Beyond that, the students could pursue interests and work either individually or in small groups. I didn't mind them using Youtube to look up tutorials, as long as they had a purpose in mind.

Here are sample learning paths chosen by three students:
Meera Doris Alice
Visual programming:
Snakes and ladders
Visual programming:
Maze with moving backgrounds
Visual programming:
Birthday Paradox

Cryptography

Cryptography

Cryptography

Learning project:
Static website about her writing


Learning project:
Python programming - Guess the number

Learning project:
Javascript on Khan Academy - four small programs demonstrating what she learnt


3D Modelling:
Original cup


3D printer setup:
Ran a tutorial, with 2 others, for staff


3D Modelling:
Cup with coffee inside



Production project:
3D animation


Production project:
Login screen for dynamic website in Python
Production project:
3D animation



Challenge for all
During parent-teacher interviews, every student in that class stated that she was finding the work challenging and interesting at the same time. This was the case for advanced students as well as for a student with special needs. They were all being extended even if the content of their learning was different.

After a particularly frustrating lesson working on her game "Alien Adventures" Ally wrote the following:

Today, I learnt how to be patient when trying to learn and develop new ideas. I had a few issues with attempting to make a laser beam fly out of the spaceship and it took a lot of persisting and continuing to try and get it to work and eventually I figured it out with some help. My biggest achievement of the day was actually firing the laser for the first time. I am very impressed with my work and I knew that this would be a big hurdle so I’m very impressed with what I was able to achieve.

What worked
Four of the students presented at the Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria conference about how they learnt through projects. As they responded to questions from the audience, they made the following observations:

  • They owned their learning because they could choose projects
  • They achieved greater success because they were not allowed to change their projects after a period of exploration
  • They were happy not to be "spoon fed" as this allowed them to learn how to learn
  • When they wrote a program, they needed to understand their problem and its solution thoroughly because they had to be precise when teaching the solution to a computer
What I need to work on in the future
There are a few things that could have gone better. Here are a couple:

  • The breadth of the subject came at the expense of depth. I think I should create two "tracts", one for those who want to become fluent coders and another for those who want a breadth of experiences
  • Some students were not used to "being stuck" for some time. I need to find better ways to convince students that being stuck is part of the learning project so they don't get overly stressed about it.
Going beyond any "teaching intentions"
On many occasions, students were able to learn skills I didn't possess. That was particularly satisfying for me, especially when they would teach me a new skill. The following example is a clear illustration of this: 
Alice, having simulated a lava lamp in Blender, listed the skills she'd learnt:

- how to use ‘Particles’ and ‘Physics’ in Blender
- the components of the fluid
- how mass, buoyancy, viscosity, and repulsion all affect the fluid of the lava lamp

I could not have envisaged teaching her any of that!

The privilege of teaching the class
I am very grateful for having taught this group of students. They were curious, reflective, hard working and courteous. They tackled challenges and went beyond my expectations. This course was designed with such students in mind. It would not have worked with a group that expected step-by-step directions from the teacher.

In summary, I feel privileged to have worked with such delightful girls and I will remember this class for a long time to come.

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