We educators offer great gifts to our 21st Century students when we demonstrate that we, too, can learn new things. By letting children see us mastering unfamiliar information, figuring out problems, overcoming challenges, and yes, even making mistakes, we help them develop more comfort and confidence when they make errors and feel like they are not making progress. We adults teach all the time, but we probably don’t model learning new material nearly enough, and the kids notice it.
As Ted Sizer wrote in his book, The Children Are Watching, they notice what we do and what we do not do. (A good book, by the way, for teachers and parents to read).
So this year I’m demonstrating how much I have to learn for students in grades one through five who attend my MIT Scratch coding activity. Literally, they are watching me learn how to code Scratch scripts.
When I began hosting the before-school Scratch time for 20-25 minutes four times each week at my school, I knew only the basics. Then the 10 to 20 children who attend each day, almost equally divided between girls and boys, began asking me questions about if-then statements and variables. I knew right then that I needed more information so I enrolled in Steve Bergen’s online iCore Scratch class (read Report #1 about my initial Scratch learning experiences), each week gaining more skill. I learned how to program with multiple sprites, set up messages to broadcast, make simple computational games, create a ball game, and yes, use those all-important variables. My online class continued into December.
When my students realized that I was “going to school” they asked me to share what I was learning. Then they figured out that I did most of my homework on the weekends, so they bounded into the room at the beginning of each new week, asking me to tell them what I had studied. I fell into the habit of projecting one or two of my finished Scratch assignments on the whiteboard so they could get an idea of what I was doing and ask me questions. I always told them what was really hard or fairly easy, once pointing out a task that had taken all of a Sunday afternoon to understand.
As every teacher knows, the more you share, the better you learn, and I unintentionally set up processes that reinforced each of my Scratch lessons. When my online class ended, the first question the kids asked was, “When does your next one begin?” Well really, my students are leading the next class.
Seriously though, I am having fun with my morning coding, and while I now know enough to troubleshoot — debug, that is — and answer more of their questions, almost every day something comes up that I, too, must take the time to puzzle over and often it is the students who teach me. The other day, when it took me a bit longer than I would have liked to figure out a problem and make a suggestion, one of my students wondered whether I might want to take another class.
Ah, the joys of lifelong learning.
Each day I try to put something interesting on the board. One morning it was Eniac, the first huge computer at the University of Pennsylvania that was based on the work of Alan Turing, recently portrayed in The Imitation Game. Another day I put up pictures of Lady Ada Lovelace, who had many of the ideas about computing machines about 100 years before Turing used them. (A recent book, Ada’s Algorithm, was recently published about Lady Lovelace.)
Admiral Grace Hopper, who helped bring the United States military into the computer age, and who invented the term “debugging,” was popular. So was an old picture from Cosmopolitan with pictures of the very first coders — young women, by the way. In March I’ll visit the actual Eniac museum and snap a few pictures to share.
Most mornings many of the boys dash in after exploring some of the highlights posted from the day before on the Scratch website — it’s a magnificent site. They eagerly play around with the projects, often setting them up to remix and tweaking a command here and there, running the programs, many of which are mini-video games, over and over, sometimes clustering in small groups to make suggestions to one another.
Right now the girls are the more serious programmers. They arrive each morning, often after working on Scratch the night before, and several of them who were just beginning in September are now routinely manipulating numerous sprites and setting up complicated interactions among them. They’ve created interactive stores, scenes with multiple characters, and all sorts of complicated rainbow designs — one girl has 111 followers on the moderated Scratch site. When they see something on the Scratch website, they tend not to remix, instead studying the code and trying to recreate it. They make suggestions and share all the time. And they practically swooned over a heads and tails Scratch script that I brought in after coding it in Steve Bergen’s class.
So, I’m learning and they are learning. I’m teaching them, and they are teaching me. I am not a real coder quite yet, but I’m modeling how to become one.
Maybe it is time to take another coding class.