February 25, 2019

Spending time with professional teachers

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This past Saturday was the 19th conference. That stands for the Association of Computer Science Educators. Peter Kuperman and I both attended. I was able to get away in the morning and be there for the whole day because Peter looked after our children in the AM; he joined me in the afternoon, leaving the children in the care of a trusted babysitter. We were so pleased to be at this conference. For us both, it was a real pleasure to connect and re-connect with professional teachers and educators whose passion is to achieve real learning outcomes in computer programming/computer science. In addition, it was wonderful to see some participation from CanCode recipients: Kids Code Jeunesse was there, although none of the other government funded organizations made it out.

We were invited to deliver a 10 minute lightning-round presentation by the Conference Chair, Grant Hutchinson who is also an industry (IBM) veteran and now a veteran high school CS teacher at Malvern CI in the Beaches. He and Pete Beens, the President of the ACSE gave us a warm welcome.

I was really interested in Grant's talk about physical computing with Python and Micro:Python. I also really enjoyed Cathy Leung's (of Seneca College) discussion of the practicalities of using Github to host courses (an element that we are introducing in our Teens UP and Adults UP program). In addition, I loved Michelle Craig's (award-winning UofT CS prof) talk about sharing and collaborating in CS as a means of furthering pedagogical outcomes; she rightly noted that knitting is an apt analogy for programming. I hope to squeeze out a blog post about Cathy and Michelle's presentations at a later time, but my focal point today is on Grant's presentation and some broader take-aways from the conference.

In Grant's presentation about teaching with Micro:Python he explained that he's approached colleagues in the Science department at Malvern who are intrigued, but haven't yet integrated physical computing in their classes. For teachers like Grant, Pete Beens, myself, and Shawn Lim (of Botcamp), as well as for individuals like Peter Kuperman with a strong background in computer science engineering, exploring the relationship between programming and physical computing is an important element in STEM education. We hope that in the years to come, there will be opportunities to build out curriculum in this area, to have science teachers learn more about the relationship, and to have them receive PD on real computer programming and real computer languages.

I also noted with interest that, like us at Hatch Coding, most teachers at ACSE are all "coded" out. That is to say, that the co-opting of the term "coding" by anyone with a toy robot and the co-opting of the term "curriculum" by anyone with anything to sell in STEAM is having a deleterious impact on pedagogy. If everything is coding, what does it mean for science, the field of technology (a big tent), engineering, maths, and even the arts (STEAM)? How can we have educated and professional conversations about learning outcomes if everything is now coding, and what is the net impact on improving pedagogy and curriculum in all of these fields—including computer programming and computer science as computer programming becomes more important to society?

While we don't use Micro:bits at Hatch, we're actually big fans of them for education in engineering. We have a bias toward our pedagogical approach for teaching computer programming languages (JavaScript and Python)—we think that our project-based learning provides a sort of spiral curriculum that leads to more robust learning outcomes—but, we see the value in having an external expression of Python to a bit of hardware that students can see and manipulate. And for those of us who remember dial up and the amount of memory that computers had at that time—these things are just freaking mind blowing! Let's put it this way: there's a big difference between a Micro:bit and a toy robot (let's face it, many of these so-called robots provide little more learning than remote controlled cars did when I was growing up; good fun, but that's about it unless you apply yourself to taking it apart).

Our hope is that in the months and years to come there will be deeper conversations about the value of teaching engineering principles to students and the value of not deeming everything "coding". We hope that society will come to see that computer programming is a bit like being in an orchestra and that real computer languages need to be practiced the same way musical instruments do—and grouped for expression in a similar way. In addition, we hope that there will be a better understanding of the fact that computational thinking and computational logic are expressions of human thought and logic structures that are seen and used in other disciplines and throughout our lives; that thought and logic become computational by virtue of being communicated with a computer language (or via pseudocode) such as JavaScript or Python. The faster we can get past "coding" and computational thinking as representative of STEM (we prefer STEAM—I'll explain why in a different blog post), the better.

Please note that after 4+ years of teaching and learning in computer programming, we are launching a new website this week to explain what we've found in the research and development of our Studio software.

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