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Archive for the ‘Computer Science’ Category

“Wow!,” “Fantastic,” and “Inspirational”were words that filled the Twitter feed coming out of the latest Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Innovation in Teaching Day (#HRCEID2018), held November 2 and 3, 2018.  The primary cause of the frenzied excitement was a keynote talk by Brian Aspinall, author of the edtech best-seller Code Breaker, a teacher’s guide to training-up a class of “coder ninjas.”  The former Ontario Grade 7 and 8 teacher from Essex County honed his presentation skills at TEDx Talks in Chatham and Kitchener and is now the hottest speaker on the Canadian edtech professional development circuit.

Mr. Aspinall, the #CodeBreaker, is a very passionate, motivational speaker with a truly amazing social media following. He built his first website in the 1990s before graduating from Harrow District High School, earned his B.Sc. and B.Ed. at the University of Windsor, and learned the teaching craft in the local Windsor Essex school system. In 2016, he won a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM. Watching him in action on You Tube, it’s obvious that he’s a real showman and fairly typical of a new breed of North American edtech evangelists.

Like many edtech visionaries, Aspinall experienced an epiphany, in his case while teaching his Grade 8 class. “Someone brought to my attention that every grade 8 in our building was born in 2000 or 2001, ” he recalls. “You could hear the brain matter shift, turn, implode and explode in my head. I had never thought of it like that. My mind was blown.”  Then Aspinall remembered: “I have only taught in the 21st century…went to university in the 21st century!  And I’ve been teaching for nine years now!!”

Edtech evangelists like Aspinall have multiplied rapidly in the 2000s as provincial and school district authorities have pursued a succession of “21st century skills” initiatives. The leading motivational speakers, closely aligned with Google, Microsoft, or Pearson PLC, develop their own personalized brands and can be very persuasive engaging users without any overt marketing. The first and perhaps best known 21st century skills evangelist was Gary Kawasaki, the marketing genius who launched Apple Macintosh in 1984 and the one who popularized the use of the word “evangelist” to describe this marketing approach. The TED Talks back list is not only edtech dominated, but a ‘who’s who’ of ed tech evangelism.

Aspinall is an open book and connected almost 24/7, judging from his personal  MrApsinall.com Blog and rapid-fire Twitter feed. With 60,400 tweets to his credit, @mraspinall has amassed 40,900 followers and recorded 43,100 likes. Reading his tweets, it’s abundantly clear that he’s an unabashed educational constructivist who firmly believes in student-centred, minimal guidance, discovery learning.

Speaking on stage, Aspinall has a messianic, 21st century cool presentation style. “I’m on a mission to expose as many kids as possible to coding and computer science, ” he declared in June 2016 at TEDx KitchenerED.  That’s popular in provinces like Nova Scotia and British Columbia where coding is being implemented in elementary schools — and where teachers are hungry for classroom-ready activities. He’s filling a need, particularly among teachers in the early grades with little or no background or training in mathematics, science or computer science.

What’s contentious about the edtech evangelists is their rather uncritical acceptance of constructivist pedagogy and utopian belief that “students learn by doing’ and require minimal teacher guidance.  A few, like Brian Aspinall, are ideologues who believe that “knowledge is readily available” on the Internet, so teachers should reject teaching content knowledge and, instead, “teach and model an inquiry approach to learning.”

Aspinall’s educational philosophy deserves more careful scrutiny.  In his teaching guide and TEDx Talks, he embraces a distinctly “21st century learning” paradigm. In his 2016 TEDx talk “Hacking the classroom,” he distills his philosophy down to four “hacks” or principles: 1) focus on content creation; 2) embrace failure so kids take risks; 3) free up time and avoid time-limited tests/assignments; and 4) embrace the “process of learning” rather than the pursuit of knowledge-based outcomes.

Those principles may sound familiar because they are among the first principles of not only constructivist thinking on education, but the corporate movement driving “21st century learning” and its latest mutation, “personalized learning” enabled by computer software and information technology.   In the case of Aspinall, he’s clearly an educational disciple of the late Seymour Papert, the MIT professor who invented “logo” programming and championed ‘discovery learning’ in mathematics and science.  If Aspinall has a catechism, it is to be found in Papert’s 1993 classic, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Aspinall has also latched onto the writings of Janette M. Wing, chair of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. One of his favourite axioms, quoted regularly, is extracted from Wing: “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists.” She goes further: “To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.” Indeed, like Wing, Aspinall sees “coding” as a way of teaching mathematics in a more holistic curriculum.

EdTech evangelists such as Aspinall stir interest in learning coding, but fall into the trap of assuming that constructivism works in every class, irrespective of class composition, size, or capabilities. Utopian conceptions of teaching and learning bequeathed by Papert are now being seriously challenged by evidence-based research. Classroom conditions and student management concerns conspire to limit the applicability of “makerspace learning” and teachers rarely have the resources to make it work in practice.

More fundamentally, Papert’s model of “minimal guidance” has been effectively challenged by Paul A . Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark (2006). “Prior knowledge, ” they found, is essential in providing the “internal guidance” required in truly learning something. High quality, engaging and explicit instruction is necessary, in most instances, to ‘bootstrap” learning,  While personal exploration is useful, the most effective teaching and learning approach combines teacher guidance with exploration woven into a child’s education.

Teachers dazzled by Aspinall’s presentations are most likely immersed in edtech culture. Computer software apps and tools such as “Makey Makey” and “Scratch” are bound to make teaching easier for educators and more pleasurable for students. Few question Aspinall’s promotion of Tynker coding programs or his corporate affiliation as a “Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert Fellow.” In his TEDx Talks, he is quite open about his admiration for Microsoft philosophy. “Microsoft believes every child should be exposed to coding,” he tells audiences. “Because you don’t know you like broccoli until you try it.” While he’s not pedaling 21st century ‘snake oil,’ such statements do raise suspicions.

Why have edtech evangelists come to dominate the ’21st century skills’ professional development circuit?  What explains the popularity of, and excitement generated by, TED Talk edtech speakers such as Brian Aspinall? Is coding emerging as the “4th R” of 21st century learning and what’s its impact upon the teaching of mathematics in the early grades? Should we be more leery of champions of coding who see it as a way of introducing “computational thinking” throughout the elementary years? 

 

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Among the Canadian provinces Nova Scotia was an “early adopter” of incorporating coding into its Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. Basic coding was introduced in September 2015 to all students from kindergarten to Grade 3 and Education Minister Karen Casey has been boasting that Nova Scotia is already “a national leader” in teaching computer coding to elementary school kids.  That’s a bit of political puffery because, in doing so, the province is actually following a few other educational jurisdictions, including Great Britain (2014-15) and the State of Arkansas, and only slightly ahead of British Columbia and Finland.

BeebotsNSKidsIn announcing $1-million more in 2016-17 funding for the Coding for Kids project, the Nova Scotia Department trotted out a pair of Grade 6 students to demonstrate how to program “beebots” — small, yellow-and-black robot toys shaped like bumble bees. A cleverly titled Canadian Press story on the photo op by Keith Doucette captured the moment with an ironic twist: “‘Beebots’ to teach coding in Nova Scotia classrooms.” A recent series of CBC Radio interviews featuring Ryerson Communications Technology professor Ramona Pringle merely confirmed the impression that coding was being promoted as another vehicle to advance “play learning” rather than introductory computer programming.

Teaching “coding” to young children is the latest exemplar of so-called “21st century learning” and it amounts to introducing basic “programming” in the early years, instead of waiting to offer “computer science” in the junior and senior high schools, as was the case from the 1960s to the early 1980s.  That early curriculum essentially withered and died with the arrival of mass word processing and the spread of computer applications courses.

While teaching coding is heavily promoted by the global high tech industry and local off-shoots like Code Kids.com and Brilliant Labs, the emerging coding curriculum philosophy and activities stem from other sources.  Leading advocates such as best-selling author Douglas Rushkoff, former UK coding champion Lottie Dexter, and  CBC Tech columnist Pringle see coding as a “new literacy” symbolically described as “the Three Rs plus C.”

In a summary of his 2011 book, Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff put it succinctly: “As we come to experience more and more of our world and one another through our digital interfaces, programming amounts to basic literacy…. Once people come to see the way their technologies are programmed, they start to recognize the programs at play everywhere else – from the economy and education to politics and government.”

Introducing coding has generated a robust and enlightening debate seemingly everywhere but in Canada. The Year of Code initiative launched in 2014 in the United Kingdom drew plenty of critical fire and actually claimed a victim, its chief promoter Lottie Dexter.  After flaming-out on the British TV show Newsnight, her rather giddy performance was became fodder for skeptics who saw the coding curriculum initiative as an “elaborate publicity stunt designed to falsely inflate the UK’s tech credentials.”

CodingforKidsCoverCritics of the British coding initiative focus on the wisdom of latching onto the “latest language” and introducing it to very young students.  “Coding is seen as the new Latin,” claimed Donald Clark, the former CEO of the firm Epic Group and a self-described technology in education evangelist.  ” (Coding) is a rather stupid obsession where politicians and PR people, none of whom can code, latch onto ‘reports’ by people who have no business sense or worse, a regressive agenda.” One British technology expert, Emannuel Straschnov, goes further, claiming that today’s  coding and programming languages will likely become obsolete in the future.

Coding skeptics are clear on one key point of criticism. The early adopter educational jurisdictions suck as the U.K., Nova Scotia and Arkansas, lack enough teachers with the coding experience and relevant computer science knowledge to effectively introduce the new programs of study, across the board,  from kindergarten to high school. A frontline teacher in Bristol, England, spoke for most when he decried the “lack of support” and distinct feeling that “it wasn’t clear what was going on” with the initiative until far too late in the implementation.

Software engineer Tristan Irwin of Sioux City, Iowa, sees a deeper problem stemming from the confusion over what we are actually teaching in the schools. On an April 2011 Quora discussion thread, he drew a sharp distinction between the “programmer” and the “coder,” noting that the former was a creator, while the latter was essentially “an assembly line worker.”  As Software Engineering has become more commodified, he added, there’s less demand for programmers and more demand for coders.  His analysis strongly suggested that teaching coding may only succeed in producing a whole generation of “code grinders” in the workplace.

Prominent Mathematics educators like Barry Garelick are sharply critical of the new coding curriculum and its associated pedagogy.  In August 2016, Garelick took direct aim at the Nova Scotia initiative. He’s particularly concerned about its dumbing-down of “coding” into “pictoral symbols for commands” and the total absence of explicit instruction in the recommended teaching strategies.  Most Math teachers fear that “coding” will further erode classroom time for Math and do little or nothing to prepare students for true computer programming, AP-level Computer Science, or a STEM career.

The Nova Scotia coding curriculum, outlined in the August 2015 NS Information and Communication P-6 Guidelines, are surprisingly skimpy, especially given the dollars now allocated for “innovation and exploration kits” and tech toys for every elementary school. For P to 3, for example, the ICT guideline identifies nine “essential learning outcomes,” only two of which relate to technology productivity and operations.  The clear priority is on teaching “digital citizenship” and “computer applications” rather than on basic coding.

Making coding mandatory from K to 9 is not proving to be the preferred implementation model.  In the case of British Columbia, coding will only be compulsory from Grades 6 to 9 and supported by $4-million in teacher training and equipment/resources funds.  It is integrated into a much broader #BCTECH Strategy and will not be rolled-out until September 2018.  In Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), coding is not a stand-alone initiative but rather an integral part of the system’s K-12 STEM Strategy designed to foster collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Why the rush to introduce coding in the early grades — and what will it supplant in the crowded curriculum?  Is the current version of coding just another example of teaching “discovery learning” with simplified coding and high tech toys? Where are the teachers coming from to deliver the more challenging Mathematics-based aspects of computer science?  How much sense does it make to introduce elementary level coding without a broader commitment to preparing students for careers in STEM or related technical fields?

 

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