Saturday, May 6, 2017

Coding To Illuminate the Curriculum

Imagine a corporate PD event, seven hours long, where less than 20 minutes is spent using the company’s product, Swift Playgrounds.
Imagine exploring the impact of coding on learning, without actually coding.
Imagine finally understanding the role of computational thinking across the curriculum.
That’s the investment in coding in elementary and secondary schools that Apple made this past week. The Swift Playgrounds Early Adopter Summit was held Wednesday, May 3 at MaRS in Toronto.
For several years, I had been working hard to integrate coding activities into my science, geography and media classes, and then more recently to support other teachers with the same goals. We have used Scratch and other block coding, and also had huge amounts of fun with robots ranging from BeeBots, to Dash and Dot and Sphero, to the power of Lego EV3s. This fall I welcomed the addition of Swift Playgrounds to the coding landscape, as it is in my opinion by far the best computer science learning course around.
This fall also marked the online publication of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Coding in Elementary resource. This corresponds with my original approach, providing dozens of Scratch (online) and unplugged coding projects across numerous different areas of the curriculum.
I felt that I and others were really making headway in answering the question: with no coding curriculum (a la Britain, BC, Nova Scotia), how do Ontario teachers bring this essential new skill into their classes? I strongly believe that there is now a wealth of resources, guidance and professional community support for anyone to do this.
However, this week’s Apple event extended my thinking in ways I would not have imagined. In conjunction with Future Design School, we spent the day learning about process design, design thinking, and approaching our chosen aspects of the Ontario curriculum to incorporate computational thinking.
We also took advantage of Apple’s Learn to Code 1 & 2 Teacher Guide (available as a free iBook). The Guide is organized to follow the Swift Playgrounds course, moving through Commands, Debugging, Functions, Loops, Conditional Code and more. Each section of the Teacher Guide includes: Introduction, Activities, Practice in Swift Playgrounds, Reflection and Journal. The Activities are mostly unplugged, so that children can physically experience or act out the coding concepts.
It is easy to see how this is a great method of teaching coding. Apple sees this goal as a “social imperative, part of good citizenship. Code is all around us. We must empower all kids to understand how things work… Become more resilient, a better problem solver.”
But even more valuable for me was the exploration of links between coding, design thinking and all areas of the curriculum. As our Ontario documents are being re-written, they include more expectations that involve meta-cognition, choice, analysis and deeper thinking. Speaking personally, I find this quite challenging to teach. But I found the combination of coding, design thinking, and the Teacher Guide fulfilled what FDS speakers referred to as, “computational thinking coupled with human imagination.” It allowed me to envision ways to fully immerse myself and my students in the curriculum.
When it came time for us to consolidate our own learning and start building a unit, many in the room chose math and science topics. However, I was already exploring several pathways within Grade 8 Reading and Writing. I was also inspired by one FDS teacher who showcased a grade 5 social studies unit.
I landed upon Grade 8 Writing overall expectation 1, “generate, gather, and organize ideas and information to write for an intended purpose and audience.
I then selected some specific expectations:
1.1 identify the topic, purpose, and audience for more complex writing
1.2 generate ideas about more challenging topics and identify those most appropriate
to the purpose
1.3 gather information to support ideas for writing, using a variety of strategies and a wide range of print and electronic
As a teacher, I felt I always short-changed the very first step: identify the topic, purpose and audience. As well, I don’t think I let my students spend enough time investigating needs of audiences and characteristics of writing forms. I don’t think we ever spent much time talking about why some forms might be more suited to certain audiences.
I think that beginning with an Activity from the Teacher Guide (De-bugging, Functions, etc.), followed by hand-on practice in Swift Playgrounds would be a concrete and analogous way to lead into these discussions about audiences for writing, and writing forms.
By Grade 8, many students have become a bit jaded about their capabilities. There has been much discussion about concepts such as growth mindset and resiliency in math, and the same needs exist in our English courses. I think using Swift Playgrounds would be a great way to launch students along a pathway to success in any course, and to do justice to the richness inherent in the curriculum.

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