PLAYBACK: Pedagogy, Coding and Teaching Kids to Think Deeply


Photo by J. Nathan Matias.

1.13.12 | Idaho teachers resist technology push; teens adapt the Xbox to help patients; & why learning to code may be harder than you think, all in this week’s Playback.

Teachers Resist High-Tech Push: We kick off our first Playback of 2012 by continuing our coverage of how teachers are responding to new state mandates for online learning. Before the holidays, we wrote about efforts to pass state legislation to expand virtual school programs and increase requirements for online courses—and how some online charter schools are putting profits ahead of quality.

Idaho has been a leader in pushing for online courses; a new law requires all high school students to take two online classes to graduate and mandates laptops or tablets for students and teachers. The New York Times reports on the tensions this is causing for teachers in Idaho and around the country:

Some teachers, even though they may embrace classroom technology, feel policy makers are thrusting computers into classrooms without their input or proper training. And some say they are opposed to shifting money to online classes and other teaching methods whose benefits remain unproved.

“Teachers don’t object to the use of technology,” said Sabrina Laine, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, which has studied the views of the nation’s teachers using grants from organizations like the Gates and Ford Foundations. “They object to being given a resource with strings attached, and without the needed support to use it effectively to improve student learning.”

Teacher and parent groups in the state have gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in November that could overturn the law. Seasoned educators like Ann Rosenbaum, who teaches at Post Falls High School, are skeptical that online courses can keep students engaged and get them to think critically.

“I’m teaching them to think deeply, to think.  A computer can’t do that,” Rosenbaum said.

Proponents say teachers are nervous about how technology may shift their role from a lecturer at the front of the class to more of a guide moving students through their own self-directed learning.

Tom Luna, superintendent of public instruction in Idaho, tells the Times the computer “becomes the textbook for every class, the research device, the advanced math calculator, the word processor and the portal to a world of information.”

A Golden Opportunity: In an accompanying series in the Times’ Room For Debate forum, educators, administrators and technologists address how classroom technology, social networks, interactive whiteboards, and mobile devices are and are not benefiting students.

While some point to high costs of technology and a troubling “loss of emphasis on teacher-centered lessons,” Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, writes that social media and blogging tools provide a “golden opportunity” for educators to teach digital responsibility, citizenship and critical thinking skills:

One must get past the stigma and truly experience what this free resource can do for our schools and students to appreciate its inherent value. Social media is all about conversations that center around user-created content. When structured in a pedagogically sound fashion, learning activities that incorporate social media allow students to apply what they have learned through creation. This fosters higher order thinking skills and caters to a wide range of learning styles. Social media tools allow educators to authentically engage students as they encourage involvement, discussion, communication, collaboration and creativity. These include utilizing mainstream tools such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, as well as specialized ones such as Voicethread, Glogster, Animoto and Prezi.

Using Xbox to Invent: If there are any parents left out there who think playing video games are a complete waste of time, I want to point them to this great interview on NPR I heard over the holiday break. 

All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel spoke with young inventors Cassee Cain and Ziyuan Liu, high school students from Oak Ridge, Tenn., who recently won the team portion of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology for their modification of Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect. Their project helps to monitor the movement of people with prosthetic limbs or illnesses that affect movement.

Cain and Liu hope their invention can be used by clinicians to fit prosthetics, improve diagnoses, and help with therapy and rehabilitation. Combining their interests in medicine and computer science, they worked full-time at Oakridge National Lab over the summer to learn programming languages and to better understand work that had already been done in the field of gait analysis.

Siegel points out that the students have found a way of applying technology - a motion sensor for videogames with a camera – that is actually a common, but powerful, piece of household technology. For their project, the two teens combined the Kinect with a robotic leg to analyze leg motions while walking.

“This is a device that you can go buy at Walmart,” Cain said, “and take out of the box and use, so it really adds to the portability and accessibility of this device and also the affordability.”

It’s Harder Than You Think: Finally, earlier this week I covered a new startup called Codecademy that has been signing up thousands of people for its Code Year, a free class designed to teach those of us new to computer science how to code via programming lessons sent each week to our inboxes. Its numbers have jumped to over 300,00, and the initiative has gotten tons of attention online.

Yet a few wise souls took a more measured look at the explosion in interest in learning to code, questioning how much all of these people are actually learning from online programs like Codecademy, and debating how it might make the most sense to teach them.

Over at Hack Education, Audrey Watters has this great take (from back in October, but I’m behind) on her own efforts to learn how to code.  As she puts it bluntly, “it’s actually damn hard to learn to code if you have no background in engineering or math. And frankly, Codecademy has been no help.”

Developers can be a hard group to communicate with, and I sometimes find myself thinking: “I wish I could just do this myself. How hard can this be?” This is a good reminder that we need to define what we mean by learning to code, and, most importantly, we need to pay attention to pedagogy.

Julie Meloni, an author of many how-to tech books and the former lead technologist of the online library environment at the University of Virginia, takes up where Watters leaves off and points out that we need more attention to how we teach and how learners learn these new languages. Despite the importance of information and coding literacy, it’s not that easy to make everyone into a coder. Nor should it be.

“Yes, the interface is shiny and the badges are neat, but no, it is not teaching you how to code,” she writes. “It is teaching you how to call-and-response, and is not particularly helpful in explaining why you’re responding, why they’re calling, or—most importantly—how to become a composer.”

Watters says the crucial question is: “’how many of those 500,000 Codecademy users actually learned any JavaScript?’, the answer is actually really important.”



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