Those that can, do . . .
. . . those that can’t, teach!
I have been playing with and teaching technology (specifically computer technology) for the best part of 15 years. Like all hobbies and interests there are aspects of ICT that inspire and intrigue me and aspects that do not. Programming languages clearly fit in to my “not interested” box. This hasn’t been a problem in the past – I have usually been in charge of organising the curriculum details and, to some extent, my allotment – I just avoided situations where I might have to learn to use programming languages. Until now!
This semester I have a year 8 programming unit as part of my allotment. I am a foot soldier in the department so I have to follow the curriculum path laid out for me. The path is quite simple: term 1 = visual basic, term 2 = gamemaker. The Head of Department has been very supportive and provided me with a tutorial manual and lots of encouragement. However, I know almost nothing about visual basic and have little motivation, or time, to learn it myself. So I faced ten weeks of attempting to stay one step ahead of the students. I did attempt to get in to the computer lab early to have a go but other responsibilities took hold of my time. If you follow me on twitter you might have noticed I tried the old google search . . . surely somebody has written step by step lesson plans I can ‘borrow’? . . . no luck. Suddenly it was time to face my students. These kids pull no punches and if you show any sign of weakness they waste no words (or expletives) in telling you how they feel about you and/or the subject you are attempting to teach.
That incredibly scary moment happened two weeks ago and in this post I will share with you just how amazing it can be if you actually stop trying to know everything and just do what you know how to do . . . I know how to learn and I know how to teach!
Two weeks ago I stepped in to the computer lab on Thursday afternoon, gathered 20 year 8s around me and confessed that I knew nothing about the programming language we were about to play with. I told them honestly that I would not be teaching them visual basic but I would teach them how to teach themselves. I told them I was excited at the prospect that we would learn together and share this journey with each other . . . and then we began.
We have an online learning management system and I had loaded a link to some online tutorials. Students worked at their own pace through the tutorials. By the end of the session about half the class had completed the first two or three tutorials. I was quite impressed with the progress and told them so. During the week one of the students came to see me with a suggestion for some more tutorials and so more links have been added to our virtual classroom.
Last lesson I started the class by lining the students up on opposite sides of the room . . . one side for those who had done the first tutorials and one side for those who hadn’t. In an amazing coincidence I had 10 students on each side (I think you can see where this is going :D). It was a simple process of matching students up . . . ‘expert’ and novice were then set to work on the tutorials again. The results were absolutely awesome (to borrow the current teenage vernacular) and, again, I told them so.
What I saw in my classroom is exactly the theory I have been reading and hearing about as we prepare to teach in the 21st century education system. 20 students were totally “engaged” (I shudder as I type that word) for over an hour. All but one pair were actually working together and some had even expanded their learning group to four so they could “ask each other questions”. They were solving problems by themselves and making an amazing amount of pop-up windows do all sorts of things. Even the two students who weren’t working effectively as a pair were focussed on the tasks at hand – they just didn’t need each other for support. My ‘naughty’ boys didn’t have the time, inclination or audience for their usual distracting behaviours. I spent most of the lesson wandering around the room while the students showed off what they were doing . . . “come and look at this Miss, we made it change colour” . . . or trying to work out why things didn’t work by applying what little I do know of html and equations in excel to the code sequences in visual basic.
At the end of the session I asked them to reflect on the learning that had taken place . . . eventually I want them to blog this so they can share it with others but for now it is just a personal reflection. I told them that they were at least six weeks ahead of me . . . and I meant it, I still haven’t actually sat down and tried to do any of the tutorials myself.
In my planning for each week I now focus on the strategies for learning that I want them to experience rather than the content of the topic. After four lessons (we have one single and one double each week) they are already in the habit of adding to their reflection journal . . . I still provide the questions / prompts but they are beginning to make some real discoveries about how they learn. Last lesson I asked them to finish the statement “When I work with a partner …” The responses included “I work better because I can ask questions without feeling dumb”.
This class has gone from being one I admit to losing a little sleep over . . . to being one I eagerly look forward to!