There is a lot of debate at the moment about the introduction of coding or computer science (a distinction that is often not made) into schools. Following Eric Schmidt’s initial call for a focus on computing a lot of people seem to be getting excited by the prospect of ‘coding for kids’, yet such a vision is in some ways challenged by the fact that the vast majority of teachers have no background in, or knowledge of any kind of programming.
Last year I saw Ian Livingstone talk about his ‘Next Gen’ report for NESTA about the industry need for our education system to produce more young people capable of coding. I’m not sure he made this point himself, but as he shared examples of hugely successful programmers from the distance and more recent history of computing the backchannel was awash with people expressing the same sentiment;
“If these people became this good from teaching themselves, just imagine what they could do if it was taught in schools.”
A romantic notion of schools supporting a rise of the UK to computing greatness is nice, but I think this sentiment almost entirely misses the point. Perhaps, it is not that these people learnt great skills despite the system, but in fact that they become so good precisely because they were self taught. To assert that they could have achieved even more highly if they had received instruction implies a model of their learning as an empty bucket to be filled; if only they had started filling it earlier and more efficiently it would contain even more by now…
In reality I can’t help but think becoming a successful self taught programmer is more about developing dispositions than accruing knowledge. Self teaching something of complexity requires not just learning the subject itself, but developing effective strategies for learning and the mindset that complex skill sets can be learnt if one puts ones mind to it. Everyone I know who works in some kind of technical field involving computers or software spends a significant amount of their time on Google. Their mindset is not that they need to know everything about a task to take on a job, but that they simply need enough understanding to conceive the problem, and then the skills to learn how to fix it.
It also requires a lot of ‘faffing’, especially in the early days.
Malcolm Gladwell famously discussed the research showing mastery of many disciplines requires 10,000 hours practice; this is not an amount of time that can currently be spent on one subject in school. At Mozilla’s ‘Learning Jam’ last week, Doug Belshaw and I were discussing the lack of specialist programming skills amongst teachers. He expressed a core part of the challenge really clearly; teachers can learn alongside the pupils, but they don’t have enough time to ‘faff’. With all the other demands of their jobs, setting aside swathes of time to experiment and play enough to begin develop these skills is very difficult for teachers, let alone finding 10,000 hours.
It struck me that whilst teachers may not have time to ‘faff’, children and young people do.
Unfortunately lots of the learning provided in school is often provided in such a way that pupils are made to be dependent in order to access the resources they need to learn. As a Primary teacher I found the best lessons were the ones where the end of the lesson was greeted with the children asking if they could carry on into their breaktimes. All to often this was as far as they could go, for as teachers we design things so that they happen within the confines of the school with particular resources and timings for intense periods of learning to happen.
What if we designed for ‘faffing’?
Perhaps if we were to recognise the time and inclination that many young learners have to explore learning in depth we could actually harness this, and lead to teachers facilitating but not over controlling the kind of self teaching in Livingstone’s examples. This is not something that would be tightly controlled, you can’t compel someone to take an interest in something, but deliberately designing learning in such a way that it could be easily taken on and taken further by individual learners would make it much more likely to happen.
In theory this sounds great, but how can we approach designing such experiences? As a start I would suggest making or choosing resources which are accessible outside of school. Children in my class often used to ask me if I could remind them of websites we had used weeks or months previously, the links for which I had shared on the whiteboard for them to follow in lesson and then rubbed off. In response I created a class website using Google’s free ‘Sites‘ tool and collated all the online resources we used for lessons there, not as extra work afterwards, but as a matter of course for my planning. When children’s interests were piqued they could easily return to the lesson as much of the content was online, and many took charge of their learning and developed it further. To return to the example of coding, many resources such as Mozilla’s ‘Thimble‘ and ‘Code Academy‘ are springing up which require nothing more than an internet browser for young people to get ‘faffing’ with code.
Technology makes this sharing of resources straightforward, but I think designing for faffing is more than that. It can be about using tools and resources that are open and accessible, but it’s also about recognising that sometimes the process of developing dispositions towards self directed learning is as important, or more important than the actual content of that learning. I think such an approach requires thinking beyond setting narrow objectives for lessons, and approaching lesson design by thinking through the ‘possible lines of development‘; even if there is no possibility of those lines actually being followed during the lesson in question. It’s also about discussing those possible developments explicitly with learners, and helping them to see where the possibilities lead, if they want to dedicate the time they have to ‘faff’ in that area.
Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Robert Kiss