Why not experiment when teaching ICT?

5/20/2013 12:00:00 AM

It’s amazing what you can achieve with a paintbrush and a fork. Yesterday morning I watched in helpless horror as the lid of something fell down the plug hole in the bathroom sink. I could see it, just about, using the flashlight app on my smartphone (I knew there was more to smartphones than just being connected), but couldn’t reach it.

Go on: experiment! Photo from James Vaughn http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/

Elaine went and brought up this device she bought in an emporium which specialises in products of the stuff-that-looks-pretty-useless-but-which-might-come-in-handy-one-day variety. When you press the end of it these prongs come out, so in theory you can use it to pick things up. It’s a bit like the gizmo that park attendants and street cleaners use. Unfortunately, it didn’t have grip.

However, after trying a variety of screwdrivers, pliers, even scissors, we finally managed to retrieve the offending item by using an artists’ paintbrush to lever it into a certain position and then a fork to twist it round so that we could actually grab hold of it.

All in all it was a good bit of problem-solving with which to start the day. I’d highly recommend it.

But the main point of all this persiflage is really to say that our preconceived ideas of what would work proved to be completely misguided. In the end, it was a couple of ‘wrong’ tools that did the trick. Well, that and some pretty good lateral and logical thinking on our part.

Moving deftly into the field of teaching ICT, we are in a pretty good position in England really -- actually, I’d say the whole of the UK, albeit for different reasons. The Computer Programme of Study, even if published in its present form, will be minimalist, which allows for adding content you think is fit. There is no government-sponsored agency telling us what an ideal lesson should look like, or how many minutes each part of the lessons should take. Even Ofsted doesn’t really mind what you do as long as the kids have learnt something by the end of the lesson. (OK, there is a bit more to it then that, but we are certainly in a much more laissez-faire position than we were, say, five years ago, in my opinion.)

So why not experiment? There is rarely, if ever, a single best way of teaching something, or even a single best order of teaching a set of topics.

How about this as an example? In the video below, the background scenery changes according to where you are. If you wanted to use this as an example of programming, there are a number of ways you could do so. You could show the video and then try to get the pupils to deconstruct it. Or you could get the pupils to plan out on paper what they think is going on. Or you could plunge straight in and ask them to try to recreate the sequence using animation in Scratch. You could even get them to simulate the whole thing in a spreadsheet like Excel.

You may well disagree with all of these approaches and have a preferred one of your own. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that:

  • you experiment with different approaches to keep the subject fresh, and yourself and your pupils refreshed
  • you try different things with different classes…
  • … and/or encourage your colleagues, if you work in a team, to try out different things
  • you elicit feedback from the pupils about what went well in their opinion
  • you evaluate the different approaches by the time-honoured method of testing the pupils on the topic
  • you keep notes on your experimentations

Is it morally OK to experiment like this? I mean, what if the kids learn nothing from a particular approach?

My view is as follows:

  • Unless someone can point to an objectively-verified best way of teaching a particular topic, which works in all situations and with all pupils, I think it’s incumbent on teachers to try out different methods.
  • If it becomes clear that the experiment resulted in no learning (a highly unlikely scenario, but possible I suppose), then recognise it and then make up for lost time. You’d know within a lesson or two whether or not it seemed to be working, so it’s not like you’d waste a half-term on it or something.
  • When I was teaching, and in the fortunate position of being Head of ICT, one of my aims was to try and make my bit of the school a learning community. It’s a good thing to aim for, and made much easier if the vision of the Headteacher is that the school itself be a learning community.

The corollary is that without experimenting you could find yourself in the unfortunate position of teaching the same thing in the same way using the same resources in ten years’ time as you are now. I can’t imagine, especially with a subject like ours, that that would be very useful.

cross-posted on www.ictineducation.org

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant with over 35 years of experience in education. He publishes the ICT in Education website and the newsletter “Computers in Classrooms."

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