Like teachers all over the globe back in March 2020, I had to shift to emergency remote learning in a week. Unlike most teachers, my middle school computer science curriculum wasn’t based on a textbook with units, chapters, lessons, exercises, etc. So while many of my colleagues had to basically replicate their classroom workflow in an online format, I had to redo my entire curriculum. Why?
My curriculum is entirely project-based and hands-on. I do not assign homework, as all the learning is done in the actual classroom, working on big projects using the tools I provide. The hands-on tools included all of my Windows 10 machines, Raspberry Pi’s at each workstation, robots, microBits, headphones, and an array of electronic bits and bobs (breadboards, cables, sensors, LED’s). Poof, all gone! All the students were now working from home. And even when they returned to the classroom, the thought of multiple classes sharing keyboards, mice, etc., was not one we could entertain. So all of my computers and peripherals were packed away. And I’m generally not a fan of iPads for computer science work, I believe you need a “grown up computer” for that.
Yikes! And you may remember that we had about a week to prepare for this seismic learning shift. Fortunately, at my school, all the middle school students had their own iPads. So they would not be sharing devices and possibly infection. But with social distancing, they would not be able to move around the room freely, testing out robots or trying another person’s game.
The first thing this forced me to do was to ask myself, “What is really important in this class?” That’s a tough call. Ask any teacher to cut their curriculum by 25% or more and wait for the shrieks of horror. We are invested in what we teach. All of it! On a macro scale, you can make the case that curriculum in the US is beyond bloated. Gary Stager always says the best way to improve learning is to cut 50% out of the curriculum, and I agree. On the micro scale, I had to “murder the little darlings” — be willing to get rid of all of my pet projects and true loves in computer science. So here’s what I did.
I listed everything I taught in grades 5-8 on my whiteboard. Then I looked for commonalities — what themes did I repeat through the 4 years? I discovered that I could group all of the technologies or platforms into four main categories: game design coding, robotics, physical computing, and creative computing. For instance, in game design coding, I used Kodu in 5th grade, Scratch in 7th grade, Roblox in 8th grade. I used GiggleBots in 5th grade and LEGO NXT robots in 7th grade. I used Sonic Pi in 8th grade. I used MicroBits in 5th grade, and Pi’s in other grades.
Once I found those categories, then I had to find platforms that supported learning in those categories that were available for the iPad. So web-based programs and platforms were definitely possibilities. And then there were apps on the App Store that might work. Of course, it wasn’t that simple, as some web-based apps just didn’t play well with iPads for a number of reasons — students couldn’t save their work, for instance, or screen resolution made viewing and working difficult.
I found enough platforms to fill out the curriculum for all 4 grades. My secret weapon turned out to be Minecraft. It is so flexible that students can do projects to demonstrate learning in many modes — they can build, code, create art, and do engineering (hello redstone!). And for many reasons, Minecraft is a happy place for almost everybody. It’s totally engaging, playful, fun, challenging, and offers almost limitless creative scope. And I thought, in the midst of a scary global pandemic, we all needed as much happiness in our schooling as possible! And if I could combine that with my curricular goals, well, that’s a win!
So in the space of a week, I was able to find engaging platforms and technologies that would provide the requisite “hard fun” that is the bedrock of my computer science curriculum. And we all started zooming! I could assign big projects, use breakout rooms for group collabs and individual help, link to my YouTube videos for extra help…. It worked! It helped that I generally have a pretty light touch on the reins of my curriculum. If something isn’t working, I’ll dump it. So changing midstream was not as stressful for me as it might be for others.
I had happy groups doing big projects that they were invested in, and I honestly feel that my learners hardly missed a beat. When we all finally got back together in my physical classroom with all of my hardware, it was as if we had never left. The learning just rolled on.
I learned so much about what concepts and skills were important. I also learned to zero in on big ideas and figure out how to incorporate new ways to have my students learn. I learned that student voice and choice with engaging platforms amplifies learning, whether you’re in a physical class or a digital one. And it reinforced my belief that we learn best by doing, and that project-based learning (PBL), done right, is super powerful.
Can this approach work with other subjects? Absolutely. It takes some courage to try something different, some training in the basics of project-based learning, and a willingness to live out there on the “bleeding edge”. But absolutely it can work!
On a final note, the whole educational world had a golden opportunity to do the kind of self-reflection and re-imagining of our approaches that I was forced to do. Someone once said, “Never waste a crisis.” We had the unique opportunity to rethink and revamp education. Sadly, I think in our haste to “get back to normal”, we limped along, trying to combine our traditional ways of teaching with this new environment. We may have wasted that crisis, but it’s never too late to rethink, reimagine, and redo learning. Let’s do that, starting today!