Tech education is not new in K-12. A decade ago, Singapore offered a two-year GCE ‘A’ Level Computing module in selected high schools. Enthusiastically, I enrolled for it at eleventh grade. Three months later, I dropped out. The cool things I thought I could create was supplanted with writing pseudo-code for homework and learning disjointed computational algorithms dictated by the syllabus.
Learning concepts like sorting and recursion is cool but that is no different from learning atomic structure and relativity — appreciation of theory without application to real-world problems. Why teach tech the same way as other subjects when it has the potential be something bigger?
Technology is disrupting traditional industries at an unprecedented speed: tourism, banking, transportation…the list goes on. Governments around the world are hopping onto the tech-wagon to grow their tech talent pool; rolling out tech courses, such as coding, robotics and 3D printing, into K-12 education. This trend is exciting yet worrying.
This worldwide movement in tech education led to an explosion of learning resources for tech and there are even tools for preschoolers to learn about robotics and coding. The question is: what are students really learning?
Many schools simply teach students using tutorials that are available online. Lessons will be something like this:
Step 1: Create new file
Step 2: Create a new variable “Bob”
Step 3: Assign “Hello, World” to “Bob”
At the end of the day they might have something cool. The same game, the same circuit, the same website. Everyone will end up with the SAME THING.
Schools teach tech just like the way they teach math and science. Similar to my experience a decade ago, the syllabus governs what students have to learn at each grade and the easiest way to teach them is through tutorials that cover those concepts. This is exacerbated by games and platforms that structure these concepts into mini challenges. Students progress through the stages and are “certified” that they have learnt a concept once they clear the mini challenges. But do they really learn how to program? Or are they being programmed by the computers?
We need to teach tech like how we teach arts. Let students have the freedom to deep dive into projects and express their creativity. Let them have more control over what they learn. Let them program computers instead of being programmed. Sounds like every teacher’s worst nightmare? Yes, it might sound like it but it’s necessary and it’ll be rewarding.
How can we structure tech lessons in a way that students can gain deep technical expertise and are intrinsically motivated to apply them in their everyday lives?
Low floors: Students do not need to go through hours of instructional learning. The platform must be easy for them to get started, explore and hack things by themselves.
High ceilings: Tech has the potential to empower children. There must be enough depth in terms of functionalities for students to create impressive solutions that even adults would want to use.
Wide walls: It must be versatile enough to integrate with anything that kids find meaningful in order to get them excited about applying what they learn to a wide variety of contexts.
Some platforms that we recommend are Scratch, MIT App Inventor, Lego EV3. What is common among these ed-tech tools is that they allow for endless, unique creations that kids can proudly claim to be their own. Next the question is, what do they create?
Having just the tool is not enough. The problem with teaching technology is that it progresses at a blistering speed. The tool you teach now might be irrelevant in a couple of years. Hence, there is no point structuring a lesson around mastering the various features in a tool. What’s more important is using it to transform students’ mindsets and attitudes towards innovation.
Let me share a more concrete example. Our company, Codomo, ran a Design Innovation course using MIT App Inventor. The course was structured such that only 30% of the time was spent on teaching how to use App Inventor to create mobile apps. The other 70% of the time was dedicated to a design challenge.
Redesign Your Waking Up Experience
This was the design challenge — relatable and immediately applicable. Through the activities, students learnt and applied various design techniques: empathizing with their friends’ dreadful stories of waking up in the morning, ideating fun ways to wake people up and testing their app prototypes every morning. The results were amazing.
A student simulating the waking up scenario on an air bed. (Yes, you have permission to sleep in class!)
Everyday, students came to class and started sharing how their features worked and what they wished to improve upon. Instead of having us tell them what they would learn each day, they were the ones who led the flow of the class and proposed concepts that they wanted to learn to make their apps cooler.
In fact, the students were so motivated that they continued working on their apps even after the course was over. A couple of our students thought that it was too easy to hit the snooze button so they developed a barcode alarm clock where you have to scan the barcode of something, e.g. your toothpaste, to snooze the alarm. Genius? MIT App Inventor awarded them the “Most Innovative App” in January 2016.
Isn’t that awesome? I would want to be in a class like this.
A class where students benefit beyond just learning the technology. A class where teachers will guide students in developing their projects instead of rushing through the syllabus. A class where you break the boundary between education and real-world challenges.
This is the future. The new wave of tech education is still in its infancy. We have the opportunity to make it right before it follows in the footsteps of traditional subjects in education. Let us strive for autonomy in tech education and innovation in learning tech.