One of the big grade level initiatives this year at International School Aberdeen (ISA) has been our mandatory Grade 6 Computer Science offering. It is the first year of a 3 year Middle School CS course where the goal is that each academic year the entire grade level gets to experience a more advanced level of solving problems using computational models and coding platforms. Given the wide range of reasons, be it in uplifting ignored communities in society or to address the huge gender gap and other equity issues in the industry, we firmly believe that giving every child an opportunity to develop a strong computational mindset is a critical skill for the future.
To keep the offering light and hands on, we decided to go with BBC’s MicroBit as a way for the kids to experience both hardware and software based problem solving at the same time. Given that MicroBit was Python enabled, it gave more room to guide these first time text coders (most of them had some block coding background with Scratch in Elementary School). Plus, MicroBit’s ability to interact with external components (such as headsets, speakers, LEDs, servo motors, bread boards etc) had potential for cross curricular integration. It is still a work in progress but a more cohesive plan is coming into shape for upcoming years.
Now, as we know, one of the biggest challenges in any school is scheduling. While being able to see the year group once a week definitely lent itself to some sense of consistency, it did mean that if I missed out on seeing them in person on even a single Friday somewhere – and this happened quite a lot this academic year due to the pandemic and other local factors, unfortunately – then gaps in their learning would gradually increase. This then would have a direct impact on motivation levels and quality of work produced. When we returned from our Xmas break we went straight into lock down. So the first thing I did was create an online space where each weekly activity would be posted. Students were expected to watch my custom recordings, follow the step by step instructions, and attempt the activity independently. Ever since we have been back for in-person classes in mid March, I have kept this model of instruction the same. What started off as the only option for teaching in virtual school has now become a version of flipped instruction. Given below is a snapshot of how this is currently setup.
Since I am working with a large group of students during that weekly 80 minute slot it was a constant battle in the first semester to ensure I am giving each of them individual attention. Some weeks were better than others but the personal one-to-one connect a teacher needs to engage with each student’s individual needs was not working. This model, however, has taken care of that. Not only am I able to keep a better eye on their learning process, I am also getting some useful feedback from the students on what works best for their learning needs. Hence, on Fridays I am able to put them into custom pairs/teams and go around helping everyone. Some kids choose to use that lesson to record video demos, others choose to catch up on pending work, while those who did complete their work on time are stepping up to help their friends! This collaborative nature of the class is slowly but surely addressing some of the communication issues from last semester.
Things that have made a positive impact
Like any subject having a realistic context for the work being done is most important for Computing too. So instead of having them think up artificial, almost trivial, problems, I have been getting them to focus on real world systems that they are bound to see around them. Students use speech and music models in Python to get their devices to both play musical notes and to announce messages. These have included things like:
- Pedestrian controlled signal crossing.
- LED displays announcing stop information inside public transport.
- Plant health monitoring systems in a green house.
- Token generation systems for any service based organization (banks, offices etc)
Setting up the activities in a relatable context like this is helping our conversations during in-class time so that focus remains equally on the bigger picture as it does on the smaller details like writing the code that solves this problem/replicates this system.
To ensure that the entire year group and me are the same page, literally, I put together a central Google site that has two important features. One, it lists each activity along with links to all the relevant lesson notes/slides/video demos etc. Two, it has a link to each student’s video submission.
Grade 6 Computing Website
Letting students view each other’s work on a common space like this has definitely made a difference in the way they are processing the challenges. Students are increasingly becoming more comfortable and confident in finding their voice in identity by examining elements in a peer’s work.
Chronic issues and road ahead
Of course, this is still very much a work in progress. Each week I am making minor tweaks to not just the nature of the activities but also to the kind of issues we are addressing both in online videos and during class time. Flipped instruction is successful when there is increase in student engagement and quality of work produced. While this is definitely growing each week there are still some students who show up with varying levels of preparation – this includes forgetting their devices at home, not having saved their code, components not working etc. I continue to send out weekly reminders and soon I will also be engaging the parents into the conversation with a special video presentation that is aimed only at Grade 6. I also have four student volunteers (it has been amazing to see girls in the class produce some good quality work and take on lead roles with this model) who are set to feature in the video talking about some of their coding experiences this year with this class and their understanding of Computer Science in general.
I also want to engage other subject areas with the work we are doing in this class. This involves careful planning of resources (hardware, equipment, additional purchases etc) and content (combined unit that brings together two subject areas like Science+CS, Math+CS, Language Arts+CS, PE+CS etc). I hope to work with at least one other subject teacher on this next academic year keeping in mind the fluid nature of the pandemic right now.
So, in summary, here are the big takeaways I have experienced with this model thus far:
- Flipped instruction can be a good way to give student’s more ownership of their learning. Allowing them the freedom and space to think critically through learning objectives can make them produce the right questions.
- As with any learning model, this is not without challenges. But this also means it comes with opportunities to engage with the student individually and address related issues.
- Students like being able to see their peer’s work. I am having each student use Screencastify to record their demo of the source code and the working model of the MicroBit.
- Physical computing comes with lot of hardware related issues. If student is not proactive about them then inevitable delays and missed work is a consequence. This can be a teachable moment, though.
- And finally, most importantly in fact, the social element of Computer Science needs to be highlighted constantly so that the misconceptions surrounding it (such as it being only for the gifted few or parents feeling them not being good with technology means they cannot contribute to these conversations) can be dispelled. Engaging with parents a definite element.