Middle School Computer Science — whaat?

I’d like to say that this post will be the first in a series of posts. But I’m hesitating because I know how my relationship with this blog works. Kinda like a long-term friend that you know you should be contacting but somehow you don’t. And then you feel guilty.

So I’ll just start. I teach middle school computer science. That means grades 5-8 in my school. And I’m lucky that it’s a required course. I have every student in the middle school for a full quarter (about 9-10 weeks). 5th and 6th graders have me 3 times a week, 7th and 8th, 5 times. I’ve been at this for about 15 years and I’m busily building out my curriculum. As you know if you’re in this world, nothing ever remains the same. There’s always a new programming language, a new robot, a new board, a new computing platform… My job is to survey the landscape, see what’s new and cool, and decide what fits in my program.

I have a few guidelines that I use to decide what I incorporate. First and foremost, will kids love it? By that I mean, will they come running into the room, eager to fire up their computer or robot, and get started? If it doesn’t pass that test, it doesn’t make it into the program, sorry. So that means it’s got to have a fairly easy on ramp, and enough ceiling to keep even the advanced kids hopped up and moving ahead.

Secondly, will it work for what I call “stealth learning”? Will the projects and challenges that I use to frame their learning keep them engaged, challenge them, and advance their skills and knowledge in computer science? That’s the stealth part. I very rarely start a class with me talking about a concept (what the rest of the educational world calls “teaching”). I would much rather give them a challenge — as in, “Can you make this robot navigate around the room continually without bumping into anything?” I know this might go against the way that a lot of people frame learning, and I’m OK with that. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do this; it’s just the way that I prefer to do it. And I’m not opposed to “traditional teaching” if it’s obvious that it’s necessary for a student or a class. More on that later.

So for programming concepts, you can probably spot what the challenge up above requires. Events and loops, for starters. If/then… if the robot senses an obstacle, then do something to avoid it. And keep doing that, over and over again….

But how do they figure that out, you ask? You haven’t even introduced them to the programming environment! I’ve found that most middle schoolers only want enough “instruction” to get started and help them achieve their goal. So I give them as little as possible, and only when they’re wanting to learn it. It’s called just-in-time learning. Not a new concept, and I didn’t invent it. But I know it works.

Thirdly, will the tech support a big project? I believe in deep dives into the technology, and big projects that go for several weeks. I break them down into bite-size challenges, some hard and some easy-peasy. Finish all the required ones and you get an A- or 90. If your goal is to “level up” to an A+, you’ll have to complete an extra challenge of what I fondly call “extra awesomeness”. You’ll have to take the basics of what you’ve learned throughout this project and apply them and extend them in a new and creative way. And that’s your choice as a student. If you’re happy with that 90, that’s up to you. I will say that the great majority of my students opt to “level up”. But again, that’s up to them.

And lastly, where does this technology fit in providing an entry point into CS? There are so many avenues in — robotics, programming, game creation, physical computing, art and music… I try to make sure that each grade has a variety of entry points. What jazzes one kid won’t work for another, but I want to provide enough variety that every student will come out and say something was super fun for them!

And while we’re on that subject, let’s talk about the F-word.

Fun.

I know it’s a dirty word in some educational circles. If the kids are having fun, they obviously aren’t learning, because learning is supposed to be hard. My hero, Seymour Papert, coined a term that I live by: “hard fun”. I promise this to every class I have on Day One. I guarantee you that what you do will be fun… and it will be hard. And you may not know what I mean today, but in a few weeks, you will! The fun part is getting stuff to work, whether that’s a game mechanic or a robot challenge. But yes, it can be hard to get there. Fortunately, because it’s fun, you’ll stay engaged, on task, and working hard to get it going the way you want. And nothing is better than that feeling you get when it finally works!

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One thought on “Middle School Computer Science — whaat?

  1. Can you expand on the how you ‘survey the landscape’? How do filter all of the options available that might be useful? Is there a dollars-to-learning sweat spot?

    Could you provide a few ‘real world’ examples / lesson plans / guideposts that reflect the topics above? Some “for example, when we first start exploring Scratch …”

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