Computing and Pedagogy

May 07, 2011

Miles Berry

The full version of a piece published in the summer edition of the Computing at School newsletter SwitchedOn:

Jack Lang’s piece on Seymour Papert and constructionism in last term’s Switched On reminded us that the activity of learning through the construction of shared knowledge artefacts is so readily experienced by students as they learn to program. It seems both a surprise and a disappointment that Papert’s insights haven’t yet received wider recognition beyond the world of mathematics and computing: art, music and drama are but three disciplines in which the construction of public artefacts that embody or enact some aspect of their creator’s understanding of both the subject’s traditions and their world seems central to learning, but the same is surely true of the essay, presentation or project.

Computing gives its students some direct experience of other powerful approaches to learning.

As Jack highlighted last term, Papert’s constructionism owes much to the constructivism of Piaget and others, which sees learners’ understanding of the world as something that they make for themselves through experience. For me, this is why computing must lie at the heart of IT education: each learner comes to the computer with their own mental model of how a hardware, software and networks operate, based on their experience thus far: for much of the time, their new experiences of technology is readily assimilated into that model, but every once in a while (or perhaps more frequently…), the computer doesn’t behave as they expect and their mental schema shifts as the new experience must be accommodated in a larger or more accurate schema. The study of computing, focusing on the understanding rather than mere use of technology, greatly facilitates this process. Furthermore, the more accurate schema that result from such accommodation make for more effective users of technology too. I think the construction of computer models helps here too, as we make explicit our understanding of at least some part of the world, comparing or contrasting the virtual and the real: as Douglas Adams remarked in the introduction to the 1999 edition of the ICT National Curriculum:

“With scientific method, we took things apart to see how they work. Now with computers we can put things back together to see how they work, by modeling complex, interrelated processes, even life itself. This is a new age of discovery, and ICT is the gateway.”

StarLogo’s agent based modelling [see p X] is a powerful tool for this in a surprisingly diverse range of situations.

The construction of meaning needn’t only be the work of the lone scientist though. Vygotsky’s social constructivism sees learning as a social process in which language plays a pivotal role, with learning taking place in the space between what learners can do on their own and what they can accomplish when working alongside a more knowledgeable other, inside their ‘zone of proximal development’. Whilst it’s easy for educators to cast themselves in the part of the more knowledgeable other, it’s perfectly valid for a classmate to take on this role. This primary IT suite lends itself to this approach, where typically there are half as many computers as pupils. Shared access to computers is undoubtedly a significant factor in Sugata Mitra’s successes with ‘hole in the wall’ learning with and about IT in India and Self Organised Learning Environments in Gateshead. The ‘pair programming’ approach to agile development provides a practical methodology for exploring at least some aspects of social constructivism in practice. Williams and Kessler’s 2000 article, “All I really need to know about pair programming I learned in Kindergarten” explored the overlap between agile development and early years practice from the programmers’ perspective, but I’m sure there are insights from the craft of software development that could be readily exploited in primary and secondary schools beyond computing itself.

The craft of programming also provides insights into the community of practice ideas of Etienne Wenger, particularly, I think, through the legitimate peripheral participation and informal apprenticeships served in open source and game development communities, rather than as lone students applying a waterfall methodology. The opportunities to build on, extend and add rigour to our students’ informal learning beyond school, whilst not unique to computing, are a key factor in successful and stimulating teaching.

As well as these pedagogic approaches which students are likely to meet in computing, the contents of the computing curriculum also offer much that helps learners to make sense of learning throughout and beyond school: artificial intelligence and machine learning give pupils a chance to think about thinking and to learn about learning, and systems thinking and the blend of creativity, logic and attention to detail that good programming requires have wide application that stretch far beyond the subject itself.