Sunday, March 7, 2010

Trying out a problem-based lesson

I continue to play around with Etoys. As noted in an earlier post, I think Etoys works best as a construction kit for students. This, as opposed to a multimedia development environment for teachers or other lesson designers to assemble ready-made, teacher-directed activities for the students. The construction kit idea fits with the constructionist roots of the project. Veteran computer researcher and educator Alan Kay, one of the forces behind Etoys and Squeak (the Smalltalk implementation that Etoys is built on, and in many ways has superceded), described it like this:
The most important thing about powerful inexpensive personal computers is that they form a new kind of reading and writing medium that allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed and played with and learned ...

This is what our work and Squeak is all about. We are interested in helping children learn to think better and deeper than most adults can. We have made the Squeak medium to serve as a new kind of electronic paper that can hold new ways to represent powerful ideas. ("Background on how children learn", 2003?)
I have been wanting to try a genuine Etoys project on some students, to see how they do with it, how the constructionist idea plays out in practice. I suppose this sounds a bit mad-scientist-ish, but that's also a lot of what teaching is -- a never-ending tinkering.

I'm working with Shane Jonas at Kellman to develop a lesson plan that uses Etoys to design something, in this case a simple seascape with a few beasties that crawl or swim about. The exercise is inspired by a similar project on the Etoys Illinois site. The main purpose of the exercise is to develop problem-solving skills (design something and make it go), but in the course of creating the seascape, the students will hit a number of cross-curricular standards, including technology design, ecosystems (both science), transformations and the coordinate plane (math), drawing (art), and public speaking when they present their work. Shane and I are also going to experiment some more with having students at our two schools video conference about their projects.

I tried the exercise out on some prospective teachers at a class I am teaching at Dominican of "integrating technology into the curriculum" (!). We had been looking at different types of educational technology, organized by where the center of teaching/learning occurs. Drills and tutorials are at one end of the spectrum ("teacher centered", even if the authority is a computer program); webquests and scavenger hunts and the like in the middle ("directed inquiry", teacher-directed but the student plays an active role in directing the outcomes), and problem-based learning and constructionist tools on the other end ("student-centered"). The idea was that the candidates would both get a chance to work with Etoys, and also to experience from the students' point-of-view what a constructionist exercise might feel like.

An instruction sheet for the exercise is available.

A few things about the exercise stand out:

1. Etoys is a software development environment, so before a student (of any age) can feel success, he or she needs to at least get comfortable with the tools. Etoys comes with three very good tutorials that take the student through the basics of working with the program.

2. Still, even the simple seascape exercise allowed for some important wrong turns. In the exercise, students are supposed to create a background, save that, and then add new objects on top of the background. A few students missed the important step of saving the background before adding their octopi and fish. As a result, their sea beasts were not separate objects that could be programmed to move about on their own. When I do this with the young ones, I need to make sure that they get this step -- maybe even break the session into two parts to make sure the background is created as a background.

3. The tutorials did not go into enough detail about the Etoys programming model. Some additional direct instruction is needed up front I think to help students understand about scripts or code snippets, and looping and tests (if-then statements). And also how this is done using Etoys (tear offs and drag-and-drop tiles).

4. One of the challenges of constructivist teaching is providing the Goldilocks mean of teacher involvement -- just enough scaffolding to keep each student in his or her zone, not too much, not too little. With adults, and probably with children as well (we'll see), each person has their own tolerance for trying things out, failing, trying again, etc. before frustration sets in. Some need more encouragement than others. So the teacher is not giving just one lesson, but many. On the other hand, students were very helpful with each other as they figured things out. That's another hallmark of constructivism -- student peers are important teaching agents.

Being able to try out such a lessons is a great opportunity because complex lessons like this are not easy to organize and execute. The feedback is there, but it is so long between executions that it takes a long time to really make the lesson work well.

Hopefully I will get around to doing a report-back on trying it out with elementary school kids.



NMZumpano said...

Hi JD. Your description of Etoys as a "construction kit" is spot on. Having been exposed to it on various occasions by two teachers who demonstrate it well (thank you Jim and Shane)I've come to the same conclusion that it isn't a program I would want to use for multimedia projects by students, but yet it is great at exposing students to the beginning stages of programming.

When working with students (in this case your peers) using Etoys your sea world example was a good place to start. We were able to navigate the program and your instructions with ease. With "actual" students the reward is going to come with the ideas that are sparked from the students having time to play. Many times its within these more relaxed moments (as opposed to something being assessed) when the "I wonder" occurs. I also would be curious to see the ichat that takes place between Shane and your students. I bet that will be highly beneficial to gauging how the students felt.

I know the teachers in your class aren't classroom teachers yet, but I'm curious. Did they think this particular application would be something they would try out?

jd said...

As always, a very useful response. And very generous too. Re: the prospective teachers, I need to ask them if it is something they would want to try. My gut reaction is that it is somewhat ambitious for a first-year teacher, but maybe something to be done later in the year.