Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The zen of experimentation

I own a lot of books. In my heart, I am a frustrated librarian, so they are organized carefully on my bookshelves. No matter how careful I am when I move, it is impossible to pack them in a way that makes it possible to unpack them directly onto the shelves the way they came out. I moved 10 times in 12 years, so I tried a lot of things. It ends up that I'm desperate to get rid of the stacks of boxes so I just throw the books on the shelves and organize them later.

Over time, I began to appreciate the zen of disorganization. It's impossible to find any particular book, since it could be almost anywhere (and often behind something else). Thus, when desiring to read, one must have an open mind. One must stand and look at the shelves until something interesting appears, as it always does. It usually goes something like, "oh, I'd forgotten about this one" with that sigh of having found an old friend. (All my books are old friends. There is a special shelf for the potential new friends that I'm still getting to know.) (I sound like a freak.)

This morning, I talked to another middle school computer science teacher, specifically about how he teaches Scratch. Mostly he lets the students experiment and play, while he walks around supporting and guiding them gently. The assignments are very open-ended

This has pros and cons. Frequently, students will shy away from what Steve Cooper calls "algorithmically interesting" problems and solutions. They're more interested in the story they're building than in implementing loops, conditionals, functions, whatever. But they are very engaged, open to new ideas, and ready for "just in time" learning.

This is different from a more traditional approach, where there's a particular outcome, using particular skills, with one right answer. The students still might experiment some, but mostly it is experimentation to see if they can get the right answer, not experimentation in the form of wandering around and seeing where they get. (There's an analogy to science here.)

Letting them wander around, play, and be zen is so engaging compared to wanting them to find the One Right Answer. It makes them use lots of parts of their brains. It makes them think in different, creative ways.

The trick - and what the other teacher and I agreed to think about - is how to combine both. We need to think about structuring assignments so that they are open-ended and encourage creativity and experimentation while also improving the likelihood that students will use algorithmically interesting solutions.

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