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(Computationally) Rethinking the Curriculum

We at AALF have from our organizational start been guided by Professor Seymour Papert’s (considered by many as the ‘father of educational computing’) visions of learning in a technology rich world. Among these are that computers are not just for adult researchers but are the ‘children’s machine’ an idea that has been so thoroughly adopted, at least outside of schools, that it seems almost obvious (think of the popularity of the ‘digital native’ vs. ‘digital immigrant’ meme) Of course, Professor Papert didn’t predict it being the children’s machine for doing worksheets, but rather for learning in ways not possible before – providing learners with a rich environment that lets them explore and ‘mess around with’ ideas, and create, not just objects, but their understanding of the world. He often wrote and talked about ‘learning to learn’ that metacognitive ability to understand not just what we were studying, but how we approached learning, our strategies, abilities to debug our misconceptions, and new ways we devise to explore previously held beliefs. The use of programming environments, such as Logo, weren’t designed to create coders but to explore big ideas in mathematics by developing both mathematical and computational thinking, the latter an approach used to problem-solve while at the same time exploring the process of one’s own learning. Professor Papert believed the best way these explorations could happen was if students had sufficient access to computers – not once a week lab access, or access via a cart available when occasionally schedule, but by each child having his or her own personal, portable computer and anywhere, anytime learning.

Professor Papert began working with children and computers in the late 1960’s – yes, almost 50 years ago. Although the term ‘computational thinking’ hadn’t yet been coined, his approach clearly defined it. He shared his vision of a portable ‘children’s machine’ with Alan Kay, who, in 1972 sketched out the Dynabook, very similar looking to many of today’s tablets. Laptops brought the possibility of bringing the vision of each child having a computer of his or her own to reality. The first school to implement 1:1 did so in 1989-90. While there is clearly a growth in the number of 1:1 initiatives, most students still only have limited access to technology.

While we wait and debate over giving our students personal, portable, fully functional digital devices or even partially functional devices, the world is changing. Not only is information massively abundant and available in exponentially growing ways but it feels like no field is not being reinterpreted through the lenses created by big data and computational thinking. As schools somewhat cautiously begin to explore how technology connects to whatever discipline we teach, there is an explosion of examples to look to as inspiration.

I’m not just talking about disciplines that seem to have a natural connection to technology, like, biology (Biology is the New Software) or chemistry (Chemistry on computers? Nobel Prize goes to scientists who led the way ), but to almost all disciplines that define our future and understanding of the world.

For example, data analysis and computational methods are being used to predict insurgencies (Spreadsheets and Global Mayhem), to shape the thinking of journalists (Teaching Journalists to Think Computationally), to explore language and its development (Exhaustive Computer Research Shows Shift in English Language), and to get a new view of the Humanities (Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions).

And beyond traditional academic disciplines, the arts are being radically changed by computation and technology – whether it’s architecture (How Technology is Changing Architecture), visual arts (DevArt: Google's ambitious project to program a new generation of artists), music (‘Algorave’ Is the Future of Dance Music (If You’re a Nerd) ), and even fashion (New Skins: Computational Design for Fashion Workshop – The Premise and Process behind the Verlan 3D-Printed Dress). As the latter article states, “Computation is now a medium that permeates popular culture.”

So, if computation is becoming so key to some many disciplines and our very culture, what can schools do to not just prepare students in the future sense but to reflect this cultural reality? Some schools are beginning to rethink how they teach everything, for example, here’s how one school is linking not just technology but coding to all areas of the curriculum (Coding the Curriculum: How High Schools are Reprogramming Their Curriculum ). You may not be ready to code your curriculum in this way, but there’s a decided need to rethink what we’re teaching and why. Schools need to create learning environments that more accurately reflect our new digital culture as they prepare students for the world beyond school walls.
October 4th, 2016 @ 3:46PM