Sunday, 15 May 2011

Flow 2

helpingcrop Another delightful lesson where the entire class was so absorbed in its work I was able to spend most of it talking with individuals, watching, listening, helping and generally enjoying myself – for two hours… Why does this happen? How can we make it happen more often?  This was a two-hour double lesson with a Year 7 Design Technology class. We were using the wonderful Scratch from MIT which students love, so we started ahead. I suspect it is no co-incidence that Henry Jenkins et al were also working at MIT as they were publishing their seminal work on Participatory Culture in 2007 – the year when Scratch was first made available.
For those not in the know, Scratch is an open source programming language which allows users to create animations, interactive activities and games by “snapping together visual programming blocks to control images, music and sound”. It has been designed to encourage experimentation and sharing.
Last year this group had made a relatively simple animation. This year I wished them to explore the potential of the website further. Much of last week was spent using the site to select a suitable i.e. relatively simple, game to use in this project. Downloading is quick and the program opens straight into the desktop application where the game can be used but, crucially, the game’s programming can be accessed and edited. This means students can freely pull the programming apart to see how it works, in order to develop it further or to use the ideas as a springboard for making their own version. As a fifty-something teacher I was still residually suspicious of the idea of re-mixing someone else’s work, childhood remonstrations about ‘cheating’ haven’t quite been shaken off. But no more. Re-mixing seems to allow learners to go further, faster than they would with the more ‘formal’ teaching approaches that I was using last year. Why should this be?
First there is no ‘blank piece of paper’, there are ideas and techniques in the downloaded programs to learn from and build on. You can learn how the programs work by tinkering – changing values, swapping or removing commands, adding images and sounds of your own choosing.
Then there’s the challenge. The programs they were looking at were made by their peers and were often less than perfect. Can they improve on them?
Next there is the informal mentoring of their class peers. I had declared myself to be no expert at the beginning of the lesson – I explained my role was to facilitate learning through discussion rather than showing them how to do things. They would have to find out what they needed to know by looking, tinkering, thinking and asking their classmates. I promoted the latter process initially by asking the class questions like “has anyone found out how to make characters jump?” and encouraging those who had found something out to share their expertise with those who needed to know. Before long children were wandering purposefully round the room seeking help. At least that’s what I thought they were doing. I took the picture at the head of this piece with my phone when I realised that the boy had gone to help the girl, entirely of his own volition. To fully appreciate my delight you need to know that he is the class clown and she is a classic ‘Gifted and Talented’ student. At the end of the session he was one of those I asked to demonstrate and explain his work to the rest of the class - which he did articulately and seriously without a trace of clowning. He stayed in for a while at break working too – unheard of!
So, what other reasons could there have been that made this lesson such an enjoyable learning experience?  I’d love to hear comments from anyone about this example or occasions they have experienced a class in flow.