Friday, August 1, 2008

Class Objective: Going from Consumer to Creator

Teaching a computer class in high school is a lot like teaching a class in the fine arts. You want to teach the students to express themselves. You provide them with basic information on tools and techniques. Most of all, you try to help them overcome the mental barriers that keep them from believing that they can produce something worthwhile.

These barriers are many. Just like a student who hesitates to pick up a brush because they "know" they can't paint well, the computer student will resist trying their hand at some skill. The resistance takes a different form, usually, than refusing to try. Computers are the perfect tool for passive-aggressive behavior. There's always an obstacle for someone who doesn't want to try.

The problem starts long before students enter the class. Students are conditioned to believe that it's not safe for them to mess with the computer. They adopt a belief that the things they enjoy on the computer have been created by teams of professionals who are smarter than they. In some cases, they have an attitude that they can't be bothered to learn it since this will look like a crack in their "I already know it all" veneer.

The expectations of parents are often limited, too. For many, computer class is a typing class. Certainly it's a good place to get some time in on a keyboard, but typing is learned far better when there's a purpose driving the fingers on the keys. So treating the course as a mind-numbingly dull typing class would defeat that. Not to say there aren't students who like dull rote classes for an easy 'A' without engaging the brain.

Another problem is expectations that are too high. Some students want to write a full A-class computer game in a single semester. Interest wanes when they find out that that's not likely. They want to run before they can walk. Then the conviction that they can't do what the pros do comes in again.

The most effective attack on negative mental attitudes is to have exercises that result in visually stimulating results. The problem is that the range of skill levels coming into the class is so wide that some students may need to be told what "left-click" and "right-click" means, and they may be totally unfamiliar with the keyboard. Others may already be fast typists and fast readers.

My own way of dealing with this has been to have open-ended in-class exercises. There is a basic level of achievement that is expected. Beyond that, extra credit is given for creative effort beyond what's required. Multiple avenues for extension of the basic assignment are provided. Usually they all require some degree of research on the part of the student. This gives more advanced students an opportunity to use their time constructively while I assist others with bootstrapping themselves on the basics.

I also allow collaboration and sharing of information on class exercises. This removes me as an information bottleneck in class, and it gives the students a social incentive to research solutions to problems.

As to the types of problems, I start with creating a rich document in a word processor. It seems like a banal exercise, particularly when so many high school computer classes are nothing more than an introduction to horizontal applications. But rather than focusing on the use of the application itself, I focus on the product.

I don't assign a specific document to write. Rather, I work with the class to identify something that would be fun to write. Last year we came up with a specification for a computer video game. It could as well have been a guide to online art of a specific genre, or any of a number of other subjects that interest the students. I place requirements for what needs to be in the document on the basis of what would make a good document of that type, not on the basis of the mechanics of the programs we use to create its content.

As we progress from word processing to using basic basic tools for text editing, file management, system monitoring, and so on I use the same approach. With a goal in mind that interests the students, we can focus on that and learn the technical mechanics along the way.

The result is that the students get an opportunity to create something of their own, not just another copy of a document given as an assignment. They get to learn what they learn for a reason, not as an end in itself to fill grading checkboxes.

I allow the students to express themselves with their assignments. We keep things within the bounds of propriety, of course. At first they're tentative, but by the time we're doing web pages they've usually gotten to by outspoken. I don't grade them on what they say on their web pages, but on how they say it. What features of HTML have they applied, how does the page appear as a whole, and so on.

Then, after each unit in class I have a little surprise. I take some time to list for them all the technical skills they've acquired. All that stuff that goes on resumes or that gets listed as a class subject on the syllabus. The lists are long, and full of all sorts of scary polysyllabic words. We go through each scary word, and they learn that that scary word is something they know and can handle. We review their work, I comment on it, and their peers do, too.

They discover something. It's something we keep discovering it over and over in class. A message that bears repeating, over and over.

They can create.
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