Reflecting on Teaching CT/CS to Grad Students

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I am in the midst of teaching a class on using technology in education with some really terrific and interesting graduate students.

Last night, we began our exploration of Computational Thinking and Computer Science. Most of the students reported themselves as novices in both areas, and so I planned to do an introduction using one of my favorite platforms, TurtleBlocks.

turtte blocks program to draw a square

TurtleBlocks in a successor to LOGO, one of the first coding tools designed for children. It allows users to create art by programming one or more turtles. Here is an example of a simple program that produces a square with a randomly generated color on each side.

computational thinking diagram

So, we started with an introduction to Jeannette Wing and the key concepts of Computational Thinking (CT). [Note: this last link connects to Wing’s original paper, which is very worth reading]

After this introduction to each of those four key concepts, decomposition, pattern recognition, algorithmic design, and abstraction, we started to play around with Turtle Blocks.

I have done this kind of introduction with students in grades 4 to graduate school, and usually do a quick intro to the tool (e.g., you “write” a program by clicking blocks together) then work on the first challenge, namely creating a square with the fewest numbers of bricks.

So, we start by thinking about (and ideally acting out) moving in the square with our bodies and what that would take. Then, we try to give the same instructions to the turtle. When we do that successfully, our program looks something like this:

drawing a square
Turtle Blocks program that draws a square

We can then play with choosing the colors for one or more sides, which adds a layer of abstraction: namely, that by default and invisibly, a pen is already down and a color is pre-selected (and matches the color of the turtle itself). So, adding colors of choice requires the set color block, like this:

Turtle Blocks program depicting color picker

And dealing with color introduces another abstraction, that our turtle understands colors as numbers. Working with this abstraction is aided by the presence of the color wheel which makes the connection between colors and their associated numbers. A simple program which sets a new color for each side of our square would look like this:

color square program
Turtle Blocks program that draws a square with a different color on each side

We added one more abstraction, which was to try to simplify the program. To do this, one has to recognize that our program to draw a square has a pattern – the forward 100 and right 90 blocks are the building blocks of a square. So asking the turtle to repeat them without our actually repeating the blocks themselves would simplify things, like this:

Turtle Block program drawing a square using a repeat block

The repeat block becomes the last level of abstraction in this sequence of exploration with Turtle Blocks.

This was the first time I had this type of lesson remotely and it was hard to simulate the experience of being able to look around physical classroom at the students’ computer screens to quickly assess and support what they are doing, encourage collaboration and sharing, and other facilitate their explorations. Via Zoom, I was able to ask these students to share their screen, which was helpful in being able to publicly troubleshoot and guide their work. However, I quickly noticed that individual work was public and I am not entirely sure this was the most effective method. I need to think on this.

I also left the class feeling that the students had done a great job diving in, but a little discouraged that some of them found the tasks as challenging as they did. To be clear, I was discouraged by myself and NOT them. I felt that I had blown the lesson in some way. This blog post is an attempt to reflect and understand and then to share my reflections and understandings.

Having written this, I can now see that I underestimated the degree to which much of these apparently simple activities, as well as the tool itself and its conventions, added much more layers of abstraction than I had anticipated, and that I did a less good job than I would have liked negotiating these very levels of abstraction and/or supporting them in negotiating these levels of abstraction for themselves. The biggest take away for me is working to be present to how much abstraction there is in a seemingly concrete task.

Hmm. I wonder if this is true for these students.

12 thoughts on “Reflecting on Teaching CT/CS to Grad Students

  1. First and foremost, as one of the students in this graduate class last night, I wanted to thank you for your patience. This area of technology is incredibly difficult for me to grasp. I felt very overwhelmed at first, in trying to figure out how the TurtleBlock program worked. However, through trial and error, and screen sharing (thank you for allowing us to do that), I was able, through your guidance, to figure out how to make the repeating pattern necessary for the given task to work. I personally feel that helping us through these types of situations via screen share, is a very effective method because it allows for everyone else to visually see what someone else may be struggling with. They too may be struggling with the same concept.
    I am a perfectionist, whether that is a good thing or not, it is the truth. So I can become quickly overwhelmed and anxiety filled if I can not connect to something quickly. I definitely felt my stress level jump during the beginning of this activity. This had nothing to do with the way you presented it, but everything to do with my inability to understand the app in a timely manner. I guess it comes from my lack of confidence in anything to do with Computational Thinking skills. After our class, I tried to download the MusicBlocks, thinking I would feel more comfortable using this app instead because of my music background. However, it is only available on Android devices :-(. I only have MAC/Apple devices. So then I went back and visited TurtleBlocks for about an hour or so and simply just played around with the blocks and numbers and the repeats, etc… I actually had fun creating some geometrical shapes. Like I said in class last night regarding self assessment, I feel it is important to take the time to work on the things we are not good at or maybe even afraid of (in my case). The more familiar we become with these technology tools, the more comfortable we will likely become. This is is also a great lesson in remembering that when presenting kids with new concepts, it is so important to be patient, understanding, and encouraging. We need to be aware that some kids are likely to find difficulty in these types of lessons as well. Having this knowledge is invaluable.

    1. Monique, I really appreciate your feedback on this post (and the class). You make an excellent point when you emphasize that we all have our own learning process, and that this process is personal and specific.
      This is a web based version of Music Blocks at musicblocks.sugarlabs.org. Let us know if you decide to try it out.

  2. I thought that the TurtleBlocks program was very cool and I was able to figure it out after playing around a bit. I think that one point of confusion for me was the movement piece. I didn’t really understand that “Right” meant the way that the turtle was facing, and that “Forward” had to be added to create movement on top of the directional command. I think this was a fundamental piece that would have been useful to understand before I began working on my own. However, I ended up figuring this out on my own and it was simply a stumbling block. I would be interested to know whether this was a common misconception and whether it created difficulty for others.

  3. Dear Dr. Ardito,
    I have to say that I applaud you on your patience with us that night during lecture. Even though we were able to see your screen and what you did, I definitely think that it must not have been easy explaining everything and viewing everyone’s work over Zoom. I wholeheartedly believe that you taught the lesson just fine, and in a simple and easy way for everyone to understand. However, this aspect of technology is just something I struggle with, and something I have always struggled with. Even in undergrad when I had to take a coding class, it was something I struggled with. Just like some people may struggle with the concepts of atoms, and cells, and reactions, this is my strong point, but for others it may be something they are weaker in. I think the hardest part for me is, yes I can read your directions and understand, and yes I can do a simple task of creating a box like you helped me with in class last night, my biggest struggle is just really conceptualizing the task. I struggle with the idea of colors relating to numbers and i almost feel like there is a math aspect to it which I have always struggled with the “solving” aspect of math. I will play around with it a lot more and hopefully familiarize myself with this by next class. Usually for me, that is all it takes, is practice.

    Thank you for showing me new programs.

    Alexa

    1. Alexa,
      I really appreciate your comments. I also appreciate your reflection on your own experiences with Turtle Blocks and other, similar tools.

      I find myself wondering why we find some abstractions accessible and others not do much. What do you think?

  4. Hi Dr. Ardito,

    It was interesting to read about your perspective of class last week. I was able to cotton on relatively quickly to how Turtle Blocks works, and I think that was because I could connect giving the turtle commands to my work in Excel. When you are making Macros it is a similar process because every click of your mouse, both what you click and the order in which you do it, impacts how Excel carries out the Macro. For those who couldn’t draw on any past experience, it might have been helpful to have us actually draw a square on a piece of paper and list what we had to physically do to get that square (pick up a pen, place the pen down, move horizontally, move vertically, etc) because we could then act as if the turtle was our pen. Then again, this still might not have made some of the abstraction obvious enough.

    Given that I was able to make the square with minimal difficulty, it seemed a little tedious for me to listen to/look at the shared screen trouble shooting. However, I just ended up playing around which ended up being both fun and productive! So perhaps that’s a bit of a non-issue haha.

    By the way, thank you for sharing both the Wing article and the BBC “Introduction to Computational Thinking” (this one); surprisingly, I found the latter to be more helpful in giving me a concrete understanding of the pillars of computational thinking.

    1. Ezra,
      I really appreciate your thoughtful response.
      I particularly related to what you shared about not really relating to the trouble shooting, but that frustration/boredom /whatever led you elsewhere. I think you have articulated how authentic learning actually happens.

  5. I had quite a bit of a different experience than the rest of my peers in last week’s session as my laptop screen broke and I am waiting for a new laptop to come in- I was unable to see most of the turtle blocks on my screen but was having just as much frustration as I tried to navigate this platform via my iPhone. I was watching as my peers shared their screens and asked questions about what their turtle was doing on the screen and I could feel their sense of discomfort with the platform, just by watching. When I attempted the turtle blocks on my phone, I felt extremely uncomfortable, as I usually feel when trying new types of technology. I think Dr. Ardito wanted to place us in the shoes of students when we get them to try new technologies. The sense of uncomfortability and aggravation that our little humans feel when we are standing at the front of the classroom. I think this was a great learning experience for us to feel the other side of the room because I think sometimes we get too wrapped up in telling our students ” you just click this and then this and then this and then you’re done its that easy!” But they certainly do not feel that something is that easy. I think I definitely need to take a step back sometimes and realize that something I may figure out quickly, my students or even peers may not and we all have to realize that we all learn at different speeds. I think this lesson taught me so much about how to be a better teacher while making use of new technologies. Dr. Ardito, even if you felt that the session was a little messy, I think this was so helpful for me to experience what my students feel on, likely, a daily basis. This was a phenomenal experience and I really appreciate hearing your feedback and how you helped my peers to work through their frustrations. It is very important not to say “that’s wrong do it this way” rather coaching and guiding people in the right direction. I think it was so great to learn how to teach technology by being one of the students feeling frustrated and lost. I learned that you need to go really slow and take your time when introducing new technologies. You need to have a lot of patience and you need to encourage students to make mistakes and then help guide them in the right direction.

    1. Sam,
      I really appreciate your response. I am glad that you took away so much value from our session. I did, too.

      All of the things you said about your own experience I found completely applicable to the teaching and learning of math as well,because it is all about what I call orchestrating levels of abstraction.

  6. Hi Dr. Ardito,
    Thank you for the lesson last Tuesday and guidance on Turtle Blocks. Additionally, I enjoyed reading your blog post reflecting on your lesson and of your perspective on how it went.
    Personally, I thought you did a great job explaining how to operate turtle blocks and felt fully supported throughout the lesson. Even when I decided to go off on a tangent and create my own image, you allowed me to continue and offered any help to complete it.
    I find it fascinating to see the different point of views/perspectives as a teacher, student and even as a coach after a lesson or practice. You left last Tuesday discouraged about your lesson and I left satisfied that I learned more about the turtle blocks program. I think it is human nature to be harder on yourself than needed, I fall victim to this ALL the time. But with the feedback I’m sure you have received so far, it can help paint a clearer picture for how the lesson was accepted by your students.
    Thanks again for the lesson and the post, looking forward to our next class!
    Thanks!
    Tom

    1. Tom,
      I really appreciate your response as well as your perspective on last week’s class.
      I also find it fascinating to see how multiple perspectives play themselves out.

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