My Grade 10 Computer Science class, many years ago, was a place that housed hundreds of zeros and ones across the blackboard. I remember my teacher explaining the process, so meticulously, trying to help us create new sequences through this language of binary codes. I went through the motions, but like many students, I internally questioned both purpose and relevance. At that time, I could not imagine what was to come, an evolution of code forming into a new literacy.
I recently spent some time with students who were invited to explore coding activities. Like any context for learning, my insatiable curiosity lies in how particular conditions can sometimes lead to the anticipated, but most often to the unexpected. This particular conversation with a grade 5 student was no different.
After many variations of failed and successful attempts of toggling, jumping 3 spaces, turning ‘left’ with no option to turn ‘right’, we became curious about the ‘behind-the-scenes’ in computer programming. We wondered about design, the designer(s), their intentions, left-handed vs right-handedness, and the advantages/disadvantages to both.
Then this happened.
“Ms., if you had to choose between being a circle or square which would you choose?”
“Circle – hands down.”
“Really? Why? I would choose a square. We had to debate this in one of my classes.”
This was the spark of a brief, yet beautiful debate. We suddenly found ourselves immersed in conversation about structure and movement. We were strangers. She had no prior knowledge of my love of geometric shapes, art forms, construction and design.
I added, “Circles are smooth, sleek, curved, so natural and calming in form…no sharp edges.”
“Yes, but squares are more grounded, they’re organized with solid boundaries.”
I was overwhelmed. I was reminiscent of Jo Boaler’s words in relation to mathematical thinking, “…a beautiful, open, creative, and multi-dimensional subject” and “such work is exploratory.”
“Circles represent something infinite, no beginning, no end…everlasting. It’s a Catholic shape.”
“Ok, but squares have equal sides…they represent equality. They even support 3D shapes better…a cube can move, slide, but it can also stay firmly in place. It’s a more predictable shape.”
“I guess I like the unpredictability of a sphere…so many factors can affect its movement.”
We went on to defend our positions. I imagined the endless ways in which I would extend this experience, across the curriculum, for this student. How do we co-construct meaning and identity by reading our world through shapes, form and design? I wondered how this initial coding exploration, other provocations, THIS conversation, could unleash learning opportunities in unplanned ways.
A constant buzz continues to hover over and within education ~ preparing students for a world which does not yet exist ~ but how often do we turn a blind eye to the powerful role educators and students play in the creation of this new world? This student reminded me, as many do, that learning is complex and multidisciplinary, but there is something so simple, almost magical, in the everyday conversation. Deep learning inevitably happens when all lines, curricular or otherwise, become blurry in those moments of discourse. How often do we plan for one subject, but organically move into another. Do we plan with the intention of STEAM, but only focus on one-fifth of the acronym? How do we remain open to social engagement, the heart of assessment, to ultimately humanize all learning?
I now look back at those countless zeros and ones as definitive shapes with infinite possibility…