Creative thinking and the new Digital Technologies curriculum

Chris Petrie, University of Canterbury

Jobs are disappearing, we can’t say for sure what skills current school students will need in the future, and our education system is old-fashioned. So how can we prepare our young people for a future of accelerating innovation? This year the NZ Ministry of Education has introduced a new Digital Technologies curriculum, aiming to get students beyond just using or consuming digital products. In this new curriculum, two strands called Designing and Developing Digital Outcomes and Computational Thinking focus on understanding how digital devices and systems work, so that students today can participate in creating the digital products embedding into our work and daily lives tomorrow.

By the year 2020, the Ministry of Education expects all New Zealand schools to teach Digital Technologies across years 1–10. However, during consultation about the content of the new NZ Digital Technologies curriculum, teachers reported major concerns, including a serious lack of computing teachers, an overcrowded curriculum, and insufficient teacher capability. Up-skilling around 44,000 teachers within the two-year period before comprehensive implementation in 2020 is a colossal and ambitious task, and as a result, much of the excitement in relation to the new Digital Technologies curriculum may recede due to careless box-ticking attitudes to implementation.

Lifelong kindergarten.jpgI’ve been reading an award-winning new book by Mitchel Resnick called Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. This book re-frames some of the same educational challenges facing our modern times that NZ’s new Digital Technologies curriculum hopes to address. With support from a foreword by Sir Ken Robinson, and grounded in over 10 years of research as director of MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten research group, Resnick argues in this book that creative thinking will be essential in a world of rapid innovation. I think his views offer an important perspective to consider in light of New Zealand’s new Digital Technologies curriculum. This blog post describes what Resnick and his research group have distilled in this book, and identifies key issues for adopting these principles to fit with our new Digital Technologies curriculum.

Lessons from Lifelong Kindergarten

In this book, Resnick states that kindergarten (where students are free to follow their own interests and direct their own learning) nurtures creative thinking because it allows students to naturally iterate through a creative learning spiral: learning how to start with an idea, build prototypes, share them with others, run experiments, and revise these based on feedback. In contrast, the current education model (which was made in—and for—the industrial era) restricts teachers’ ability to create lifelong kindergarten type environments. As we wrestle with these tensions between the ideal and the current scenario, Resnick offers four key principles to guide our thinking and practice: projects, passion, peers, and play.

Projects

Resnick argues that building and embedding a rich web of connections through exploring interesting projects is much more engaging and meaningful for lifelong learning than merely learning pre-determined content through solving a set of disconnected exercises, which are commonly weak in linking to meaningful contexts for students. The NZ Digital Technologies curriculum strand Designing and Developing Digital Outcomes enables the principle of teaching through projects, specifying that learners will:

“develop increasingly sophisticated understandings and skills for designing and producing quality, fit-for-purpose, digital outcomes”. 

There is a danger, however, that when integrating the new Digital Technologies curriculum in NZ, less confident teachers could depend on gamified learn-to-code platforms instead of allowing students to build highly individualised projects. Many of the existing learn-to-code platforms focus on solving pre-defined puzzles for a virtual reward (for example: programming a robot to move from A to B for the hour of code certificate). In the short-term, gamification (that is, approaches that seek to embed learning in game contexts) may provide motivation for students who enjoy competition and ‘digital badging’. However, if these approaches are relied upon too much, the learning focus moves away from developing and connecting interesting ideas and towards succeeding at the prescribed game or activity—which may stunt the development of creative thinking.

Passion

Resnick says that aligning tasks with student interests could help to ignite passion, which makes it more likely that students will connect new ideas and diverge from established solutions. The challenge with implementing this in schools is that new ideas conceived in this way often don’t neatly fit pre-defined assessment criteria. Preparing our young people for a more digital future, according to the new Digital Technologies curriculum’s progress outcomes, seems to be in peril of focusing on skill and knowledge acquisition rather than the joy and passion of learning about Digital Technologies. Likewise, the Ministry of Education exemplars (meant to help teachers achieve progress outcomes) often suggest predefined tasks rather than open-ended or individualised projects. Together, the progress outcomes and exemplars seem likely to have a major influence on the implementation of Digital Technologies, emphasising the checking off of individual skills and activities rather than holistic, integrated exploring and learning that ignites learners’ passion and creativity.

Resnick emphasises the importance of wide walls to enable passion — a simple but important design philosophy for creating learning tools from his mentor at MIT, Seymour Papert. Resnick states that if student projects are too much like one another, then something is wrong, and the ‘walls’ or limits of the task will be too restrictive to include a range of interests. Teaching with wide walls is a stressful approach to facilitate for a typical class with 20-30 students because it requires targeted guidance for individual projects, and may reach beyond the expertise of many teachers. Aligning projects with individual student interests also emphasises the importance of self-management, which is often a constant battle for many teachers.

Peers

We are often told that the future of work will require more collaboration. Resnick’s third goal for a ‘lifelong kindergarten’ educational environment is to create a community of shared learning that cultivates diversity. There is rich potential for this type of peer-based learning in the context of our Digital Technologies curriculum. For example, the Ministry of Education have provided a number of exemplars for the new curriculum that involve using Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming language that Resnick helped to create. Scratch is named after the technique of scratching records in hip-hop music—in other words, remixing, modifying, and changing something that someone else has created into something new. All Scratch projects have a Creative Commons Attribution Licence; this means that modifying or ‘remixing’ existing work—a form of collaboration and shared learning—is okay as long as users give credit appropriately.

There is a risk that teachers delivering the new Digital Technologies curriculum will miss seeing or enacting this type of collaborative potential. Resnick’s vision of a creative and peer based learning environment rubs against the ways we currently measure student progress. He says there are many reasons for this, including that key 21st century attributes like creative thinking are much harder to track and measure.

Play

Sceptics of the maker movement often dismiss play as ‘just playing’ or ‘just tinkering’. Resnick addresses these concerns through distinguishing the kinds of play that can lead to powerful learning experiences. For example, play should involve experimenting, exploring, and unexpected results. Often in schools, however, the results from exploration and experimentation are seen as mistakes. Although the new Digital Technologies curriculum could provide a rich context for students to play, experiment and explore, an emphasis on reaching ‘progress outcomes’ is in danger of changing the focus away from these activities.

Moving forward with the new DT curriculum

To some, the ideas presented in Lifelong Kindergarten may not seem wildly innovative or surprising. However, they arise from 10 years of thorough and grounded research bridging both digital technologies and creativity, offering important messages to education systems seeking to equip students for an unknown future. It may not be easy, but as we begin to implement our new Digital Technologies curriculum in New Zealand, the strategies presented in this book suggest that we try bending some of the existing structural barriers in schools in simple ways to allow for more projects, passion, peers, and play. For example, by integrating several typically-segregated year groups and subject areas for one morning per week, we could facilitate shared learning experiences amongst peers. In summary, I think Lifelong Kindergarten presents an exciting and accessible vision for the future of education, which could help to inform a progressive integration of NZ’s new Digital Technologies curriculum.


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6 comments

  1. Great article, Chris. I think you’re on point with some of the challenges with implementing the new Digital Tech areas, but as you also point out, this is potentially a challenge across all learning areas, due to the evaluation structures in place.

    Like you, I’m currently looking at integration of Digital Tech with The Arts, as a way to engage learners with less intrinsic motivation for computing.

    Would love to chat further about this with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Geoff! That’s great you’re also looking to combine DT and the arts. There are so many interesting possibilities in this space. I’d be very keen to talk further about this and discuss ideas. If you have LinkedIn, you can message me through there 🙂

      Like

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