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"It's only a prototype."

Written by Chad Sansing
September 16, 2012

“Relax, Chad. It’s only a prototype.” – an 8th grader

That was, perhaps, the best thing I heard all week*. Using recycled cardboard, my kids are building their own workspaces off the surfaces in our classroom. I had stopped by a workspace-in-progres to ask a few questions of its builder. What’s with the rough edges? Are those flaps supposed to go all the way down?” I was clearly getting ahead of myself in a way that my 8th grade colleague – the designer of the workspace – was not. Three weeks in and he had internalized more of the design process and its pacing than I had.

Of course, not all students have embraced prototyping as much as that kid has. Some have barely started their builds. Others are still working from a place of, “let’s see what happens,” which is comfortable. We do that pretty well already. This year, however, will be our year of design (I hope) – our year of envisioning and journaling and executing and reflecting on purposeful designs. We’ll build workspaces in our classroom; we’ll author code on our computers; we’ll compose multimedia texts; we’ll try to make user interfaces that reflect the content of our work. This post is really less about those products, however, and more about the student agency that’s already come out of our design work – which, to me, is the same work as building, coding, composing, and/or making.

Here are three other examples of student agency of note from our classroom so far:

  • Everyone is self-badging on Fridays. We reflect on our learning each week, sketch several possible badge designs, build our favorite(s), and then embed them on our web pages. This is an affirmative process – some badges are very specific (I made an analogous color scheme), while others are very general (“I am creative”). What strikes me the most about this individualized process is how interconnected it is to community-building; kids are beginning to make badges about helping others code. Given our small class sizes, I literally have 3-4 co-teachers in each class who soak up basic coding examples and can teach them to others in a matter of minutes. This means that in terms of web-authoring, we’re operating like the high school writers’ workshops I remember, but without the cliques. Everyone in class has several “readers” to choose from, most of them peers, while composing in HTML and bug-hunting. There are no editorial cliques forming amongst the “best” writers or closest friends. Something is happening whereby I can work with the kids who need me (or the idea of me, a teacher) the most (maybe because of peer relationships) after our coding mini-lessons, while the rest of the class teaches itself, with students aware of how class is changing. I think my next steps include developing better mini-lessons for the kids who need the most help, encouraging the “teachers” to learn from their “students” whenever possible, and helping the “teachers” learn to question so that they don’t rely on direct instruction quite so often. (That being said, nothing teaches code quite like working code).
  • Confidence is on the rise. I’m thinking specifically of two students here who began coding convinced they could not do it. Then they were convinced they needed my help – that they could not read or write code alone. Then they were convinced they were ruining their own web pages. Then they discovered “undo.” Then they started recognizing tags. Then they started recognizing the connection between the tags in their code and their content on the page in a browser. “I can’t” became “I don’t get it!” “I don’t get it” became “I got it!” “I got it” became “I did it on my own!” That’s not a foreign progression in education; there are lots of ways to get there because there are lots of ways to learn. However, I would say that experiencing self-empowerment through coding fosters equity between students and other web-authors in ways that using a word processor or blogging service does not. I would also say that it’s essential that schools help kids author with technology at a very raw level. Merely using digital products – no matter how well-designed – does nothing to upset the status quo of student reception and consumership in public education. Kids should create original digital works, including platforms for content – as basic as DIY digital portfolios – and tools that they and others can use – as basic as new media tutorials, or video or audio productions, or javascript or Scratch programs. Finally, I would argue that it’s incumbent upon us educators to know our students as digital authors so that we can use new media authorship as another form of differentiation and help all students become the digital authors they want to be. Differentiation should be mapped according to students’ readiness, not to ours.
  • It is a delight to design. Kids who like to finish are finding reasons to go back and play more with their design work. Case in point: we’ve started the DS106 album cover project in class. Given the constraints of our division-delivered computer image, we’re using a popular commercial presentation program as an image editor. Between the coding and design work, kids are learning things that are not explicitly taught anywhere else in our curriculum (which, I imagine, given this day and age, looks a lot like all curricula). Kids are moving text boxes. Coming from my privileged, intermediate computer user background, I could not have imagined the delight and wonder with which they do so. Kids are reshaping text boxes. Kids are learning keyboard short cuts for saving files, undoing and redoing commands, copying and pasting pictures and words, reloading webpages, and tabbing between windows. Kids are learning to match colors and to consider how the shapes of fonts go with the words themselves and the pictures they embellish. Kids are learning about balance and negative space – and how to crop images to manipulate those things. There are dozens of things we’re learning that help kids move through their computer-mediated coding and design work at a speed that finally approaches something like their speed of thought. There is an immense body of tacit knowledge that coders, designers, and “power-users” have that we leave kids to discover on their own. It’s not equitable to graduate some kids who can use computers effectively for creative work (including coding) and some kids who see computers as Harrison-Bergeron devices that frustrate and slow them. When a kid doesn’t understand how a computer can help with her workflow, the decision to work in old media is not the same decision made by a person evaluating the best way to express herself.

In many ways this year, I am finally iterating the way I think of kids and their relationships with technology, making, and design. I am abandoning the flawed mental prototypes I’ve clung to for years – and I can’t even really articulate them. They were simultaneously laissez-faire and authoritarian. Whatever they were, I’m done with them, I hope.

Our kids are digital natives. Being native doesn’t mean you have mastery over your environment. It means that you were born into it and make the best sense of it you can during your time.

I can make better sense of my classroom, my work, and myself when my kids and I work together to make better communal sense of the tools and approaches available to us and our learning. Authorship, community, design, story-telling, technology: these are practices, not totems – things we do, not things we revere or have to wait to get from others.

It’s all just protoypes. That’s especially important to remember while we’re surrounded by all kinds of phony absolutes. It matters less that we educators are connected in the “right” way; it matters more that our students can connect to agency, authorship, community, intent, and purpose within – and from – our classrooms and schools.

*This week’s runner-up: “Chad, I’m having a Burning Man themed birthday party and I already built the statue.” – a 7th grader.