#CS teachers: I need help developing an inquiry task

I am trying to develop a task for my online ICS3C/3U Computer Programming/Science class, and I need the students to be deeply “engaged”.

I return again to my latest, favouritest definition for student engagement: “A student is engaged in learning when they feel a compulsion to pursue the learning apart from external motivations.” That is, not just for marks, and not just because Mr. G said they have to. I want them to want to learn.

So I want the students to pursue their own interests as much as possible. I believe giving students the freedom to choose will be a lot more likely to kindle that compulsion I want to see in them, and will result in deeper learning and, rather importantly, more fun for all of us.

My challenge is figuring out how to frame that task so that I give them

  • enough latitude to pursue whatever interests them (knowing that I can’t predict these things!)
  • enough guidance to help them formulate their plans (so they can learn from the experience)
  • enough restrictions to ensure that they are learning for this course (since I have to assess and evaluate them).

So I’m a little stuck. I’ve created an openly-editable Google Doc with their learning goals and my initial thoughts. I would be very, very pleased if you would take a look and add comments, ideas, criticisms… anything that can help me move forward with this. I’m trying to plan very carefully to minimize the chance that this wastes my students’ time and effort, and to minimize any unnecessary frustrations they experience.

Here’s the document; please share widely: Learning Computer Science Through Inquiry

Much thanks in advance, from me and from my students!

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Why Aren’t Students Engaged?

An open math textbook with sheets of written notes on top.

Today I worked with all of the other e-Learning teachers in my board. We had some excellent discussions which tended to drift back to the idea of student engagement.

I don’t really like the term “engagement”; I don’t think it’s clear enough. People have very different understandings of the word in the context of student learning, and that can get in the way of real improvement.

For example, asking “what does student engagement look like?” yields responses like “they’re paying attention” or “they complete the assigned work” alongside “they are applying their learning to their own lives” and “they connect to outside sources for learning”.

Some of these are more accurate or useful than others, but they are all indications of student engagement, I guess.

But for me, student engagement is a question of student intent in their learning, which isn’t exactly an observable behaviour.

I like this definition: “A student is engaged in learning when they feel a compulsion to pursue the learning apart from external motivations.”

That last bit is key for me: why is the student learning? Because they need the marks? Because they fear consequences? Because they are enthralled by a question? Because they are curious?

So this leads me to the question: why are my students disengaged? The question holds as much value regarding e-Learning students as face-to-face students.

My colleagues and I identified approximately a bazillion potential causes of and contributing factors to disengagement. These are approaches or circumstances which prevent students from developing the compulsion to learn. Some of them we can work to improve; others we can’t.

But in the end I keep coming back to this idea: Good questions produce a compulsion to find answers, and the best questions are students’ own questions.

Look at me: I just spent an entire day grappling with questions alongside my peers, and here I am trying to make more sense of it at night. I have a dozen other tasks to complete before I can sleep, but I need to get this out right now so that I can pursue the answers. I am compelled.

So how do we foster a spirit of questioning and a culture of inquiry in the context of prescribed learning?

That’s my own challenge to work on tomorrow: how will I ensure that I’m giving students both the guidance and the latitude they need to pose great questions and then pursue the answers?

Accessing student interests in ICS3C/3U

I’m thinking about trying to tap into the students’ interests in my online computer science course. We’re at the point now where the [up-to-date] students have enough of the basics to be able to pursue topics of their choosing.

I was considering making a discussion forum/topic where they can share ideas they’re interested in, and then encouraging them to pursue that learning. I’m not sure how to word it, or manage it, or what exactly I hope to get from it, except that it’s important for students to take charge of their own learning. Maybe several students will have similar interests and be able to pursue them together.

Suggestions are welcome ;)

Student questions about probability

After yesterday’s realization that I was directly the flow of learning too much in my class, I asked my students today to generate some questions they were interested in regarding probability. Here are their responses (posted also on the class blog at mrgrasley.wordpress.com).

  1. What are the chances of winning the lottery?
  2. What are the chances of finding a shiny Pokémon?
  3. What are the chances of the earth being destroyed by an asteroid?
  4. What are the odds it will snow tomorrow?
  5. What are the chances of winning a car in Roll Up The Rim?
  6. What are the chances of being “caller number 5” on a radio contest?
  7. What are the chances of your seat being picked for the million-dollar shot at a basketball game?
  8. What are the chances of being struck by lightning?
  9. What are the chances of finding a $100 bill on the ground?
  10. What are the chances of getting all red lights on the way to work?
  11. What is the probability that a solar storm wipes out Earth’s electronics?
  12. What are the odds of an average poker hand winning?

I’m proud of their questions. I can see that some of them will be very difficult to answer, and others fairly easy. All of them will require some thinking about possible outcomes or statistical probability (which we haven’t studied yet, so that’s pretty awesome).

Tomorrow we’re going to start trying to solve these questions. I’ll give the students the list, and we’ll start drumming up solutions in groups using chart paper to record thinking. I’m pretty excited; I hope they are too. There is a ton of excellent learning that can come out of this.

I made another mistake: missing out on inquiry and authenticity

I’m teaching MDM4U (Data Management) this semester and we’re starting to talk about probability. We’ve spent the last few weeks learning a bunch of counting techniques (permutations, anyone?) and soon we’ll be applying those techniques in this new context.

But I’m concerned about how teacher-directed everything has become, and how comfortable my students seem to be with that mode. When does their curiosity take control of our journey? How will their interests drive our learning?

On the first day of the probability section I was speaking with the entire class about the sorts of probabilities they would be familiar with: chance of rain, poker, winning a football game, etc. One student asked, “What are the chances of winning the lottery?”

And I made a big mistake.

I told him, “We’re going to look at that when we have a few more tools to work with.”

I should have said, “Let’s try to figure that out. Now.”

His curiosity would certainly have driven him and other students to pursue an answer to that question. No, they don’t necessarily have the skills to answer that yet (some would), but I also don’t need to teach a bunch of lessons before they can start.

I should have encouraged him to frame that question mathematically, identify the information that would be needed to solve it, and begin to do so.

Instead I put him off and went on with my boring talk about rolling dice and flipping coins. I missed a great opportunity for authentic learning in favour of simple, canned questions.

So, my deepest apologies to that young man and to the rest of the class. Tomorrow, I fix it. Tomorrow, you will decide what you want to learn, and then you’ll learn it, and I’ll be there to coach you along the way.