Wednesday, February 08, 2012

My One Big Idea

I have exactly one big idea.

I spent the first seven years of my career teaching every level from of math from 7th grade through calculus. I've spent the last five years teaching integrated technology. I only recently started to teach Scratch to students -- which is basically great big training wheels for programming.

It was really easy to teach Algebra II badly. I could help students learn to turn cranks and get the answer. And they had no idea why they were doing it, or even remembering that X was a number, not a letter.

It's really, really hard to teach programming -- it's so abstract. But Scratch does an amazing job of turning abstract programming concepts literally into something concrete: building blocks. It's the most brain-stretchiest piece of software I think I've ever used, and the most rewarding piece of edtech I've ever used. Someone please give Mitch Resnick's team (another) award.

I can't be convinced there's anything standard about mathematics beyond geometry.  That's the point where math gets so abstract, and the majority of students really don't get it. I was a "math guy" and did not begin to understand trigonometry until I was well into calculus.

So here goes: let's teach people to be software engineers instead of doing higher level math. It will be harder but more rewarding in the end. Let's make mathematics beyond Geometry an elective, and replace it with a year or three of compulsory computer science. You could easily spend a year on Scratch, and it would be time well spent -- more fun, an easier sell to students, and in the end it would teach abstract concepts far better than mathematics would. After Scratch, I'm not sure, maybe a year of Javascript, Codeacademy style.

Not gonna lie, some students are really struggling with the very basics of Scratch. And my one big idea is wildly disliked by some people whom I've mentioned it to. Oh well. In my heart of hearts I'm certain that transforming some math requirements into computer science requirements is the right thing to do.

**update... this is definitely not my idea *** (thanks Patrice Gans for the link)


Jonathan Fichter said...

I enjoyed reading this post, Matt! In light of what you wrote, I'd be interested to hear what you think of this TED talk by Confrad Wolfram. Does his concept of "real math" line up with your idea of solving problems as an engineer?

On another note, I'd also appreciate hearing about the top few reasons some students are turned off to Scratch. This might help me do some problem-solving of my own!

Matthew Frattali said...

I watch the Wolfram TED talk. I'd like to witness math taught that way -- I'm not sure what it would look like. Intriguing. And he talks about programming too.

What turns students off from Scratch? Probably it's abstract nature. You know you want a Pac Man game, but you have no idea where to start. You may not even grasp the concept of a variable. The Java environment is clunky -- there's no real undo. And debugging is a nightmare. It's still my favorite piece of edtech software.

Jonathan Fichter said...

Maybe Twitter can help us find a few teachers who teach the way Conrad Wolfram describes. My friend John Burk (@occam98) has his high-school physics students use vPython to simulate objects in motion, collisions, etc.

Regarding Pac Mac, would students find it satisfying to download a version someone else shared on the Scratch website and then play, critique, and modify? Could that help them hit the ground running?

I'd love to hear thoughts about a better way to debug with Scratch. The ability to click one block of code and run it is helpful. More helpful, I guess, would be the ability to drag blocks easily into a separate window so that you could run them in complete isolation? And maybe it would help to have a better way to visualize what scripts other sprites are running when you're clicked on one sprite. I've only used single stepping once or twice: do you find it useful at all? Maybe you and I should jump onto the Scratch forum and give 'em some feedback--it's been a month or two since I went on there.