Training and Development

My life as a tech teacher - Part 1

Picture a small rural school in New Zealand, a little over an hour from the capital city, Wellington. It's surrounded by farms, and many of the children attending have farm-owners or farm-workers for parents. There's even a demographic shift every year: when the cattle move to pastures new, so do some of the kids.

There's a BMX track, several large climbing trees, a huge playing field (into which neighbouring cows sometimes trespass), an adventure playground and a swimming pool. There's a dedicated team of teachers and a tightly-knit community of families, many of whom have lived in the area for generations. There are about 120 children, all of them free-range. There are numerous laptops and there's a handful of iPads. And, starting on 9th February, there's me.

I wrote in a Friday Rant last year that I wanted to give something back to the wonderful school that my children attend, by helping the next generation learn how to understand computers and program them, not just use them. My initial plan was for an after-school club using the school's laptops, or maybe a few Raspberry Pi devices. Perhaps 20 kids, an informal environment and we'd see how it goes. But I reckoned without those dedicated teachers. They are keen. Very keen.

Following a meeting this afternoon, our plan is now this: two groups of 30 students each for 35 minutes, every Monday from 1:30pm onwards. I'll have classroom support (i.e. crowd control) from a member of staff, and all the facilities the school can provide. And the freedom to teach the subject as I see fit.

With freedom comes responsibility, and I've been thinking about this a lot. I've provisionally entitled the course, "Understanding and programming computers," and it's the "understanding" bit that I particularly want to get across.

I'm not so keen on teaching a specific programming language, because languages come and go. I want to teach the children formal logic, an awareness of how computers work, an understanding of what they are good at and what they're not, and how those goalposts are shifting fast. I want to give these kids the mental tools to understand how any given computing system works, and then use it to their own advantage.

I will be basing the coding part of the course around the Scratch 2.0 drag-and-drop programming system from MIT, but not solely. I'll also throw in some history, background information, example snippets of code in various languages, and other material based on feedback from the pupils and staff.

Surprisingly, there are hardly any schools in New Zealand doing what we're about to attempt: teaching coding to primary school kids. So where we lead, hopefully others will follow.

It's a big challenge and I'll be writing about my experiences here over the coming weeks. Meantime, if you have any useful advice for me, please leave a comment below.


Next week: My life as a tech teacher – Part 2: First lesson


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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