Thinking back about my father who had never been to school, couldn’t read and write. Still, he could design and make Turkish stoves and later on street carts on wheels using a few tools to exact measurements. I remember him cutting and connecting metal tubes, wheels and other parts for hours sometimes for days using just basic tools outside our flat. How he understood the mechanics of his designs and decided what he needed to make it work is still a mystery for me. We didn’t have books, or TV, definitely no Google to search for instructions. Sadly he passed away when I was young, so I will have to try to answer this question myself…
Recently, especially in England, where ICT has been replaced by the Computing curriculum, writing and talking about teaching children programming and coding is more popular than ever. Every day I read a new planning scheme shared by someone or watch a video of how to teach Python, Java, Raspberry pi and so on… Suddenly, everybody became an expert in teaching programming to children; raving about all kinds of programs or tools. What is missing is, understanding how children learn and how to best teach it.
I am not sure that teaching children just textual coding will be enough to equip them with very valuable transferrable life skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaborative working and creativity as learning is extensively derived on how well students can transfer and apply these skills to different learning contexts. Bransford et al. (2000, p.55) states that the transfer of the skills and knowledge is possible when learning involves more than simple memorization or applying a fixed set of procedures. Foremost, the student needs to understand the concepts and become expert in the skills, then know how and when to apply the skills to new situations. Although these steps look very straight forward, it is only viable when one develops the ability to understand and reflect their own thoughts, in other words metacognitive skills (Flawell, 1979; Fisher, 2005). Textual coding, if not taught in a context can turn into practice of memorization or applying a fixed set of procedures, which is not going to be a very meaningful experience for young children.
I personally would like to focus on ‘computer game design’ You may ask why? Resnick’s explanation of the ideas behind creating Scratch probably summarise the whole concept behind my thinking. Resnick (Resnick et al., 2009) asserted that, although his team was inspired by programming environments such as Alice and Squeak Etoys, they wanted to create a programming environment that was “more tinkerable, more meaningful and more social than other programming environments”. By “more tinkerable” he means being able to snap and build the programming blocks like building with lego bricks so that children can start tinkering with blocks to just try out their ideas straight away. Kafai’s description of learning through design also explains the relationship between the ‘design’ element of game design and children’s learning. In her book Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children’s Learning’ she noted (Kafai, 1995 p.xvii), “Learning through design considers programming not only valuable for its computational and technological knowledge, but also supportive of other learning. It proposes an environment in which the computer becomes a tool that allows children to express their personal thoughts and ideas, in the form of a product”
This again emphasises the importance of how design makes programming more meaningful for the learners by enabling them to reflect their individuality moulded into their design. In game design, children tell the story in their mind where the words can’t… It is like mental sentences written in the form of shape, objects, narrative, codes and actions. Their feelings, worries, enjoyments, dreams, curiosity, interests, excitement all find a voice in their own game design which reflects their world in their mind. When students can relate to a learning context, learning becomes meaningful which activates the engagement trigger throughout the learning process.
The question is how does game design enables children to learn? In order to answer this question we need to explore their mental activities. in other words their ‘thinking’ when designing their own games. The following section will explore this.
From ‘Private’ Speech to Conversational Thinking: Learning Through Game Design
Watching children designing their own computer games over the years, one of the most common repeated behaviours I noticed was, they kept touching on the codes, characters on the computer screen and speaking sometimes aloud to themselves, sometimes to their friends. There were situations where a few children closed their eyes whilst speaking aloud to themselves. Some of them looked at the screen for a very long time, without saying a word, in their words they were ‘thinking’. When they were asked what they were thinking when designing their answers included;
“I think about the motion in real life. When I think about swimming, I think about like I move my arms up and down’
“I imagine the game before I make it. If I make a game where it is a car game, in a city, first I make the scene-imagine the city, then the car and I think about what to do with it”
“I test it out in my mind. If it is not realistic, then I won’t try on my design, because I know it won’t work”
“I try to design the movements in my mind but I try them out on the program, because the codes are on the program, not all in my mind”
What this tells us is, when children are designing their own computer games, they are constantly thinking. This thinking is more like having a conversation with their ‘self’ and ‘others’. At this point it is very appropriate to mention Vygotsky’s (1934/1962; 1934/1987) “private” speech theory. Vygotsky described “private” speech as the critical transitional process—the pivotal stage—between speaking with others and thinking for oneself. What is fascinating is how the children turn their private speech into lengthy conversations, which they then use for designing solutions for problems by themself. By having conversations with their ‘self’ instead of only ’others’, the child takes on both speaking and listening roles, where thinking becomes verbalized in solutions or the design created. As mentioned before learning takes place when one develops the ability to understand and reflect their own thoughts, in other words metacognitive skills (Flawell, 1979; Fisher, 2005). In a game design context; conversation with ‘self’ enables children to go inwards and recognize/design/evaluate/develop their thoughts and then reflect them through conversation with ‘others’ which helps them to develop their ideas further. You may say is it only when designing games children learn through conversational thinking. The answer is of course not, however there are some characteristics of the learning context that game design offers, which children can relate to easier than other learning environments. I haven’t got space to discuss them all here but still I would like to list a few of them:
- We all know that children love playing computer games, therefore having an opportunity to design a game that they can play alone or with their friends means a lot to them.
- During game design, children don’t always have to listen or follow the instructions of an adult (they shouldn’t anyway), they can just get on with their work, exactly how they would when making creations with Lego. No time for boredom!
- Computer game design gives children time ad flexibility to make up a world or a narrative that reflects their own world in their mind. They are not confined to a space or limited by time. It is like freedom to learn…
- Designing a computer game helps them to turn their abstract thinking into a concrete design which is quite an advanced learning experience.
Final words….Please stop teaching me, Let me Learn!
I think one of the main reasons why children learn better when designing their own games is, because they not only have an opportunity to design and manage their own learning experience actively but also internalize and externalize their own thinking through constant dialogues. Simply they have time to understand and reflect on their own thinking. Today in schools most of the teaching done by teachers is where children are forced to sit and listen for the most of the lessons. No time to think, no time to discuss (both with their ‘self’ and ‘others’) and certainly no time to reflect. Most importantly, no opportunity for the students to develop and manage their own learning experience or at least take part in the process of it. No flexibility for wondering around either in their mind or in the physical learning space. Surely in this model, students will only use and develop listening and sitting skills rather than thinking…
Well, we need to stop complaining about children. We ask children what they are interested in, then ignore their answers when designing lessons, we tell them to be an active participant in the classroom, then make them sit and listen for a very long period of time, we ask them if they understood, then give them no time to think of an answer. Basically we keep talking and teaching (we think we are) but we don’t allow them to learn. There is nothing wrong with todays’ children. We just don’t understand how they learn and how best to teach it.
Going back to my father, how he learned to design those amazing stoves and street carts? I think he had time to listen to himself and have many long conversations with his ‘self’, which helped him to verbalise his thinking into a design.. He was also free to make mistakes, try out many ideas before deciding which was the best one. He didn’t have someone telling him what to do all the time or giving him the instructions directly. He had to think for himself and developed a sequence of thinking which helped him to get more efficient when making a stove or a cart the next time. He enjoyed designing and making… When you compare his ideas with others, they stood out, they looked so much better and I am not saying this because he was my father. I believe that he didn’t just design them just to earn his living, he put extra time and effort into each one of them because he not only had pride in his work, but also it was a language for him to express his thinking where he couldn’t do it in words…
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). Learning and transfer (Chapter 3). In How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (pp. 51-78). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Fisher R. (1998), Thinking about Thinking: developing metacognition in children. Early Child Development and Care, Vol 141 (1998) pp1-15. Retrieved June 12, 2013, from http://www.teachingthinking.net/thinking/web%20resources/robert_fisher_thinkingaboutthinking.htm
Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911.
Kafai, Y. (1995) Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children’s Learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Resnick, M., Maloney, J., Monroy-Hernández, A., Rusk, N., Eastmond, E., Brennan, K., …Kafai, Y. (2009). Scratch programming for All. Communications of the ACM, 52(11), 60-67.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Eds. and Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.