The Magic of Computing

This morning Scott McLeod tweeted:

We're not showing and teaching kids the magic of computing.

We're not showing and teaching kids the magic of computing.

He was citing a quote from an article in the NY Times, that was discussing computer classes and how they center on programming to the exclusion of “explain{ing} the steady march and broad reach of computing across the sciences, industries, culture and society” which includes letting students use tools they use out of these traditional settings, such as “e-mail, text-messaging and Facebook.”

Now, I don’t know if he was agreeing with the statement, “We’re not teaching the magic of computing” but if he was, I disagree. In any case, I disagree with the statement.

On Sunday, one of my 3rd graders went to a play with his family and then wrote an unassigned and unsolicited review on his wiki.  It was a GREAT step for this kid, so I quickly added a cluster map to his wiki and then tweeted the link out to my followers, asking folks to visit. Not only did I get some great comments on his wiki, but people retweeted me

Picture 4 Picture 5 Picture 6

(Thanks @beckyfisher73, @mbTeach, @Raysadad, @langwitches, @rkiker, @MsBisonline, @TweetsfromMrsB and anyone else who RT’d it!)

Within 24 hours, the wiki got almost 100 hits from 6 of the 7 continents!


Now, these stats are the talk of my kids on wikimail-and the phone–this morning.  And, these kids are all 7-11 year olds. When these kids see that Owen’s wiki has been viewed by people all over the world, does ANYONE think they are not going to believe that writing and publishing on the web is magic?

Even the people who helped me front load this ClustrMap were thrilled with the responses:

Picture 7

My kids are already creating content–both self-chosen and assigned–on their individual wikis. They are using the wikimail that wikispaces offers to communicate with one another inside and outside of school. They are participating with tools in a Digital FABLAB.  They are using and taking home iPods, and reviewing apps they are using on those devices. Students in our school use tools like Voicethread, Skype, and  Scratch and we have a teacher who comes in twice a week BEFORE school to help kids with their online fantasy football leagues. Our students participate in online projects with other elementary students, and our fifth grade is using Edmodo for many classroom assignments. I believe our students ARE experiencing the magic of computing–and envisioning possibilities–in many ways.

When kids say to me,

*”Ms. White, can I text my Dad to see if I can stay after school for the digifablab workshop?” (one that was aimed at TEACHERS!) or,

*”Are we going to use the Silhouette machine in our 2-D geometry unit?” or

*”May I begin our Civil War wiki over spring break?”

our elementary students ARE learning the magic of computing!

And, I am NOT in the only school doing things like this–online projects, Skype, Voicethreads, blogs and wikis are in widespread use among the teachers in my PLN. These may not be widespread practices in all schools, but I believe the pockets of innovation are growing, and the evidence is mounting that these tools are worthwhile and helpful, and beyond that, critical to helping our students live in THEIR world. Students today are learning that digital tools can be used for creation, and not just regurgitation.

Maybe we could be painting these pictures faster, or better, or in a more efficacious way, but you know what? People should be careful about making blanket statements such as the one that began this post (made by Ms. Cuny from the National Science Foundation), AND perhaps folks in positions such as hers should get out in schools more.

Your thoughts?

16 thoughts on “The Magic of Computing

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  2. The possibilities for communication are intoxicating aren’t they? I share your excitement. My students quickly added Cluster Maps to their wikispaces. Some became excited by the quick proliferation of hits and others were puzzled by the lack of visits. I think it was discouraging for some. I noted your way of bootstrapping connections through Twitter with interest. To use the kid’s phrase, we need to help the students pimp their sites.

    I think it was Dean Shareski who offered the advice, “If you want people to visit your sites, visit other sites, show interest and make responses.” I have been working on broadening my fourth and fifth graders attention. They need to begin exploring what their peers are doing. This is what social networking is all about. Maybe we should begin using the phrase learning networks though.

    I tried to facilitate this by linking my students to wikispaces I had found. I discovered all of them were secured. You could view them, but not edit or comment on them. I can understand the impulse. At the beginning of the year my student pages were essentially spammed by someone. We quickly closed the wiki from non-member edits. The problem is, we all want our students to receive feedback. This caution and security works against us at times. We need to open up the opportunities for conversation.

    I recommend adjusting the permissions so everyone can view pages, but only members of a wiki can edit pages. Allow message posts from non-members.

  3. A couple years back I created a Science wiki for two classes and let them fly with a self-designed project. I’ve learned a lot since then, but one thing that amazed me was how much an authentic audience means to students!

    I had to wait to start my class as we would get into the Computer lab and at least 25 of the 30 computers would have a close-up of our clustermap on their screen, moments after start-up.

    I haven’t updated that wiki since the project ended in May of ’07… but from March ’09 to today the wiki has been viewed over 16,400 times and since I put the map up, clustermap has counted 54,404 visits.

    We try to teach kids that ‘Audience Matters’ but I never really got that concept myself, even as an adult, until I started blogging. Let’s give our students a head start and offer them an authentic audience while they are still in school.

    As I mentioned to you on Twitter. Your student can expect a clustermap dot from Dalian China to show up soon… keep up the great work Paula!

  4. Thanks, David for your response and support. Your story is right on–I, too, didn’t understand how audience matters until I began blogging.

    I have to admit I was strategic in placing this cluster map AND tweeting it. Owen’s writing was good, the topic was a great example of a review and it was self-initiated. The kids will see all of those things, and, I hope, want their own cluster map to be as powerful. So, yes, I set them up somewhat to expect the same kinds of returns if they create something good. Hopefully, in their trying, I will get even more great stuff from them!

    I WILL have to have a conversation about Twitter, my PLN and how the many dots came about so quickly, to help manage their expectations. That will be a hoot, having a conversation with my 7-11 year olds that I have yet to have with my staff… describing and explaining parts and pieces of my PLN and Twitter.

    What a great science site you facilitated–thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to show it to my kids when I get back.

    Happy Holidays.

  5. Alan,
    My county requires, and my parents expect, me to keep the students safe from the dangers of the Internet, so I don’t feel like I can open the wikis completely to anyone who wants to respond. However, you have made me think about this, and so I talked to our county person in charge of both answering and challenging us on questions such as you bring to the table.

    I thought long and hard before I let you join our wiki. You give little info in your Twitter profile and you gave me very little info in your request to join. I have to say I only did so after you engaged me in conversation on Twitter, so I felt like you were legit.

    Becky Fisher (@beckyfisher73 on Twitter), who is our Instructional technology Guru and lead learner, has suggested that I create another “student account” that I could share with folks who want to respond. I’m still thinking this over, because it would either mean that every page has to have a statement asking folks to email me for that login to respond, OR I would have to explain that on Twitter each time I tweet a link to a kid’s page. Not sure either is practical. The other option is to pay for certain services (customized permissions) from wikispaces.

    However, if I am going to set kids up to experience “real life” on their wiki, I need to figure out a way “outside” people can respond to them. Thanks for bringing this up!

  6. Scott,
    Thanks for your response and kudos. However, I wasn’t just talking my classroom. I’m saying MANY kids in my school-and in my county-are experiencing these kinds of learning opps. I spoke to experiences like this being widespread in my PLN. I don’t pretend to say everyone is doing it, OR that
    education is where it needs to be.

    My issue is simply with the blanket statement Ms. Cuny made. That “we” is not all inclusive.

  7. The discussion going on here and at Scott’s post is a meaningful and necessary one. Do we teach enough about the nuts and bolts? I don’t know, personally getting the computers in the hands of the teachers that are already great is a battle worth fighting, but we can’t do that without defined pedagogical relevance and connections.
    Authentic audiences, good….
    Real world application, good
    Authentic learning, good….
    but we can’t expect that structure, pedagogy, and experience to just magically embed into every classroom.

    My latest “rant” or “issue” I guess, has been around differentiating adult PD. We do it for the kids, but we do not do it for the adults. I don’t think it’s fair to expect much more than word processing on minis if we haven’t offered a differentiated, chunked, just in time, approach to learning with technology and authentic audiences for all teachers.
    I also think that Gary Stager had a great line about “burping into Voicethreads” it happens, the tool is not a standard, it is not a learning objective, and it shouldn’t drive the instruction, but it is used as such a lot of times.
    The good news IMO is that the teachers who are using the web based tools and laptops, are at least those that I see seeking their own PD, and trying to do right by the kids.

  8. I understand your concerns and recognize we all have to conform to policy. I have a number of students in my class whose parents have indicated their children may not have pictures or personal data shared. I have permission to use aliases for them and do not use pictures.

    I’m fairly open about myself. I have a digital portfolio on my blog. I assumed you had followed some of my links to the blog and wikispaces. I have enjoyed following your tweets and the links that were generated by you. This is all so marvelous. I am happily following your blog now as well.

  9. Michael,
    I’ve been thinking a lot about PD as well–and the fact it is not differentiated is a great point. Is it required? (Then maybe it’s not relevant to some people? Is it selected by the individuals? (Then perhaps it’s not germaine to the overall picture of the school.) Is it totally optional? (then maybe no one attends.)

    How much customizing can we do these days in the face of budget cuts and dire predictions? Online opps are not for everyone, nor should they be, IMHO. F2F may not be reasonable or cost conscious. So how do we provide that “differentiated, chunked, just in time” delivery?

    I think we SHOULD expect that “structure, pedagogy, and experience to …embed into every classroom” but not magically. We have to embed it through thoughtful discussions, sharing ideas and questions and pursuing innovation and entrepreneurship together, looking for the best for our students, always.

  10. We begin to digress here, but the topic shift is interesting. Differentiated learning is becoming de rigueur in our system. The systemic problems accomplishing this are breezed over lightly I think. Professional development experiences are laughable because they fail to exemplify the educational principles being espoused. I have talked about this in the past with no substantive response.

    As a child of the sixties and seventies I saw examples of open classrooms, what I think people are calling flexible classrooms now. I thought them wonderful examples of differentiated learning environments. They seem to have been a failed experiment in education. If there continue to be flexible classrooms with differentiated learning they have remained marginalized in our systems. Why? If we are going to implement differentiated learning we need to understand the factors that continue to act as barriers to change. I don’t think much thought has gone into that at all.

  11. Hi Paula,

    Perhaps I misread the article, but based on the quote that Scott posted ( – I read the complete article BTW) I don’t think embedding technology in instruction in all the ways described above is the point of the article. All these things are merely learning to use apps. Yes, they may be Web 2.0 apps, but apps nonetheless. When I read the article, I understood it to mean that students today do not see the practical application of computing from the standpoint that they can create the apps. When I was a comp sci major, my narrow perspective was a job market that meant writing code for Big Blue. I had no concept of information systems and management.

    When we regularly use tech in the classroom, we should emphasize the practical application to the situation. We must also inspire them to think of other ways that same technology could be applied and possibly even encourage them to one day to create their own app or idea. This is what I did when I show ed my student Pranav Mistry and his TED talk – tell them they could one day do this.

  12. Matt–You didn’t miss the point of the article, and I agree totally with you. It IS about harnessing the power of creation and helping students to see their ability to do so. I obviously didn’t explain my understanding of that piece well.

    I am an elementary teacher and when I help 7 year old students create and post to the web, they are discovering the power of publishing their creations. When I set up opportunities for them to use Scratch (an animation PROGRAMMING app) they begin to see how animated characters move in the movies they watch. When they create movies themselves, they learn to be producers and directors. Our Digital Fabrication lab allows students to turn 2-D creations into shape nets that can be printed out and constructed.

    I would love your feedback on a couple of lessons that can be easily described here–and see if we are indeed painting those kinds of pictures you describe–and that fit the point of the article. I am working with my students to do “Reverse Engineering” in these lessons, to explore the app and figure out how it works in the context of our required curriculum.

    Also, I must say that my kids do all the troubleshooting on their iPods–they know how to check to see if they have a valid IP address, they know how to connect to various Wi Fi networks, and they share troubleshooting ideas with one another. In fact, William has a help page up on his wiki, describing the steps of some of the things he has figured out. (

    So now for the lessons:

    My students (a mixed group of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders) played with an iPod app called Domino Falls. Basically it’s one where the player places the dominoes appropriately on steps, ledges and in lines to go from one point to a designated end when the first one is tipped over. Many principles of physics apply, but it is also an engaging app for kids.

    After playing this game virtually, we recreated the steps on level 1 with our digital fabrication lab equipment and each pair of students put together the steps (created to scale to match the iPod app) to then recreate Level one PHYSICALLY with real dominoes and their constructed steps. They then assessed whether the app was realistic and wrote the author of the program letters to give him/her feedback. I think that paints the pictures for kids quite nicely that they can be creators of these apps.

    Celine has chosen a TON of ideas she intends to create with these tools–and for a girl to want to engage in spatial building and creating is great, in my mind! (

    Another lesson we did in 5th grade was using another iPod app called Math Tricks Lite, which shows a “math trick” for multiplying squares in the 50s (such as 52 x 52). (This “trick” is also in Mathemagics, a full sized version of this program.)
    After exploring this app for a short time, they then went to Wolfram Alpha to put in the problems and “show the work” so they could figure out the math behind the trick. I then challenged them to try squares in the 40 and 30s to see if they could figure out a.) how the trick worked, and b.) if it worked for decades other than the 50s. This not only got the kids involved in practicing their multiplication of 2 digit by 2 digit numbers as they tried other squares, but it also had them constantly talking about the math behind the multiplication.

    Then, Hanna took that idea of showing a math trick in an app and applied the work we had been doing in class to create her own wiki page called “Math Tricks” ( She is simply describing the properties of multiplication we have been studying, but because it helped her understand multiplication at a depth she hadn’t before, she sees it as magic, and so made a connection to the app we had used.

    My kids ARE creating–that’s the point I was trying to make and I am working hard to show them the power of their creations AND their ability to create something from scratch (no pun intended). I am working to help them see that they have the ability to be one of these programmers.

    BTW–I also have a girls STEM club and in just six weeks, I have about 6/18 who now want to be a physics major in college. I AM trying to paint those pictures through the opportunities I provide for them to create and build. 🙂

  13. Paula, thanks for the clarification. These are GREAT lessons. You are doing a great job along these lines. It makes me quite jealous of your school. I wish we had someone like you here doing this type of thing with our students. I think reverse engineering is a wonderful way to encourage the joys of computing.

    BTW, I assume these kids are not in for a major disappointment when they reach middle school. There will be a Paula White there too, right?

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