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Computational thinking and the digital natives.

20.01

The 'digital natives' argument is that people who were born in world of omnipresent computing and internet (let's say born 1990 or later) will be able to intuitively understand computers in a way that 'digital immigrants' like me, who remember writing essays by hand at university, and writing snail mail letters to friend, cannnot.

However, it's my observation that the majority of the 'digital natives' just take computing and the internet for granted, and know little about what goes on behind the interface they are able to use. This says something good about the GUI design paradigm, but also means that perhaps innovation is not happening as much as it could be.

When my son goes to school, I would like him to be taught about computers in the same manner as learning to write and do sums. This is apparently the idea promulgated by Jeanette Wing
The term computational thinking (CT) was coined by Jeannette Wing (2006) to describe a set of thinking patterns that involve systematically and efficiently processing information and tasks. CT involves defining, understanding, and solving problems; reasoning at multiple levels of abstraction; understanding and applying automation; and understanding the dimensions of scale. While the concept has emerged from computer science, students can engage in CT with or without a computer. CT draws on a rich legacy of studies of human cognition, such as systems thinking, problem solving, and design thinking.(The ITEST Small Group on Computational Thinking)

I think this means that computers are designed according to a basic logic, and by teaching that logic one can enable people to engage with computers as reconfigurable technology, not black boxes which only do what they've been sold to you as doing.

It's about empowering the next generation to take technology in a direction that integrates it on an individual level in ways that are given direction by persons, and not by corporations and governments.

So - for example - children could be given their own version of the One Laptop Per Child, a sturdy piece of hardware, with an open source basic platform, and taught how to write their own programs into it. Imagine - they could write programs that help them to learn to read, or do maths.

What do you think?

20.16


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The 15-minute blog post.
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The future of cheating


When I was a lecturer I only remember one specific case where I caught a student red-handed cheating - she had a cheat sheet filled with small and crammed notes on the topic (World Religions 101). No doubt there were some I missed, but generally I don't think it happens an awful lot (at least in the type of place I taught). Copying/passing answers probably happens relatively often, but what I'm talking about is the preplanned full-scale operation.

I remember trying it once, in physics or chemistry: I was scared that I wouldn't remember certain formulas so I copied them onto a small piece of paper and was able to consult it during the test. The thing was, because I had spent the time copying them down so carefully, I actually didn't need the cheat sheet in the test! :-O

Anyway - today's musing is inspired by an article on BBC - China hi-tech exam cheats jailed. Basically, they either got hold of the exam papers from a teacher (who faxed them once the exam started), or scanned them in the exam hall and transmitted them to people outside - then the answers were told to the students using "tiny earpieces"

Invigilating in exams is an extremely boring thing to do, so I would sometimes amuse myself by thinking of different strategies for cheating, and the key thing that stood out was obviously the phone and other wireless devices. The current way of dealing with that is to ban all handphones, PDSs, etc. from the exam halls, but as time goes on - it will become easier and easier to have hidden cameras, transmitter/receivers, etc. (as has been used in China). Looking even further ahead, there will come a time when people can have chips wired in to their brain to 'hear' calls and so on.

Therefore, ultimately, the solution will have to be either use some form of wireless phone jammer, or just go straight ahead and build customised exam halls that are designed like a secure room where no signals can come in or out - i.e. copper in the walls and stuff like that.

The other solution is just to do away with exams - the principle of an exam is that it proves that you have a certain level of knowledge, and you can deliver it in a useful manner while under pressure. This is a very good skill for a doctor, for example, or a lawyer perhaps; but most of us will work with easy access to lots of information, and our key skill has to be able to locate the proper information and use it appropriately. With that in mind, maybe there should be less remember-and-regurgitate exams, and more of the problem-solving type - i.e. you're given a problem, resources (books, certain websites on a restricted intranet) and you have to come up with a solution in a relatively short time.

An integrated Malaysian educational system

I don’t normally do Malaysian politics, but education is something I feel strongly about.

In Malaysiakini, Mukhriz is reported as saying:
"The government can foster greater unity by streamlining all the schools under one education system where the medium of teaching, besides Science and Mathematics, are taught in Bahasa Malaysia.

"We can make it compulsory that the Chinese and Indians study their own language in their mother tongue while these two languages can be optional for Malay students to learn or we can make it compulsory for students to learn at least three languages," he suggested. (Malaysiakini)

I have to say that I find myself agreeing with him, in principle. This is based on my experience in a European School in Luxembourg (this one), from age 4-16.

The European School system
The European Schools are for the children of European Civil Servants from all the countries of the EU; we were in different sections according to our mother tongue, but from six years old onwards, we had to learn a second language – I think it was one class every day. I did French, and in my French class there were Italians, Germans, Danish, etc; the teacher spoke only in French and we all had to speak in French in the class. When we got to 3rd grade primary (age 8), we started an afternoon arts and crafts lesson on Wednesday in French – meaning the class was conducted entirely in French and – once again – I shared the class with Dutch, Germans, etc. During all this time, I also mixed with other kids in the playground, in the school bus, etc, and we had a common language most of the time.

Later, in Secondary (age 11), I started doing gym classes in French (same principle, sharing with others doing the same second language); and we also started History and Geography in French from year 3 (age 13). Later again, we did Economics in French. I also did a third language from year 2 or 3 (I did Italian), and also started a fourth language at about year 4.

What this meant was I became fluent in French from a relatively early age, and could use it in contexts outside of a language class; it also meant that I regularly mixed with children of the other nationalities, and we shared common experiences (such as annoying the teachers ;-)). However, none of us was denied an education in our own language too, and most of us became proficient in two or three languages (some even more). Having an extra language always helped me later when looking for a job. For me, growing up in such a school, mixing with other cultures and respecting their differences was never an issue – it just came naturally.

An Integrated Malaysian educational system
So – how could this be transmitted to Malaysia? Well, many people here speak two or three languages as a matter of course, but not always very proficiently (i.e. being able to write well, speak formally, etc.). The right of the Chinese and Indian minorities to have their own vernacular education was an essential part of the post-independence agreements, and I think language is an essential part of any culture, and Malaysia would be the poorer for not having the cultural diversity it does. But, there is inefficiency in the system – for example some Chinese students do primary in Chinese and have to do more work (dual curriculum or something, not sure of the details), then switch to BM and may have to do some catching up there - WW had to do an extra year because of this, but I think that rule has stopped now.

I think there should be a system that goes something like this. All kids do the same curriculum in the same schools: however, there are three main languages used – BM, Mandarin, and Tamil; a core of subjects will be done in BM (I’m not sure what Primary kids have as classes, but I guess Maths, Social Studies, stuff like that). Each child gets an hour a day in their mother tongue (reading, writing), and an hour a day in their chosen second language (e.g. a Malay does Mandarin or Tamil, an Indian does BM or Mandarin, etc.). Language classes also include aspects of culture –a bit of history, songs, fairy tales, etc. In practice, the non-Malay students may have to do BM as a second language in order to be able to do the other core courses. Children whose mother tongue is English will have to choose one of the other ones, I suppose.

If this works well, by the time the children are 10-11, they are proficient in BM, and in another language; they have had exposure to the other ethnic groups’ language and culture, and had to sit together, play together, eat together, with children of other ethnicities. Importantly, although there is a bias in favour of BM, everyone has had to learn a second language, and so no-one feels particularly disadvantaged.

At this point, they all have to start learning English so as to be able to so the science and maths in English (which is a good idea, I think). They also continue their second language, and have the option of a fourth language (Mandarin or Tamil) if they want to. By the time they finish, in theory, each student has BM and English, as well as either Mandarin or Tamil; in practice, Mandarin would probably be more popular than Tamil; so, after ten years or so, there would be a whole generation of Malaysian children proficient in BM, English and Mandarin or Tamil – imagine how this would benefit Malaysia in terms of international competitiveness!

It would also prevent those ‘dark corners’ of language, where – for example – in an office Indians use Tamil to speak amongst each other and others feel excluded. It would also mean that people cannot use that excuse of language to not employ people who don’t speak Chinese – for example. In addition, most people can understand newspapers/TV/websites in different languages, so politicians can’t get away with giving different messages in different media.

I would also start school earlier at six, and have government-run pre-schools (ages 4-6) that also start teaching some multi-lingual skills already.

Not perfect
Of course it’s not perfect. Dialects would not be included. Orang Asli and Asal languages should ideally be included somehow. Non-Tamil speaking Indians are ignored. English mother-tongue schoolchildren would be somewhat disadvantaged at first (but later on would have an advantage). It may be difficult to get suitable teachers, especially in predominantly Malay, rural areas.

But really, it’s said that the first two years are the most important for a child’s character; and I’d say that the first eleven years are crucial for the formation of a child’s social habits. If a child is in a mono-ethnic environment for those years, I think it can only diminish the chance of an integrated society.

Well, that’s my five sen anyway, feel free to criticise or approve :-)
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