Learners' Conceptions of Computing

Whilst the focus is on computing, my departure point is science: to observe that there has been a paradigm shift in science curriculum over the last 20 years or so (So, 2002), attributable to science educators taking constructivist ideas seriously. In earlier times, science teaching methods emphasized the learning of answers more than the exploration of questions, memory at the expense of critical thoughts, bits and pieces of information instead of understanding in context, recitation over argument, reading in lieu of doing. Osborne and Freyberg (1980, p. 12), whose work Learning in Science was a key work in the development of this movement, observe:
  • From a young age, and prior to any teaching and learning of formal science, children develop meanings for many words used in science teaching and views of the world which related to ideas taught in science;
  • Children’s ideas are usually strongly held, even if not well known to teachers, and are often significantly different to the views of scientists; and
  • These ideas are sensible and coherent views from the children’s point of view, and they often remain uninfluenced or can be influenced in unanticipated ways by science teaching.

This site exists to explore the possibility that, if "science" were replaced by "computing" these ideas remain true. Or, to state in another way, in the teaching and learning of computing, there may be as-yet unexplorered and deeper ways to take constructivism increasingly seriously. If there was a time when science teaching was dominated by the transmission of disconnected facts (though arguably this was never an appropriate goal or even universal approach), there was also a time when students came to computing classes with essentially no exposure or life experience with computers whatsoever, but there was no choice but for many lessons to be anything other than highly teacher directed and highly content orientated. In contrast, students of the present era are frequently described as “ICT savvy” (Christopherson, 2006) or “digital natives” (Christopherson, quoting Prensky). Even so, some of our practices have continued to be about the learning of a range of a catalogue of skills, and our curriculum likewise (see, for example, the ICDL). And so, drawing on the experience in science education, it might be that teaching methods in relation to computing are due for a paradigm shift.

A reviewer of Osborne and Freyberg has observed: While so many school administrators worry about improving standardized test scores, they fail to care whether students actually comprehend the most basic science concepts. Rote memorization is not the answer, as it has been proven that children will regurgitate what is expected of them for an exam, without actually changing the way they innately feel about scientific phenomena. Afterwards, the majority of them will revert back to their original ideas. It is imperative to acknowledge and respect children's existing ideas about science -- be they right or wrong -- when teaching new concepts and elaborating upon old ones in the science classroom. (A useful summary of "children's science" is found on http://www.narst.org/publications/research/concept.htm and some examples of their misconceptions about science can be found on http://amasci.com/miscon/opphys.html) It opportune to wonder whether some of the apparently good performances of our "ICT savvy" students could arrise out of exactly this situation, and whether we are concerned with developing our students' "fundamental" ideas of computing, or busying ourselves with ensuring that they have learnt a catalogue of skills. There may be merit in making learners' conceptions of computing (ie what's in their head) the object of study as a complement to an interest in their skilfulness or their capacity to produce ICT products.

In an extended discussion in field not especially related to the one that I am advancing, Unsworth (2001, p. 13) observes in relation to online texts: The use of frame or windows make it possible to have two different texts and/or images on the screen at the same time. This provide new ways for designers/authors to structure their texts … Critical reading of digital rhetorical structures necessitates a capacity to ‘make strange’ or problematize the apparent ‘naturalness’ or ‘invisibility’ of the rhetorical choices designers/authors have made, questioning why certain links and juxtapositions are included and to imaging connections of a smiliar kind that could have been made but weren’t … ‘the more one is aware of how this is done, the more one can be aware that it was done and that it could have been done otherwise’. For the present dicussion, this quote highlights that just about everything that the user interacts with (windows, menus, mouse controls) is a product of human choice and what the "digital native" generation might think of as 'natural' could in fact be done another way. This is ontologically different to science where most of the phenomena we interact with, and construct ideas about (for example gravity, forces, genetics, etc), is not the product of human work. In the domain of computing we might reasonably respond with (a) what is done (b) what are your understandings of how it is done (c) why was it done that way and (d) how could it be done differently.

It occurs to me that there are four ways in which this line of thinking can be taken forward:
  • to develop probes of the understanding of computing concepts
    • "industrial strength" probes (cf 'interviews about instances' in the science arena) which take a good deal of skilled researcher time to administer, but generate high quality and insightful results
    • "quick probes" (eg lines or questioning or particular activities) which can be used by teachers in the course of a teaching sequence to get a reasonably good idea of the conceptual understanding of one or more students
  • to build an understanding of what conceptual understandings of computing we should engender in our students
  • to enquire whether there are expert/novice differences of students conceptual understanding of computing
  • to develop specific teaching strategies aimed at fostering particular conceptual understandings


Naive Understandings Background Paper.pdf: A paper by Paul which started some discussions, which led to this wiki

Christopherson, P. (2006). From the VCAA Corner. INFONET (The Journal of the Information Technology Teachers’ Association), 16(2), pp. 2-3

Osborne, R., & Freyberg, P. (1985). Learning in Science: The Implications of Children's Science. New Zealand: Aukland: Heinemann.

So, W. W-M. (2002, June). Constructivist Teaching in Primary Science, Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, 3(1). Available as http://www.ied.edu.hk/apfslt/v3_issue1/sowm/index.htm

McKenzie, J. (2007, November). Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation. From Now On, 17(2). Available from http://fno.org/nov07/nativism.html

Unsworth, L. (2001). Teaching multiliteracies across the curriculum: Changing contacts of text and image in classroom practice. Buckingham: Open University Press.