Building Capacity for Computational and Design Thinking at a System Level

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By: Jen Charnish


“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention, rather than provide ready-made knowledge”. –Seymour Papert


Both my parents are recently retired educators, and it floors me to think that they began teaching in a system without computers and the internet. I look at my own daughter, taking for granted the robots in her kindergarten class, and struggle with the fact that I cannot even imagine the changes that she will experience in school. How will this education system prepare her for a future that, quite possibly, hasn’t even been invented yet?


For the past six months, I have had the opportunity to work at a system level to begin to make changes that will enable our students to meet this new future head on. I am the “STEM and Innovative Learning” Consultant for Brant Haldimand-Norfolk CDSB. We are a small board “in the middle of everything”, which we have consistently leveraged to our advantage over the years. System change anywhere is daunting, but very possible in our small, tightly knit community.


Beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, the board launched our “STEM: Growing Innovators” program. This is a transdisciplinary model of instruction, which attempts to teacher and students.jpgbuild the skills of design thinking and computer science in all of our learners. Launching in ten of our elementary schools this year, in the fall of 2018, every elementary student in the board will receive a total of 1500 minutes of targeted instruction in these areas, delivered by expert teachers.  At the same time, we are working to build the capacity of all of our educators to leverage these ideas in their classrooms to develop creativity, problem solving and computational thinking skills across the curriculum.


Check out a coding and computational thinking continuum that Jen worked on as part of her role in BHNCDSB.


Students will begin to explore coding as early as Kindergarten. We have been fortunate to collaborate with Lisa Floyd and the team from Fair Chance Learning to help us solidify our vision for this moving forward. Ultimately, we have created a draft “Curriculum” outlining learning goals and success criteria for computational thinking at each grade level, centered around the four fundamental principles of computational thinking; abstraction, decomposition, algorithmic thinking and pattern recognition. (Introduction to computational thinking, BBC, Bitesize, 2017). With an emphasis on teaching these principles, we introduce the common computational thinking practices; sequencing, loops, events, parallelism, operators and variables (Brennan & Resnick, 2012). Students, remix, debug and pay attention to the various iterations of their program.


student at desk.jpg


In the Early Years, students will begin to explore the fundamental principles of code—sequencing, patterning, and iteration. While the excellent offerings of are a piece of the puzzle, our K-1 program is primarily grounded in “Unplugged” centers, and story-based provocations using loose parts, grid carpets, and games including “Robot Turtles”.  Older primary students will explore computer science fundamentals through a combination of unplugged lessons, puzzles, and beginning to explore Scratch. In the junior and intermediate grades, learners will explore and extend their understanding of concepts working in Scratch. The eventual goal is to begin introducing Python, App Inventor and some HTML/CSS so students become creators of the technology they are immersed in, rather than merely passive consumers.


Digital tangibles were carefully chosen to have a “low floor” “high ceiling” and wide walls –that is, they are accessible to students from a variety of grade levels for a variety of different activities (Resnick & Silverman, 2005). These digital tangibles include the BBC micro:bit and Makey Makey. So far, the micro:bits have been out in full force, used from Kindergarten to Grade 8, and will move into our secondary schools next year.


To help teachers leverage their students’ emerging skills as coders we have provided 40 educators with the opportunity to become “STEM Lead Learners”.  Teachers came together across the board in February to unpack coding and the digital tangibles supported by the board with their students, then returned to their schools to put their knowledge into practice. This spring sees them come together again to share their experiences and advance their skills. Next year, these educators will serve as mentors to others in the board who are interested in starting this journey.  

About Me:


Screen Shot 2018-05-11 at 9.25.20 AM.pngI was that kid that grew up knowing what I was supposed to do…all I’ve ever wanted is to teach! I went to Waterloo and completed their Co-op Teaching Option, in partnership with Queen’s University. The co-op experience was amazing, and it was through that experience that I fell in love not just with teaching, but with Science. I started teaching in September 2004, and became a Department Head for Science in 2012. Somewhere in there I took the time to marry the IT guy, and have two amazing kids…who inspire me to push forward, try new things, and somehow that got me here. I was hired just shy of a year ago to support the developing vision for STEM education in the board. In my current role I support classroom educators and itinerant STEM teachers as they develop focused lessons and pathways that promote Design and Computational Thinking. Find me on Twitter here @jcharnishcurrie