Computational thinking in early years – how the Co-Make project is bringing together educators and children from across Europe

How can we support very young children to develop computational thinking? How are educators doing it already, across Europe, and could it be done better?

That’s the exciting challenge being explored by Co-Make, an Erasmus+ project bringing together educators and children from the UK, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. London CLC is one of the partners and we’re working with Stockwell Primary School as the UK participants in the project.

As a group we’re looking at how we can build what is already existing good practice in early years foundation stage (EYFS) or early childhood education (ECE) supporting the development of computational thinking: pattern, sequencing, instructions, problem-solving, planning. It’s most definitely not about imposing technology or attempting any kind of formal computing curriculum activity. 

Instead, this project is all about enhancing digital competence through inclusive, collaborative, computational thinking. We know that the use of technology with young children is sometimes more effective when it’s guided by an adult rather than self-guided and spontaneous, though there’s a place for that too, so what’s the best way to plan for this in your practice? The intention is that the project partners will promote digital skills and competences among teachers, educators and students throughout Europe by sharing the best practices from all countries and by broadening all of our understanding of computational thinking. And this will be based on our practical experiences in classrooms and early years settings.

So, how are we going about it?

Learnathons

One of the most exciting elements of the project is the local Learnathons. These involve children in each of the partner schools tackling a common challenge planned beforehand, and sharing their computational thinking approaches and results with the other schools, encouraging collaboration and learning from each other in a fun way. Each group we know is going to come up with their own version.

The stage is already set for the first learnathon, First Contact.

“The child (girl or boy) from the logo and the robot (girl, boy, it) have just met (look at the logo!) How can they communicate and begin to understand each other? Please ask the children to help solve the problem – what are their ideas?”

The children need to help the characters communicate by using, for example, symbols, music/rhythm, movements or patterns and in a way that includes and encourages computational thinking, such as sequence, decomposing, debugging and giving instructions.

Each school captures their story by video, photos or drawings, or using puppets or toys, and sets a challenge for the other schools. We have a deadline so we eagerly anticipate the results.

There will be five learnathons in total across the project, and it’s quite likely that they will include some use of equipment that all schools can gain access to such as BeeBots or similar toys and tablets or iPads. But we want to emphasise that technology and screens don’t necessarily have to be the starting point. We hope that each of the learnathons will build on and learn from the experiences of the others. Co-Make itself is in some ways building on the experience of our earlier Co-Think project, where the upcoming Tate Exchange day will include participation from the Co-Think partner schools as the project draws to its final phase.

Learning from each other

One of the key ways the educators are sharing good practice is through visits to the different countries in the project in order to gain a better understanding and appreciation of how computational thinking is developed in EYFS in context ie in a way relevant to each partner organisation’s philosophy and approach. 

A short visit to Middlefart in Denmark in October 2019 saw the project start with the coordinators meeting each other and learning more through practical workshops about the maker and design thinking approach. This was followed by a packed trip to the Netherlands in December where we were able to visit to Den Haag’s Cosmicus School, which has a focus on global citizenship and where all children work from a tablet from age seven, and Snijders School, among others. 

At Snijders we learned that there is a focus on independence with children planning their own schedules and choosing which workshops they do. Every child has their own digital portfolio using bordfolio.com and the focus is on this as a record of progress rather than grades. There is also an emphasis on personal qualities, such as being good at comforting others, with the children’s friends having an input into what they think are each other’s particular qualities. Teachers tend not to use schemes and text books other than in maths.

During the joint partner and planning sessions we also heard from Felienne Hermans, associate professor at Leiden University and head of the Programming Education Research Lab (PERL), on programming with young children. She argues that since children live in a world that is informed by software, if we want to raise healthy and informed citizens then they need to understand the role that algorithms and software play in our society. 

She makes a case for supporting educators to teach children programming in two ways:  direct instruction – explaining and practising in small steps – and showing that it can be used in many different areas and is not just for those who love programming for the sake of it. 

Watch this great five-minute YouTube for an overview of her approach

Theories

And, of course, as well as the practical and experiential aspects, Co-Make is also based on solid theoretical groundwork. The project draws on the work of some respected theorists. These include:

Mitch Resnick, LEGO Papert professor of learning research, director of the Okawa Center, and director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. In his 2017 book Lifelong Kindergarten Resnick identifies how we can draw on the educational philosophy of the kindergarten phase to provide children with opportunities to work on projects, based on their passions, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit and help them prepare for a world where creative thinking is more important than ever before. It’s his team that has developed the phenomenally successful Scratch platform and more recently Scratch Jr which is now available free for multiple platforms and suitable for younger children to enjoy.

We also draw on the work of Nathan Holbert, assistant professor in the Department

of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Columbia University, in developing Maker education with very young children to support them to create personally meaningful objects including digital artefacts.

Finally, we’re using the frameworks developed by Professor Marina Umaschi at the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University which aims to understand how new technologies that engage in coding, robotics and making can play a positive role in children’s development and learning.

What next?

As a group we’re developing the Co-Make website in order to share our findings. It’s at an early stage but, in the months to come, it will be the project repository to report on the outcomes of our work. We’ll also be making more informal links to allow the schools to collaborate directly with each other, using the Erasmus+ eTwinning web platform which has been developed for this purpose. Of course, we have to be mindful of GDPR and each country’s best practice with regard to online safety. Please look out for updates at our conferences, through this blog and the London CLC newsletter as the project progresses.

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