Best Practices for Teaching and Learning: Inspiration from David and Frances Hawkins

From the Hawkins Centers of Learning (HCoL) website:

Frances and David Hawkins were a husband and wife team of teacher and educational philosopher, whose work transcends time and place.  She was a teacher, deeply observant of children’s learning processes.  He drew upon her observations and writing to develop a philosophy of education, ranging from the specifics of the adult/child learning relationship to the higher domains of public education policy. Together, their writings informed a generation of education professionals, and programs, worldwide.

The ways children learn have not changed since Frances and David wrote during the latter half of the 20th century. Because their teaching approaches and theories are independent of transient technologies, they remain as cogent and universally applicable today as when they were written.

David began his career as a scientist and philosopher. Following his position as official historian of the Manhattan Project, (which developed the atomic bomb), he became extremely concerned with the forces that scientists had unleashed, and turned to education as a means of humanizing society. Among his intentions was to provide a framework in which children could develop sustained curiosity and excitement about nature and science.

David based much of his writing on a few central tenets: that children learn most deeply when they are following their natural curiosities; that teachers are best able to engage in the child’s curiosity-based learning when they too have engaged in like experiences; that children are naturally prepared for early science and math learning regardless of social class advantages, and that early literacy in science and math is the gateway both to most other subjects, and to an ethic of lifelong learning. His works are passionate proposals for curiosity-based learning, how adults can engage in it with children, and why educational systems should support it.

Read more here.

Hawkins Centers of Learning is an organization dedicated to extending the work David and Frances (who are now passed away), and bringing their work into the twenty-first century. The work of these two important educators has been hugely influential in my teaching (and learning) career, and I would like to dedicate space to sharing some of their big ideas and examining how their thinking can impact learning to code.

Messing About

Messing About is a three-phase cycle of teaching and learning proposed by David in his 1965 essay “Messing About with Science”, which I highly recommend, and can be found here. The three phases are:

Circle Phase: A time for unguided exploratory play and exploration of materials and ideas. The hands-on component is important here. For example, to learn about gravity, leaners might be offered a variety of ramps, tubes, balls, and wheels, and encouraged to explore the properties freely.

Triangle Phase: In this phase, a direction is chosen and explored more in-depth. For example, learners might create a goal of building a ramp that a ball can roll down continuously, but contains curvature so the ball’s path can end directly underneath where it started.

Square phase: In this phase, the ideas explored can be unpacked and discussed. For example, learners who explored rolling can reflect on challenges they faced and successes they experienced. They can discuss the scientific principles encountered and make plans for further explorations.

Messing About (1)

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Pre-Coding Part 1: A Quick Look Backward, or “What the Heck is Pre-Coding?”

Copy of Pre-coding (3)

When I started my personal project to learn to code almost five months ago, I wrote a blog post titled Why Coding? Why Now?, dated October 6, 2014. I listed out my main motivations for wanting to learn to code, and I want to revisit one of them today: To dissect what “pre-coding” is. I want to spend some time processing what I have learned about coding since this project began, and to pull out some thoughts about what types of skills, ways of thinking, and mindsets precede understanding computer programming. I want to use this blog to continue to explore these ideas, but first I want to look back to October 2014 and revisit my words surrounding this topic:

What is Pre-Coding? (Written in October, 2014)

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Click here to learn more about the Catherine Cook School

In 2013, I attended a conference in Chicago entitled “Technology in the Early Years”, hosted by The Erikson Institute and Columbia College in Chicago. We got to visit an amazing school called the Catherine Cook School. This school really embraces utilizing technological tools to enhance children’s learning.  A conversation with a preschool teacher at this school was a pivotal moment in motivating me to learn to code.  The teacher explained why using a visually linear calendar with children (depicts months as a single line of days, rather than blocked into a rectangle of weeks) provided support for “pre-coding” skills.  

This was really interesting to me, because I had heard of linear calendars, but never discussed in this way.  Some prekindergarten classrooms at Boulder Journey School (The school at which I work) use them.  For preschoolers who are just beginning to learn about time, it is often more logical to present days visually as a single line rather than in seven-day blocks. This does not mean you never get to the traditional blocked, stacked weeks calendar, but it is a more natural progression of learning. However, at this moment in 2013 I was simply amazed to hear someone make a connection between a single line of symbols and supporting a child’s ability to understand computer code later in life.  

An example of a linear calendar, image source:
A traditional calendar…This is the way we usually represent days and weeks, but why? Image Source:
A traditional calendar…This is the way we usually represent days and weeks, but why?
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A slight diversion for those of you who don’t know:  “pre-” is what preschool teachers do (and it’s REALLY important!) Preschool teachers do not deliver formal reading instruction. They incorporate pre-literacy skills into what they teach. For example, understanding that letters have sounds, groups of letters are words, words have meaning, words can be grouped together to make sentences, etc. Children need to know all kinds of things about reading before they actually learn to read, and that is one thing preschool is for. Research shows that if children do not have opportunities to learn all this stuff, it is much harder for them to learn to read and is likely to make school harder for the rest of their lives.  Pre-math skills are just as important. Continue reading

A coding resolution for the new year (deja vu?)

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I have not traditionally been a person who makes New Years resolutions. I do believe resolutions are important, as the act of declaring some kind of promise with the intention of self-improvement is a wonderful practice. I simply believe it can be worthwhile to declare resolutions throughout the year.

This being said, I have recently come to realize that perhaps there is something I have overlooked about the practice of declaring resolutions for a new year. There is something important about the time between Winter Solstice, marking the shortest day/longest night of each year, and the first day of the Gregorian Calendar, January 1. This stretch of roughly eleven days can easily cause disruptions in one’s mental and physical health. Cold, darkness, holidays, travel, and an increase in social obligations cause typical routines to shift. For teachers of all kinds, the stretch between semesters can provide time for rest, but can also necessitate more time spent finishing work from Fall semester and planning and organizing for Spring semester. All of this can leave us feeling disconnected and anxious, creating a need for self-renewal.

January 1 isn’t necessarily the day when I feel my energy needing a specific renewal effort, but I do always feel that need at some point in January. My typical formula for self-renewal includes more yoga, more tea (less coffee), less sugar, and more quality time with friends and loved ones. This year, I am adding an additional variable to my formula: more coding. More specifically, I’m re-committing myself to the resolution I made almost 4 months ago to learn to code. Continue reading

15 Things We Learned from “Hour of Code” 2014

This year’s Computer Science Education Week, December 8 – 14, 2014, was exciting. Millions of children and adults around the world tried coding and engaged in conversations about computer programming’s role in schools and society.

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As the dust settles, I am left wondering:

What did we learn?

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An Hour of Code with Young Friends, Part 2: Differentiated Instruction in Real Time

With one Hour of Code experience under my belt, I invited two more friends to code with me. I had explored only minimally in preparation for my previous experience, and was able to follow and support a fairly open-ended exploration by 10 year old Z. I was feeling much more brave before this second time, and was interested what it would be like to work with two children at the same time.

I invited two siblings, L and Q, to code with me. They both attend a public neighborhood school near their house in the Denver Metro Area. Their school employs a fairly traditional approach to education, incorporating computers and other technology as learning tools, balanced with common methods of teaching al subject matter. Here’s a little bit more about them as individuals:


L is a ten year boy in fourth grade:

  • He lists his favorite subjects as P.E. and reading.
  • He is caring, thoughtful, and has been known to win awards at school for character and citizenship.
  • He is active and loves football.
  • He loves the rain and Seattle, aspiring to live there when he grows up.
  • He has a great sense of style, from mohawks to hipster glasses.

QQ is an eight year old girl in second grade:

  • She lists her favorite subjects as reading, math, and art.
  • She loves all things creative, and is an avid crafter.
  • Has a natural and powerful connection with animals. She is a loving caretaker to many furry creatures at her home.
  • Is naturally social and enjoys getting to know all kinds of different people.
  • Her last two Halloween costumes were “Cleopatra” and “movie star”…with the big personality to pull them off.

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What IS Coding? Gearing up for Computer Science Education Week & An Hour of Code

I sat at a Thanksgiving dinner table about a week and a half ago with a group of friends.  We were enjoying our feast and chatting about this and that. Since most of us at the table were either teachers, spouses of teachers, or children…you can imagine how our conversation kept drifting back to issues in education.  I started telling one friend about my goal of learning to code, and she asked a simple question:

“What IS coding anyway?”

This question provoked a little nervous tingle, as I realized this was the first time I had been asked to explain something about coding to another teacher. I had to stop, rewind my brain to just over two months ago when I started to explore this very question, and try to conceive an answer that would make sense to someone with the same background and lack of technical expertise as myself. My response was something like this:

“Coding is very basically giving your computer a set of instructions that you write in a programming language. The computer then responds by doing what you told it to do.”

I was relieved when this came out of my mouth and I realized that it largely made sense. This conversation also made me realize that could be important to spend some more time considering what that coding really is, and ponder some ways to synthesize and explain it to people who might not have any background, or might never have had any interest before. 

When I was first learning to code, I would Google things like “programming for beginners”, “what is coding?” and “learning to code”. My search efforts would return tons of great resources for people who already know a little bit about computers, and are not completely intimidated by words like “algorithm”. Many of the search results assume you know what a “console” is, are already comfortable with words like “variables” and “data types”, or what a “platform” is. If you don’t already know these things, do not worry about them! I think there is a level of beginner explanation that is just plain difficult to find. Just to be clear, I recognize that there are tons of great beginner resources out there…I just found myself wishing for an even more novice level of basic description. With this in mind, I’m going to attempt to offer my own supplement, and explain programming in a way that makes sense to me and might appeal to a broad array of non-programmers. 

This seems like a particularly relevant thing to do now, since this is Computer Science Education Week (Dec. 8 – 14). All this week, millions of children around the world will participate in “An Hour of Code“. This is a challenge to teachers, administrators, community members, and families to offer children “a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics.” is organizing and promoting this challenge, and they offer tons of great resources on their website. 

Note: Although some argue that there are differences, I use “coding” and “programming” interchangeably throughout this post in reference to “the act of writing computer programs”. 

Keep reading if:

  • You have ever wondered about coding/programming
  • You have never wondered about coding/programming (because it is never too late to start!)
  • You have tried to look up coding and programming before, and didn’t gain a whole lot of understanding
  • You do not consider yourself very tech-savvy or computer literate
  • You are curious about how someone who meets the above criteria might explain programming
  • You are curious what children are actually learning from beginner tutorials 

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