Developing Critical Understanding of Computing With the Raspberry Pi

Developing Critical Understanding of Computing With the Raspberry Pi

Amanda Banks Gatenby (University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/IJPOP.2017070101


This article describes a research project for exploring learning activities with Raspberry Pis in four school contexts in the UK. The aim of the project was to compare different learning designs, which had the shared objective of developing computational competencies, to investigate how these designs might simultaneously develop critical understanding of both the practices of Computing and students' own learning with respect to those practices. The study used a novel ‘before/after' implementation of Q methodology in combination with participant observations and reflective interviews with twenty-eight pupils. Findings suggested that where pupils were already predisposed to future involvement in Computing practices, working with Raspberry Pis did develop critical understanding, in ways that were less dependent on learning design. For those who had a more naïve or indifferent view of Computing, the pedagogy was most influential on how student perspectives developed, a pedagogy of expressibility being the key to supporting greater criticality.
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In the last five years, the discourse around curriculum for Computing in formal education in the UK moved from a focus on technology-in-use to the computational thinking underlying the discipline of Computer Science. Over the same time period, the maker movement has grown and there have been many initiatives to support all age groups to become creators rather than just consumers of technology, the Raspberry Pi (RPi) being a particularly high- profile initiative. This artifact was designed to help reveal the physical and conceptual technology that underlies the use of black boxed gadgets to young people, in the hope that greater understanding would lead to greater interest and empowerment. As an artifact that was developed by a largely academic Computer Science community, but designed to be an educational tool, the RPi became a nexus around which multiple practices within the landscape of Computing converged, including those of academia, hobbyists, industry, teachers and school pupils. What it means to be competent in Computing and Computing pedagogy was being negotiated around the RPi as these communities put the RPi to work in their various practices.

In the UK curriculum, the subject of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) was “rebranded” (Furber, 2012) to become Computing, a subject divided into three discipline areas: digital literacy; Information Technology (IT); and Computer Science (CS). Digital literacy is defined at a basic skills level, whereas Computer Science is “rigorous” (ibid, p.5) and only suitable for those with an aptitude for the subject (ibid, p.6).

Over three decades ago, Seymour Papert (1980) argued that the most important impact Computing could have in educational practices, would be in making young people aware that there were different ways to think about problems: through solving problems by thinking about them through computational representation, children would learn “that there is such a thing as a “style of thinking”” (Papert, 1980, p.27). Similarly, diSessa (2001, 2008) described how developing an ability to express difficult ideas computationally provided the opportunity for a new literacy, a new tool for understanding.

However, since this time, research has shown that pedagogy for technical and engineering subjects can instead lead to a deterministic mindset, a ‘one right way’ to do things view, or binary thinking. Papert (1993) was concerned that the way Logo was absorbed into formal education had created a new stand-alone discipline of Computer studies that led to technocentric (Papert, 1987) approaches to both educational practice and the research exploring these practices. Further, he was concerned by the “hegemony of the abstract, formal, and logical as the privileged canon in scientific thought”, (Turkle and Papert, 1990) where the demotion of concrete practice moved away from his original intentions with Logo. This hegemony of the abstract is mirrored in the balkanized UK curriculum design of a basic skill-based positioning of digital literacy and the ‘rigorous’ computational thinking.

The view of computational means as a literacy, as one thinking tool that is useful in its relation to others as appropriate for particular ideas, is commensurate with more recent literature in the wider field of literacy. Literacy is not simple manipulation of symbols but is a situated, political process of meaning making that enables expression (see for example, Kalantizis, Cope, Chan & Dalley-Trim, 2012, and Whitworth, 2014). There are synergies in the literature around critical thinking, which in recent years focuses on dispositions and ways of knowing (Moon, 2008), whereas traditionally critical thinking was associated with logic, rationality and objectivity. The latter stance would suggest again that there is one ‘correct’ answer to work towards, not an approach that would be associated with what educationalists tend to mean when they say ‘critical’ (ibid). Bullen (1998) and Chan, Ho and Ku, (2011) further demonstrate that engineering students who are taught there is one correct way to do things may have a reduced capacity for critical thinking.

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