School – Then, Now and the Future

My School Years

When I was younger, I think somewhere in elementary between the grade 3-6, I had my first introduction to a non-base 10 number system.  They chose to use binary and I am going to speculate that they chose this over hexadecimal because, in that grade, I would have known about 1’s and 0’s but would have been horribly confused if they introduced A, B, C, D, E, F as “numbers”.  In any case, I learned how to add in binary, which was neat, but it wasn’t really my jam.  

The initial look at binary didn’t turn me off of math.  In fact, even though it didn’t resonate with me as being practical or useful at the time, it might have made me practice my times’ tables more, I do remember focusing a lot on multiplying 2’s.  I was particularly proud that I could do this to a reasonably high number and realized in my later years that these actually replicated the doubling that we have noticed in technology, more relatable to people familiar with computers, in terms of RAM.  For instance:

  • 2 * 2 = 4
  • 256 * 2 = 512
  • 512 * 2 = 1024 (1KB)

The exercise can be taken further to MB and then GB, in the day I typically stopped at 512.  For me, it was enough at the time to know the times’ tables that far, similar to the somewhat misquoted statement attributed to Bill Gates about 640 KB.  If you are familiar with that quote and also know a bit about low memory and high memory in the earlier Windows OS then you know what I mean. I might also have an interesting story to tell you about the Nintendo Wii, let’s have lunch and chat about that one.

It has also led me to think recently about 12 numbers, or duodecimal numbering systems, and how they can be used to represent music and keys.  Not to be confused with the “Dewey Decimal System” common in most libraries. 

In any case, my point here is that we did some interesting things in school when I was growing up.  They didn’t always relate back immediately to the why however I did enjoy the journey through school though and I feel that they provided me with a foundation for my later years.

School for My Son

I have written a bit about my son’s experience of school in previous blog posts.  He has not had as positive of an experience with school as I did when I was growing up.  I have spent a lot of time trying to understand how I can help here and we have built a great team at school to help him on this journey.  

Part of the understanding has led me back to what might have been different for my generation as compared to his generation.  I find that one of the factors might have been less choice in the information we take in. I feel that this may have given us more time to ruminate on the why rather than the what.  Or maybe that’s just my current brain reframing the experiences of my youth. Whichever is the case I do know that it’s been a large focus to try to engage him in school so that he can “keep his beautiful brain occupied”, a phrase I repeat to teachers often.  We are getting there, it’s a journey, not a destination.

I think there is a larger picture to this that I am starting to really understand.  I think his experiences here and challenges will ultimately contribute to the person that he will become and I hope that he will reflect back over these challenges as the opportunities that they were.  I’m not going to go too much further down that path in this blog post and will instead simply try to make a point and talk a bit about what I find has worked both at home and at school to foster that learning.

“The Point” and Projects

First I would like to say that my son and I spend a lot of time reading at home.  We’ve started to mix it with Audiobooks as they are easier to ingest while we are doing other things, you know, like interact with each other.  Maybe this multitasking is a bad idea, I have some thoughts on that in previous blog posts, but it seems to work for us.

We also spend a lot of time working on projects, I’ll share some of those in a moment.  First, though I’ll also finally get to my point, or maybe it’s a question, I don’t know.  What I’d like to throw out there though is this:

What if schools changed or adapted programs to adopt a more free form learning style, similar to how tech companies structure their learning.  What would that look like?

I do see pieces of that coming, there is a lot of talk in my son’s school about “passion projects” and those things that will fuel children’s desire to learn.  The issue I see with those, however, is that the school system is not structured to handle that sort of free form learning. I’ve had a lot of talks with the teachers and principals at my son’s school and have suggested that they might need an “incubator” group or “innovation” group internally to help facilitate or support some of the initiatives taken my children.  This is a great idea however the funding model seems to be largely behind the times and the reality of the situation is that some of the students are left with great ideas that they can’t get off the ground. It’s a bit sad because the real issue here is that students are left often with a feeling that they have done something wrong. Hence the importance I placed earlier about creating a “good team” at school and the effort we have spent there.

Now with all that crap said my hope is that we can ruminate on it a bit and start thinking about how we would like to see school work rather than just considering how it’s worked in the past.  I do feel that we are on the verge of some very big changes here and I am excited to see what is to come.  

Now, let’s look at some fun stuff.  I put the following list and links together in an email to my son’s grandmothers.  They are various projects we have worked on over the years, some are to share my interests and some are to explore his interests as well.  The focus has been to just play with things and see what sticks:

  • Darts – This was a huge win for math and a huge loss.  We used this to look at multiplication, addition and also worked in Google Spreadsheets.  The win was that we got better at math and it was fun, the loss, however, was that I taught my son a lot of shortcuts on how to calculate things and I believe this may be hurting him in the “show your work” portion of math currently.  Lesson learned.
  • Cribbage – This one goes to my mom, and I will give a shout out to the YMCA.  This is a great tool to learn math as well, very focused multiplication tables and addition as well as critical thinking and planning.  Recently this has been a huge win for my son at school as he was able to teach a lot of his classmates how to play the game.  This was a great confidence builder for my son and I really appreciate the effort the school went through to make this happen.
  • Scratch – This is a visual programming language and something my son was very intuitive on.  He was allowed to explore this on the iPads at school and we also worked a bit on it at home.  He also helped me prepare and teach an intro course for the group at school, it was surprising to see that some kids already had a portfolio!  My son was a natural here and it was a good opportunity for him to build confidence in his abilities in a school setting.
  • Robots – We did a bit of exploration here thanks initially to a teacher friend, Bobie, helping us get access to a number of different robots to trial.  The clear winner here was the Ozobots, we donated a class set to the school and are looking at picking up another one to help train the teachers in the coming year.
  • Guitar – This has been an interest of mine that I am happy to see my son pick up.  In all fairness, we tried maracas, bongo drums, recorder and singing as well. My son has a great ear for guitar however really shines singing, probably something he gets more from his mother than me.
  • Micro Bit – This was a fun little experiment in wiring and programming.  The project we worked on was to wire up a sound module to a micro:bit circuit board and program the music from a song my son had written into a block-ly (scratch like) programming language.  The result turned out quite well, you will see my son in the foreground and Bobie in the background, the song is called “Don’t Be Scared” –
  • Wood Work – This interest was largely sparked by a birdhouse that my son’s grade 4 teacher organized.  Huge props to her for the idea and making the task something that the kids could complete and feel a sense of accomplishment for, thank you!  This led to a new interest that we now have to explore with Bobie and her kids, we’ve set up a workbench and also built a picnic table together:  

Anyway, I hope that both the thoughts on the school system and the projects give some food for thought.  The projects have been fun to work on and it’s been a great experience learning more about the school system in the process.  I do feel that we are on the verge of some exciting growth in this industry and I am grateful to be part of the process.


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