Microworlds, Poetry and Programming: Block-Based Programming for Literacy and Computational Thinking in Secondary Education in Wales

  • Craig Jenkins

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    In the 1960s, Papert and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed Turtle Graphics using the LOGO programming language. Underpinning this development was a profound new philosophy of how learning happens with computers using a microworlds-based approach to learning. The aim of Turtle Graphics was simple: through the act of learning to program an on-screen Turtle, learners also develop their conceptual understanding in other domains such as mathematics.

    In contemporary Wales, literacy and numeracy figure as national priorities for school improvement. A statutory framework makes these skills a responsibility of all teachers, regardless of subject discipline or age range. The Welsh Government has stated that Digital Competence is set to join literacy and numeracy as a third cross-curricular responsibility with increasing prominence being given to thinking computationally.

    This work builds upon the well-established theoretical position of microworlds research and contributes new knowledge to this area in two key ways. First, it considers the potential for reviving the microworld tradition in light of the aspirations and priorities within current education policy in Wales. Second, it considers how extensible block-based programming technologies may be used by school-based educators for developing their own activities containing custom block kits.

    Specifically, this project explores three key questions: (i) What is the potential of a microworld-based teaching approach for the development of specific aspects of computational thinking? (ii) What is its potential for defined aspects of literacy?(iii) What effective practice recommendations for microworld pedagogic design can be made?

    The work comprises five studies, four of which took place at a school where the teacher-researcher is employed as a full time teacher of ICT. The project employs an action research approach that tells the story of five work packages (WP) that took place over six academic terms at the school. The WPs makes use of a range of methodological instruments including quantitative-based quasi-experiments and qualitative peer talk analyses. The project investigates the three key questions identified above by establishing a series of microworld-based interventions in the teaching schemes of eleven-to-twelve-year-olds.

    The conclusions are limited by difficulties in applying rigid scientific methodologies in an educational environment, in particular the lack of random assignment of subjects and small sample sizes. However, quantitative findings suggest that learners undertaking microworld-based interventions made greater improvements than their comparison group counterparts in the specific aspects of literacy and computational thinking that were tested for. There is also some evidence to indicate a link in performance between literacy and computational thinking, but this link requires more robust evidence. Further, nine effective practice recommendations are put forward for educators wishing to replicate microworld-based pedagogy in their own practice such as the merits of pair programming and dialogic teaching.
    Date of AwardJan 2018
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorCeri Pugh (Supervisor)

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