Education Opinion

Teach the Whole Family to Code: MIT Media Lab Family Creative Learning Guide

By Justin Reich — August 10, 2014 4 min read
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If we want learning technologies to benefit all learners, not just the children of the affluent and technologically-savvy, we need to think about teaching villages and not just children.

Ricarose Roque, from the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group, has released a fabulous new guide for Family Creative Learning Workshops: an out-of-school program that introduces entire families to creative learning through Scratch and Makey-Makey. Scratch is a block-based programming language for learning to code and creating games, animations, and other cool stuff, and Makey-Makey is a tool for creating novel physical interfaces for computing systems, like turning a bunch of bananas into a piano. The Famliy Creative Learning Guide is a blueprint to help other facilitators run a series of five two-hour workshops, and the guide offers lesson plans, journals, and other resources. Each workshop begins with dinner and proceeds through four phases, Eat-Meet-Make-Share, and then the series ends with a community fair to share out each family’s projects.

I’m basically over the moon about this; it’s a double-helping of fabulous smothered in awesome sauce. Here’s how Roque and her team introduce the effort:

Technology pervades all aspects of our lives and young people are growing up playing, learning, and connecting with technology. However, parents, especially those with little to no background in technology, are often unsure what role they can play. These workshops leverage the learning dynamics that families already use in activities like literacy development and support families in using them in the context of computing, enabling parents and children to become more empowered learning partners.

Here’s the larger context that I’d put all of this in: one of the most common findings from the last 30 years of education technology research is that new learning technologies disproportionately benefit the affluent. Even technologies that are free can be more easily and more effectively taken-up by those with the social, financial, and technical capital to take advantage of new free innovations. Think of the whole slew of learn-to-code apps, websites, programs, and so forth that are trying to bring new young people into the culture of computing. In general, we should assume that all such programs are especially useful to the children of computer scientists and engineers who are more aware of these opportunities and more capable of mentoring their kids through their use. That’s not to say that these tools can’t potentially benefit all kinds of kids, and do, but families from different circumstances have very different capacities to take advantage of these opportunities. Learn-to-code apps are particularly useful for kids who were going to learn to code anyway, just like my weird computer nerd dad showed me how to write my first programs in BASIC in the early 80’s by copying them out of a magazine (though we mostly played AppleTrek, which was awesome, and taught me arcdegrees.) Just like I’m playing Robot Turtles and Minecraft with my own daughters.

So if you want to disproportionately benefit students with the least access to tech-related social capital, you have to think about how you can support not just kids, but also the family and neighborhood ecosystems around kids. This is what Roque’s project appears to do so beautifully: find joyful ways to engage parents and their children in discovering entry points into computing and maker culture. In doing so, they build not just the capacity of families, but hopefully help connect these families into larger networks that can continue to support one another.

There are some precedents for this kind of work, but far too few. TechGoesHome is another notable Boston project. The program uses school teachers after hours to teach parents how to effectively use laptop computers and gives whole families discounted access to computers and Internet service. Not only are parents better equipped to support student learning with technology, but they make a meaningful connection with teachers that makes them better connected to the school community. Kids have more tools at home, parents can mentor them better, and everyone is more connected to school. Many, many wins.

If you want to scale family capacity to support computer science learning, there’s no app for that. The easiest solutions work best for the families with the most capacity. To serve those without an easy on-ramp into computing culture, you have to go block by block, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood, Boys and Girls Club catchment area by catchment area to build social capital for tech-mediated learning. That’s why it’s so important that Roque and colleagues made these materials so accessible for other potential facilitators. Creating a more equitable computer science pipeline, from AP classes to college majors to employment in big tech firms, has to begin in communities that are underrepresented at the end of the pipeline.

I’m hoping the seeds that Roque and her team have planted are scattered far and wide. I’m excited to hear more about what she learns in her research. In the meantime, schools that run technology courses for parents should look very closely at what’s happening in the Family Creative Learning Program; it looks like a great model for inspiration.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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