“We can all see the butterflies. Find the fireflies in our classrooms who only shine under the right conditions.” This quote from US educator Chris Wejr (@ChrisWejr) at TEDxLangleyED sums up what I love most about teaching computing.
Fireflies only light up at night and there are some children I come across who somehow seem to be less visible in the classroom. They aren’t the stars at numeracy or literacy, they don’t come to the forefront in drama or PE and they don’t thrive under the challenge of cross-curricular projects. It is in computing where they shine.
Sam was one child like this. We started a topic on algorithms and had a go at writing a set of instructions on how to do the Hokey Cokey. I hadn’t taught this class before and overestimated Sam’s writing capabilities. Help was at hand with a paired approach, and I observed how Sam and his partner were getting on from a distance. It soon became clear that Sam just got it. He could set the list of actions down in a sequential order. He could spot the “in out” repetition. He knew that a description of “shake it all about” just wouldn’t be precise enough for an alien who’d never seen the dance before. In that lesson, Sam shone.
Niamh was another child who very rarely volunteered information and lacked confidence to express her ideas out loud. Yet in a lesson on networks, she illustrated the concept of packet routing perfectly, and even explained a mistake which I had made in interpreting her diagram (I genuinely love it when children point out my misunderstandings!). In that lesson, Niamh shone.
Lucy was a third child who tended to fly under the radar in class. She had recently been diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum and struggled with social aspects such as group working and personal organisation. Yet she was able to code a game, develop it at home and present it to an audience of over 50 strangers on a stage at a gaming convention. In that situation, Lucy shone.
Why does computing bring out the best in some children? I believe that it uses their natural ability to think computationally. Like every subject, some children display an aptitude for computing and I am always delighted when these children are unexpectedly the mentors and leaders of their class. Of course, some of the butterflies make great computational thinkers too and they are also to be encouraged.
So what should be do with our computing fireflies? Should we bottle them up in a jar to create some kind of arduino-like art installation to protect and admire? No, we should be encouraging them to spread their wings and go out to understand and change the world. Fireflies only shine in the darkest conditions. But when they shine, it’s truly beautiful.