An Interview with Jim Cash


Jim Cash has been an educator for over 20 years with the Peel District School Board and has been technology support teacher for the past 7 years.  Our paths have crossed, certainly online, but also at the annual Bring IT, Together Conference.  At the most recent one, I saw his passion as he got in an argument with an exhibitor and I just knew that I had to have an interview on file from him!

Doug:  It’s the same first question for everyone – can you recall when we first met?

Jim: I remember when we first met. I attended a session in which you presented at an ECOO conference when it was still called the ECOO conference. You shared a long list of tools and resources and pointed out the strengths of each and how they could be used in the classroom. It was one of the more informative and useful sessions I attended that year!

Doug:  I’ve been a big fan of your blog and your thoughts and ideas about coding.  When did you get interested in that?

Jim:  Thank you very much for saying that! I was in grade 8, which was 1979 for me. It was right at the beginning of the personal computer ‘revolution.’ Somehow, I convinced my grade 8 teacher to get a TRS-80 computer for the classroom… but that was probably due to my own interest. I do remember telling him the kinds of things I was doing. I don’t know why but something about the idea of writing code in a ‘language’ the computer could understand and execute was exciting and became somewhat of a passion for me. I distinctly remember going into Radio Shack and taking out tiny slips of paper with some scribbled programming in BASIC that I just had to try out. I do remember the manager of the store didn’t mind too much because other customers sort got a free demonstration from some geeky kid. I took computer science in grade 11 and 12 and enjoyed it. In university, I wrote a simulation program for a carpet company that would allow customers to preview a sample of carpet design graphically on the screen. The company bought it for $3000. That was very cool and paid for a whole year (at that time) of university tuition and textbooks.

Doug:  What sort of coding and technology things did you do when you were in the classroom?

Jim: I made a lot of mistakes early on. But, in a nutshell, I first taught computer programming in similar ways I was taught. I saw it as a skill to to learned and practiced. My students did learn but they learned within my own narrow conception of it. Now I view it as a literacy and an integrated tool to be used for a wide variety of purposes. I am very much sensitive now to the way my students learn, why they are learning, and what they are doing and making.

The main thing I neglected in my early teaching days was considering student passions, interest and even love. Seymour Papert used the word himself in his foreword to Mindstorms: “I fell in love with gears.” I understood that but, at least in my early teaching career, I did not put student passions into action or pay much attention to it at all. It is pretty clear now that the way to go is Resnick’s 4P approach – passion, projects, peers and play. How outlines his approach in his book Lifelong Kindergarten but he has written articles for many years about the 4P approach. Fully embracing that approach with students has been nothing short of remarkable in terms of WHAT THEY LEARN.

So I didn’t really answer your question directly but when I work with students now, nothing is as effective as taking the time and energy to support students in their efforts to work on long term coding projects that are in sync with their passions and interests in collaboration with their classmates. Building a playful, growth mindset-based learning culture is also key! Students are making games, animations, stories, art, and many other creative things using Scratch. Take a look at this grade 5 boy after about 8 sessions. He was working very hard on solving problems related to making his Scratch-based game work.

Doug:  Seven years is forever in “technology time”.  What sort of changes have you seen while on the job?  

Jim: In the early years of my formal support job (a resource teacher in Peel) I was showing teachers how to get the most out of their document cameras or LCD projectors. Or, I was focused on the OSAPAC software installed on their lab or classroom computers and helping teachers to use it effectively. In fact, once in my first year, I asked at the board about getting a Mindstorms robot to use with a teacher and students; I was told at the time that that is not my job. I was to focus on support ‘instructional technology.’ There has been a very distinct progression over the past 7 years towards helping teachers to transfer agency to students in many ways, including technology. There has also been an evolution in my role to more of an instructional coach. Support teachers to empower students to learn, create, make, design, discuss, share, and so on are my core goals now. It is a big job because this is more of shift in mindset and philosophy than just learning about new educational technologies to use… and I am very happy with the new role. I tried a few times in the past to change the course, for example, with a change in our ‘title.’ My team used to be called ‘instructional technology resource teachers.’ Starting this school, our new name is finally official: “modern learning resource teacher’ and we are fully aligned with our board vision for modern learning.

Doug:  The “Empowering Modern Learners” is a good read for all.

If you had to identify two “boons” and two “busts” during that time, what would you choose and why?

Jim: So there have been many successes and many challenges, I think. In terms of the successes, in my board, they have been things like getting WiFi in every school, making technology mobile and versatile (instead of desktop-based and single platform-based), and embracing a culture of “yes” in terms of innovations and experimentation by teachers trying to experiment and do new things in their classrooms with students. In terms of busts, there are a few things in my experience that stand out. Amazing tools that start out as free, and start to become widely adopted and used, suddenly become paid services. This has been discouraging to teachers and students. VoiceThread and Kidblog are two immediate examples I can think of. Also, with the introduction of BYOD, and the fact that the majority of students in middle school and beyond, generally have a device of some kind makes the old student response tools (think ‘clickers’) obsolete. There was a fair amount of money spent on those tools and I think most of them are probably collecting dust now. Tools like Kahoot and Mentimeter are great and remain free, for now…

Doug:  At the BIT Conference, Stephen Hurley and I identified a number of people that we feature on “This Week in Ontario Edublogs” and invited them to a different approach – doing it live with the blogger.  You were on the microphone along with us for input.  What did you think of the experience?

Jim: It was a great experience and it was so disappointing that the technology didn’t work out… but that happens and that’s okay, of course. Not everything you try always works out the first time. At that point during the conference, in early November, my friend Amit Mehrotra and I had just started producing a podcast in Peel focusing on our vision document Empowering Modern Learners. There are eight of us on the modern learning resource teacher team and we are all working on various projects to communicate modern learning ideas, share practice and provide learning resources. This is my and Amit’s primary project at the moment and it’s going well. So, speaking into a microphone is a relatively new experience for me but I am learning quite a bit not only about communicating effectively but also about all the fine details, both technical and otherwise, of producing a weekly podcast. Amit generally takes care of most of the our web site content and organizing guests and I generally take care of most of the technical aspects and editing of the podcast. We’re a great team, I think, and it’s also so much fun!

Doug:  In a day when people talk about coding not necessarily be about mathematics, we featured your post “Show me the math”.  The post appeared on the “Code like a Girl” blog.  You explain the whole process you use which culminates in blogging.  Can you give us a summary of what you expect from students and why you’re not apologetic for referring to Mathematics in the process.

Jim:  I think of coding, computer programming, in two ways. First, as a discipline. Professional computer programmers learn and apply computer science concepts to the production of a commercial computer application. I would call that software development. Second, as a learning tool. Children can use specially crafted digital tools, such as Scratch, specifically designed as an exploratory, playful and creative environment in which mathematical and computational ideas can be played with, shared, and discussed. The most important ingredient of the second conception is that learners follow their passions and interests, that they really love of what they are doing.

So this dichotomy is what some, and I, call either ‘learning to code’ or ‘coding to learn.’ It might appear to be a subtle difference but ‘coding to learn’ is a very specific focus. I am not an educator who is all about kids ‘learning to code.’ Why? For what purpose? Eight year olds do not need to taught data sorting methods or database concepts that might belong to some coding curriculum… but they should be provided with opportunities to find their own way into mathematical thinking and computational thinking concepts in way that makes sense and in a way that they are excited about. Scratch, LOGO and Mindstorms used to be the only places kids could go but now there are many more fun, playful environments where kids can go.

The point of that blog post was to argue that it is time well spent for teachers and students to look for and discuss the mathematics they notice in the coding… and it’s an excellent way to start conversations and to make connections to big ideas in the curriculum. Any kid who is working on some project, coding a game or an animation for example, is applying mathematical processes and concepts every second of the time.

Doug:  Later that day, I had you all to myself and I had a great chance to do something that I couldn’t do at home.  Have two Micro:bits talk to each other wirelessly.  (Because I only own one Micro:bit)  What wireless communication projects have you done with students?

Jim: That’s a good question but my students are just starting to explore the potential of the micro:bit. And so am I. I really like what I seen and have learned so far. Makey Makey is also a wonderful, playful device with lots of potential for projects. There are other controller boards such as the Arduino but it was a pretty big jump for students from using Makey Makey. The micro:bit, I think, addresses a need for student projects that lies between boards like a Makey Makey and boards like an Arduino. And if students have Scratch or block coding experience, they can quickly transfer their learning.

Some projects I have seen so far with the BBC micro:bit are a musical greeting card, a step counter, a light sensor alarm, and a magic 8 ball, a hearing tester, and one that measures the exact voltage output on one of the analog ports. I can’t wait to see the various kinds of projects students embark on this year.

Doug:  It was while we were working with that, that you got into the “discussion” with a vendor who had dropped by.  His point was that students need to be taught the constructs of the language before they can actually code.  Your approach was completely different.  Can you explain it?

Jim: I take issue with viewing coding as a subject to be explicitly taught to children… I am more talking about K-8 students. That includes targeted, pre-planned lessons that focus on certain aspects of coding, commands, functions, computer science concepts, and so on. I used to teach programming this way. It was the way I was taught. My students generally didn’t care that much. A few did… And they didn’t learn that much. Why didn’t that work? When I was learning to program, I liked it for its own sake. I was already interested and motivated, and I took the courses when I was in grade 11 and 12. I understood the context and kind of loved it like Papert loved gears. Pushing young kids through some pre-determined coding curriculum is not the most effective approach. What’s better is choice and thinking of it like a literacy. Passion. Interests. Fun. Peers. Projects. Sharing. Playing. Tinkering. Building. Designing. Context matters. I’ve seen it proven over and over again. I’ve seen kids coding a game for months and months, the same game. It gets better and better and BETTER! One kid, for example, got an idea for a cool platformer game. He HAD to learn and apply a great deal of mathematics in order to do the things he wanted to do in his game.

When I was in school, we learned a specific mathematical skill… just the skill itself, disconnected from anything else. We practiced it and learned it pretty much by rote. Then, we applied it to problems to solve after we learned the specific skill. In coding, the concept, the skill, and the problem are all happening at the same time. They feed into each other and off each other. A context is created and maintained by the interplay of all three. This is the heart of making and constructionism. Concepts are being made in the mind at the very same time they are made in the real world by the students hands. It’s a process. It takes time. It’s hard. And it’s fun. The fact that they share, discuss and reflect are also essential and crucial components… making alone is not constructionism.

Doug:  For the benefit of the readers of this interview, this was no short discussion.  I think I walked away for a bit and came back at it and the two of you were still going at it!  Do you think you convinced him?  Did he convince you to change your mind?

Jim: I don’t know. A lot of what he was describing were pre-made lessons. He did mention projects, too. But, it all seemed far too predetermined by someone, or some team, who don’t know the kids, and will never meet the kids. I do not think of using coding to learn in that way. It’s okay if those things are out there as choices. But, can you imagine how ludicrous it would be to have a pre-made series of lessons teaching children how to use the sand table and all the tools they might find there. Or, a LEGO building unit where lessons, written in advance, dictate how the blocks might be joined and organized into useful structures. I think of coding to learn tools, such as Scratch, like I do LEGO or a sand table. Some might argue, well, coding is far more involved and complicated. That might be so but I would argue then, that, there is all the more reason to get it right and apply a learning philosophy whereby one is trying to maximize the creativity and inventiveness and excitement of the learner / builder. Why would I be showing my class the intricacies of the clone blocks simply because it’s the second day of the third week of the coding unit? I want that precious time used by students to be voraciously pursuing the goals of their personal projects. Trust me; if they really own their own projects, and you support their autonomy for the long term, higher quality learning will be the norm for all your students.

Doug:  In Peel Schools, how successful will the Hour of Code 2017 be?

Jim: Many teachers and students are using the Hour of Code to explore the potential of coding. I think a measure of success will be the number of exciting, long term, project-based activities that arise after the hour of code. Additionally, I think there will be more teachers seeing coding as a literacy, not just as a new skills today’s kids need. I know many teachers who are already integrating coding projects into the learning activities of students. I also know many who are looking to the wide variety of Hour of Code resources available to support the interests of their students. My hope is that an hour of coding turns into a year of learning.

Doug:  I know that you keep your eyes on the future of coding in the classroom.  What do you see in your crystal ball?

Jim: Computer programming provides access and precise control of technologies that are all around students. I thinking projects need to grow with the student. And the coding skills will also naturally grow with the student’s projects. But it will be different for each student. A student might choose to explore computer programming as a discipline and profession. That’s one path. But, many other professions, and many other personal endeavors, involve using computational thinking concepts that are not exclusive to the domain of computer science. The key is activating these skills, pointing them out, and reflecting on how to use them in new situations. I really hope that Papert’s vision comes to fruition this time around (what follows is the last paragraph from his Foreword in Mindstorms):

Screenshot 2017-12-13 at 13.40.54.png

There is also this short video in which Papert talks about ‘mathland’ and how the computer might help children find their own way of coming to terms with what mathematics is in a way that matches their own passion and intellectual style.

Doug:  Thanks so much for the interview, Jim.  This is certainly timely given that we have just completed Computer Science Education Week 2017.  I really appreciate it.

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