Variety is the Key to Teaching 21st-Century Skills

By Alan Gielen

Like most people, I enjoy some variety in life. A large reason I switched from teaching biology to being a technology teacher is because the latter allows me to teach a range of subjects, topics, and grades. My students like variety, too, so I make sure we cover disparate topics and skills within the confines of standards and curricular requirements.

I teach students in grades PK–8 at an all-boys military school. With the little guys, especially those who aren’t readers yet, I use a variety of programs that just teach basic skills. Like, for instance, the PK kids coming in for the last few years don’t have mousing skills. All they’ve ever used is touch screens.

So I’ve been using software from the 1990s, believe it or not, to help my little guys learn those kinds of skills. Some of the stuff from that era, like the classic JumpStart educational software, is still really great. I also use some online products and other tools that help kids begin to learn sequencing and programming logic as early as the PK level.

In terms of curriculum, I get really structured from third grade up. That’s when we introduce our boys to the Google Suite, and they begin working on building presentations, working on spreadsheets, word processing, creating multimedia, and experimenting with desktop publishing. A lot of that work is just helping them learn to integrate those tools into their learning to enhance their classroom experience and abilities. That’s also when we begin working on programming.

Underlying all of this work, however, is keyboarding. We begin teaching our kids to type from the very beginning. I don’t evaluate my PK and kindergarten students on their typing. They just don’t have the manual dexterity for it, so the typing instruction and practice is just about getting them used to the keyboard and familiar with where the keys are.

In first grade we begin with a goal of typing three words a minute and finish the year with a goal of 6. But by the time they’re in grade 6, I expect them to type 40–50 words per minute with accuracy in the 80–90% range.

Our new students are rarely up to speed with regard to my keyboarding expectations, and they use TypeTastic in class, which is great for those kids who need to catch up, since it’s self-paced. It’s great for the other kids, too, because they all get competitive about it and want to outperform one another. It’s always a gift, as a teacher, when students are intrinsically motivated to work on learning goals and you don’t have to look for ways to push them forward.

But when the new students are working to catch up, I expect them to work on it at home as well, and not just when they come to my class. In those cases, I have them practice using different typing drills and techniques from home, just to add a little variety. The last student who did this was typing right alongside his more practiced classmates in less than two months.

We don’t eat the same things every day or wear the same clothes or read the same books. We shouldn’t expect our students to learn the same way day after day. Try introducing a little more variety into the classroom and your students may learn a little faster—and you’ll probably all have a lot more fun.

Alan Gielen is the PK-6 computer science teacher and department head at San Antonio Academy of Texas, a PK-8 independent elementary school for boys.

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