Steering clear of lacklustre teaching methods and focusing on information technology tools for the modern classroom, the cMinds initiative is a way of applying visual programming concepts to the teaching of critical thinking skills to primary school learners. It’s a game-based approach, but through the exercises, young learners are presented with challenging yet fun activities. The development of this technique is a work in progress, but preliminary results indicate that this is an exciting and effective way to incorporate e-learning in the primary school classroom.
There can be no doubting the value of teaching our children to think critically and to think analytically. To solve a problem by identifying its parts, to question a previous assumption, to weigh and evaluate a solution before taking action, is an essential skill in our academic, professional and personal lives. Yet fostering of these skills in primary schools is overlooked, downplayed, or often merely restricted to the field of arithmetic, says Olivier Heidmann of the Centre for Research and Technology Thessaly in Volos, Greece. “Current teaching methods do not take full advantage of the link between critical thinking skills and creativity”. He suggests that European curricula often fail to develop those traversal competencies where gains in one area trigger progress in other subjects. This seems to be caused by emphasising mastery of content and neglecting critical reflection, evaluation and analysis. Heidmann says the curriculum and the formal teaching material in most schools leave little scope for integrating new ICT tools into traditional classrooms.
Heidmann and his collaborators have tackled the problem with their cMinds initiative, game-based computer technology matched to existing problem-solving didactical models. Worksheets and explanations of how to approach each activity are provided so “cMinds develops a virtual learning environment in which children solve logical puzzles through graphical programming.” Schools vary. “Learners may all be equipped with a computer or they may be grouped,” he explains. “Grouping of learners does not handicap the learning activities as cMinds promotes collaborative learning. In fact, learners may learn from each other and help each other during a lesson.”
The reactions of teachers and pupils in the current pilot study have been positive. The Graphic User Interface (GUI) is pleasing to the eye and the age-appropriate exercises are thrilling. Each lesson is a carefully constructed entity, guiding the learners towards identifying the parameters of a problem, challenging them to seek a workable solution by evaluating available options and urging them to explore the intricacies of causes and effects as they identify a solution to the problem at hand. The algorithmic thinking of the learners is developed through games that encourage analytical thinking. Although the use of digital applications may be new, the problems to be solved are often very familiar to teachers and learners. One game is the old puzzle of how to get a wolf, some grain and a chicken across a river safely, with only one raft.
Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the cMinds approach is the fact that it is not bound to a single national curriculum or single language. Heidmann says, “It is based on universal logic that exists in all cultures. The deployment of an inherently logical tool that transcends language barriers, namely programming, makes this approach applicable at a European level.” The cMinds system has been piloted at selected primary schools in Greece, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Sweden, but it is aimed at a far wider market. Heidmann explains that formal approval for classroom use will be sought from various ministries of education. The project, partly funded by the Comenius Lifelong Learning Programme of the EU, runs between 2010-2012.
Olivier Heidmann’s OEB 2011 paper is entitled Teaching Programming towards the Development of Early Analytical Structural and Critical Minds. He will present his findings in the “Learning New Skills Through Technology” session on Thursday 1 December at 11.45-13.00