Posted by Angie Kalthoff & Amanda Strawhacker on Nov 12, 2020
This blog post is the continuation of a six-part series of posts about supporting children’s Positive Technological Development through hybrid/distanced learning.
 

Full Story 

Intro 

In our Introduction to this blog post series, we shared our background in education, our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a summary of foundational research in creating a learning experience for young children that aligns with the Positive Technological Development framework (Bers 2020). Since then, we’ve explored Community Building with technology in early childhood, and in this post, we are going to break down the PTD behavior, “Communication.” We have invited our friend and colleague, Emily Relkin, to share a research project called, Coding as Another Language.

Communication

How can technology foster children’s communication skills, both with adults and with each other?
 
Communication involves all the many verbal and non-verbal ways that humans share information, exchange ideas, ask and answer questions, and express or interpret emotion. In the PTD framework, Communication is an indicator that children are forging connections with peers or adults in their lives (Bers, 2020). 
 
For young children, learning how to communicate in a way that allows others to understand their ideas is a big task that takes years of practice to learn (Pugh & Selleck, 1996). You can foster communication while using technology by encouraging children to speak out loud while they are working through a coding problem or computer task, to help them organize and share their thoughts. Even better is when children can communicate and work with another child while they code, a technique known as pair programming (Hanks, 2008). 
 
Developmentalists have argued for years that children’s communication skills are best supported by practicing with other children, who are also exploring how to share ideas, compared to adults who are more likely to intimidate children who are shy to communicate, steer conversations, or guess at children’s unfinished thoughts (e.g. Blum, Kulka & Snow, 2002, Piaget 1977, Rogoff, 1990). Bers suggests that if you are looking for a good model of communication in early childhood, think of a noisy playground (Bers, 2020). This space encourages communication through different volumes (like shouting and whispering), verbal and non-verbal modalities (think of games like freeze tag, or public murals), communication about diverse subjects, and always allows children to be agents of communication. If you want to encourage communication through technology, you can use these lessons from playgrounds to select tools that offer children different ways to express themselves and gain information, as well as lesson activities that give children opportunities to work with other children to practice speaking, listening, and communicating through gestures or facial expressions.

Research on PTD and Communication

How can we have the same kinds of communication-sharing experiences from large in-person classrooms in hybrid/distanced settings?
 
Although many people think of technology as socially isolating, studies of children playing together show that play partners speak twice as many words per minute talking to peers when using computers than when playing with non-technological tools like play dough and building blocks (New & Cochran, 2007). One study of 90 children who used physical, “real-life” toys like plush animals and cards to augment digital play found that 5- and 6-year-old children used more storytelling and play-acting techniques while playing with both toys and technology than with only traditional toys (Kara, Aydin, & Cagiltay 2013). Using technology to support children’s play activities can also support their verbal and non-verbal communication skills.
 
As you think about more ways to encourage communication in your learning environment, at home, or school, consider the following question prompts from the PTD card deck (a tool created by Dr. Bers and the DevTech Research Group to help educators align their technology teaching with PTD). When designing your activities ask yourself the following questions.
 
Specific to the technology:
  • What technology design features allow children to exchange ideas with others?
  • How are children able to express themselves through this technology?
  • How are children able to create and share interactive projects using technology?
  • How are children’s projects capable of interacting with one another?
Specific to the environment:
  • How does the learning environment provide support for children to exchange ideas with others?
  • How does the arrangement of the space allow for children to see one another’s work?
  • How do children engage in each other’s work?
A fun way to work on communication with a connection to computer science is through a variety of unplugged games to help kids understand algorithms. Often, kids think they are being clear when providing a list of instructions for someone else to follow. By doing some of these unplugged activities, you will help kids reflect on how they are communicating and what they omit from their communication in a fun and silly way. In addition, you are teaching them about algorithms. An algorithm is a list of steps that you can follow to finish a task. While our series focuses on Technological Development, you can build up to the use of technology by starting with Unplugged activities. Unplugged activities are understood as activities that do not require electronic technology. You can use these PebbleGo articles in English and Spanish to help students understand computer programming.

Communication in Context

What is different about communication this year compared to the past? Why is it important for your students to practice communicating?
 
Let’s be real, teaching during this pandemic is hard. We see from the teachers we work with that they have minimal time with students, feel stressed and overcommitted, and are pulling off incredible feats of personal strength (and caffeine consumption) to serve their students. We cannot pretend to understand what you are going through -- everyone has a unique situation. But, we know the experience of co-teaching lessons where students are attending both in-person in their classroom and via Google Meet from home. We have stared at the blank screens that pop up when we allow students the choice to turn off their cameras and wondered if they are still there. Checking in with students is so different via a video chat than it was when you could peek over their shoulder in the classroom. If you are teaching in a hybrid setting, you could be feeling two extremes of communication at the same time. The type of student engagement and communication you see in person could feel like the complete opposite of what you experience online. The more educators we talk to, the more conversations we have where we are worrying about the students we have yet to meet and form a connection with. As educators, we know about the importance of having a relationship, a connection with students, and how that could impact the participation and sharing they choose to do in our learning environments. In early childhood, two-way communication is doubly important. It takes time for children to become comfortable enough to share, to ask each other questions, to talk to the teacher when they need help.
 
You may have also had the experience of sitting in a Zoom call that you wish would just end. You may have felt in those moments like it’s easier to be literally invisible and silent than it is to participate and forge virtual connections. Our goal as educators is to flip that script. How do we make it easier for children to communicate than would be to stay muted and hidden?
 
If talking during a class video meeting isn’t working, what are other things we can try? Can we teach kids how to be advocates and express what they need in other formats? For older kids, could this be done through email? For younger kids, can we introduce habits or connect with at-home teaching partners (family members, live-in caregivers) to get a picture of what could be improved? As adults, we have built our self-talk strategies through years of lived experiences, and we have tools to help us think through what we need to do in new situations. How are we supporting our students who are still growing these thinking strategies? On top of that, as adults, it’s hard for us too. How are we stopping to acknowledge that, and model that frustration and problem-solving mentality for our students?
 

Using Tech to Communicate

 
How do we learn to express ourselves clearly and listen carefully to others, so that we can reach a shared understanding through communication? 
 
How do you check in with students on a daily basis? Are you able to verbally check in with each student? If not, have you tried to use technology to “read the temperature” of your class community? This could be a simple check-in, like using the Poll feature in a Google Meet, or it could be more involved, such as asking students to record themselves sharing their thoughts on a platform like Flipgrid. Remember, students may be feeling as overwhelmed, confused, and tired as the adults in their life. If you want to foster communication, think about how you’re asking them to communicate (platforms, media, etc) and also what you’re asking them to communicate about. Maybe there is an irresistible topic (like a favorite book or popular holiday) that your kids always seem willing to talk about. Can you bring that into your class meetings? Check-in with children regularly about their emotions and experiences, in addition to their academic progress. This is a great way to practice communication while building community (see our post on Community Building for more inspiration). 
 
Angie learned from a teacher friend of hers how to let students complete a daily survey form that indicates how they are feeling, and whether they want or need anything special from their teacher to do their best learning. This form is shared with the teaching team. The team is then able to watch for patterns with student answers and reach out to specific students on topics that they share in their form responses. If you are supporting young children, how might you make this process developmentally appropriate? Some ideas you could explore are inviting children to bring a special object with them to use and interact with as part of that day’s lesson; inviting children to take “laughing breaks” and try to express their emotions with their face or through dancing with their body; or, using special printable icons, puppets, or emojis showing different emotions that you hold up during video calls, and invite children to give a thumbs up or a wave (useful if they need to stay muted) when they see one that looks like how they are feeling.
 
Visit the Tufts DevTech ECT Graduate Certificate website to view some resources that you might find helpful when thinking about communication during a pandemic.
 
Family Tip: It may be tricky at first, but it can also be fun to co-create an environment that encourages adult communication among your student’s new “teaching team”: home adult, teacher, and student, anyone else who may be involved. Below we’ve shared some activities that might work for some home settings but will take work from everyone in a child’s learning environment. Remind families that they are doing great just by showing up every day to help their child and that nobody knows a “best way” to care-give and teach during hybrid or distance learning, so just do what’s best for your situation. Reiterate your shared goal of helping their child find a voice to communicate their goals, thoughts, needs, and wishes, and help caregivers see themselves as children’s closest role models for communication. If you can speak with family members, model communication skills for adults and children by being a good sport, taking turns, praising effort rather than outcomes, acknowledging non-verbal communication as well as spoken words, and offering long pauses to listen, wait, and watch for responses. 
 
Activities for Fostering Communication Skills From Home.
In order to have successful communication, you must understand how to clearly express yourself. Think about the activities you engage in with students. Do they encourage communication through different volumes, different modalities, and for different purposes? Some suggested at-home communication building activities are below:
 
Unplugged CS at home:
  • Peanut Butter & Jelly Algorithms: Shared by CSinSF this activity is a fun way to create a sandwich with your student and highlight the importance of giving specific directions in a correct order. 
  • Check out this funny video of one family who tried this activity the messiest way possible! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ct-lOOUqmyY
  • Robot Turtles by Thinkfun: One activity that aligns with both algorithmic thinking and communication is playing the Robot Turtles game. In this game, you use arrows to command your turtle around a game board. The student as the programmer has to be clear in the directions given with the arrows so that the computer (the adult who moves the pieces) can move the turtle to the correct location.
  • Watch this video to understand how to play Robot Turtles https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHjB9XQodzE&feature=emb_title 
 
Activities for Fostering Communication Skills From School.
When learning to communicate, children need to understand that what they’re saying is clear and others understand them. But they also need to listen and respect the communications of others, so they understand the message they are sending. These are skills that take time and practice to learn, even without a pandemic hindering opportunities to socialize.
 
In a classroom setting, you may start your day with a morning meeting (here you can find a Responsive Classroom Educator Resource for morning meetings during COVID-19). If you are in a situation where you are teaching young children from a distance using platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts for synchronous work, think about how you could structure your meetings in a way that doesn’t deviate from your normal schedule, to give students a reliable routine. Think about how you can teach when to communicate and when it’s expected. TheTutuTeacher (currently teaching kindergarten) shares how she uses icons to teach kids how to participate in two way communication. 
 
Here are some activity ideas for fostering communication in your classroom:
 
Retell a Favorite Story. Helping children with storytelling and performances allows them to literally and figuratively “find their voice”. In this activity, invite children to tell their own alternate ending to a story. For example, you could watch a video read-aloud of Too Many Carrots by Katy Hudson together during a live Zoom meeting or have families watch a video read-aloud together at home as homework. When you’re in class, invite children to discuss the sequence of events in the story, what they could do differently if they were a character in the story, and how the story could have been different if the characters practiced habits like sharing or communicating.
 
After you’ve discussed as a group, give children the chance to author their own ending to the story you read. You can use different technologies to support their storytelling work. Whatever tech tool you bring for your lesson, don’t feel pressured to use technology if a traditional tool would be faster, easier, or more fun for children to get their ideas across. Often a mix of technology and traditional tools are especially helpful to get kids excited to communicate and tell stories.  (For older students, you may want to check out the Novel Engineering books and research out of Tufts University’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.)
  • Seesaw: Create an activity for students to discuss sharing. Encourage students to explain a time that they shared with someone and how it made them feel. Suggest they use the video, photo, drawing, and recording tools within Seesaw. 
  • Book Creator: Have students create an alternate ending to the book Too Many Carrots. Have them create the story using Book Creator and encourage them to use the features like drawing, recording their voice, and add text. 
  • ScratchJr: Have students create an alternate ending to the book and code their story in ScratchJr. Invite them to record their voice, take pictures, and refine the project to match their creative vision. If you are new to ScratchJr you could use the Let’s Play with the ScratchJr Kitten Activity Pack created by CodeSpark or the ScratchJR Cards eBook.
 
Guest Contribution: The Coding as Another Language Curricula by Emily Relkin
 
The DevTech Research Group has developed a suite of curricula called, Coding as Another Language (CAL). The CAL curriculum for kindergarten-second grade uses the KIBO robot or ScratchJr to help students learn through an integration of programming and literacy concepts. Check out some of the lesson plans here: sites.tufts.edu/codingasanotherlanguage.
 
Emily Relkin is a doctoral researcher who helped manage a large-scale study on CAL- KIBO, including training the participating teachers as well as creating and analyzing the major outcome measures.
 
“One of my favorite activities that fosters communication is called ‘Tech Circles’. These happen frequently throughout the CAL curriculum. They are times when the class can get together, present their projects with one another, give feedback and carry out debugging and project planning activities with the group.
 
For example, after Kindergarten children program their KIBO robot to dance the “Hokey Pokey,” children are asked to come together, form a Tech Circle, and share their programs. Teachers then encourage the students to verbalize and reflect on their experience. The teacher may facilitate the discussion by asking their students questions such as “What problems did you have when you were scanning blocks? Why did you use a certain block? Did you ever get an error message?" Tech Circles foster group communication and the exchange of ideas which are vital skills for young children to engage in.”

How are you fostering communication in your classroom this year?

In this post, we share some of our thoughts with you but we REALLY want to hear from you. What has worked in your setting? What have you tried that didn’t work? What lessons did you take away, and what advice would you give a colleague over coffee? Reach out to us on Twitter @mrskalthoff and @ALStrawhacker. 

References:

  • Bers, M. U. (2020). Coding as a playground: Programming and computational thinking in the early childhood classroom. Routledge.
  • Blum-Kulka, S., & Snow, C. E. (Eds.). (2002). Talking to adults: The contribution of multiparty discourse to language acquisition. Psychology Press.
  • Hanks, B. 2008. Problems encountered by novice pair programmers. Journal of Educational Resources in Computing, 7: 1–13
  • Kara, N., Aydin, C. C., & Cagiltay, K. (2013). Investigating the activities of children toward a smart storytelling toy. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 16(1), 28-43.
  • New, R. S., & Cochran, M. (Eds.). (2007). Early childhood education: An international encyclopedia (Vol. 4). Greenwood Publishing Group.
  • Pugh, G., & Selleck, D. (1996). Listening to and communicating with young children. The voice of the child: A handbook for professionals, 120-136.
  • Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. Oxford university press.