Playing is finding joy in open-ended exploration, without being concerned with a specific outcome. Play allows ideas to be reimagined through new representations, avoids following conventional ways of thought, and uses rules and limitations as means to creativity. Used in conjunction with other imaginative skills, it leads to the transformation of ideas, by altering modes of representation or finding connections across (and above) disciplines (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999).
While I initially considered play as an underutilized skill in creating algorithms, I found that it can be one of the most useful ways to be creative in problem solving, such as with my proposed activity that uses playing with a simple programming tool to introduce algorithms to elementary and middle school students. While it uses open inquiry to allow the students to freely explore how instructions are constructed, I kept some constraints and broad goals in place to promote deep or hard play. The only way to construct the algorithm was through the blocks available in Scratch, and with each of the challenges, students were given the freedom to explore but needed to apply what they learned towards increasingly complex goals.
I thought this activity meaningful in that it allows students to realize that even the act of creating can be done by following step-by-step instructions; it is the ways those instructions can be tweaked and reconfigured, and the endlessly different ways to solve the same problem that allows for creativity in algorithms. It also shows that algorithms are not solely used in mathematics or on shampoo bottles, but can be an act of expression to be used in creating art, new experiences, or nearly anything, with only the person creating the instructions being the limiting factor.
Play is also key in this activity since it demonstrates its use as an effective problem solving tool. Since creating the shape of a house is relatively straight forward, the algorithm could most likely be described with just a basic understanding of geometry. Describing an algorithm to create a complex repeating pattern is much more difficult, and is probably beyond the means of most students this age. Rather than taking the top down approach, the activity allows students to create and play with a specific program until they arrive at a solution they like. I started my pattern with little idea of how it would look in the end, but by playing with how many times a loop repeated, what angles the cursor would turn before drawing again, and how to use random values effectively, I arrived at something that worked. By comparing their sets of instructions or repeatedly tweaking their program, students could start to see patterns that would allow them to create a broad abstract algorithm for creating complex patterns.
This method of play also allows for the unexpected to take place, an important part of tinkering. Jean Piaget noted that “…play was a way of courting serendipity, that uncanny knack of finding valuable things not sought for” (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999, p.247). If only permitting students to work towards rigid goals, anything unexpected would be classified as a bug and be “fixed”. Given how easy it is to make a mistake as the programs become more and more complex, most students will find something wrong, but it can lead to new insights or techniques, not something to be squashed. I see parallels here to how spontaneity is disdainfully treated in formal education, with student thought processes quickly brought into line even after a couple years of schooling. In CEP818, we are looking for alternatives, ways to keep that desire to play alive in our students even beyond their schooling, so our means for instruction must model play for them and celebrate the unexpected.
Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.