An Educator’s eye on TechBanditry

What I Learned from Tech Bandits With Nathaniel Philip by Moyra Hewlett

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching during a pandemic is connecting to children so that they want to listen and choose to learn more.  Boredom (particularly when teaching online) is the teacher’s nemesis.  So what works when teaching remotely?  Tech Bandits has a format that seems to keep students engaged and learning for an extended period of time.  What are they doing right?  I explored how this podcast format relates to the Ontario Grade 8 Language Curriculum Expectations and sparks the children’s sense of engagement and belonging.

An interview with musician Nathanial Philip (a grade 12 student)  kept me (and the students) engaged and the conversation flowing, but I suspect that I learned more than the students.  This is not, in my opinion, detrimental.  Quite the opposite.  When the students become the teachers (because their knowledge and vocabulary around a certain topic, in this case gaming and music, is more advanced than the teacher’s) this gives students the opportunity to reach their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).  Defined as “the relation between instruction and development” (Vygotsky, as cited in Chaiklin,  2003), students learn by expanding on what they know, from a source who has more experience.  This means that rather than “learning” concepts that they already understand (which is boring) or trying to understand how a lesson truly connects to their life (which is frustrating), the students use conversations to establish goals for learning.  Nate had the experience to build upon the Tech Bandits’ prior knowledge, and most importantly, he made it interesting to the students (and me!)  Teachers should not be afraid of handing the spotlight over to students as a means of directing them towards questions that expand on their knowledge of topics that relate to their lives now. “Children learn best when they can identify themselves and their own experience in the material they read and study”(Ministry of Education, Ontario Curriculum Grades 1 – 8, 2006, p. 5)

Here are some of the topics discussed and some thoughtful critical questions that emerged during this “classroom conversation”:

While taking notes, I had to create a list of vocabulary. (Here’s an interesting discovery: Spell check “corrects” many of these words when typed. Are the students smarter than SpellCheck??) Are gamers creating their own language? Should this “new” vocabulary be considered legitimate and accepted by educators as a means of communicating more effectively with students?

I challenge teachers to define these terms that rolled off the tongues of the students:

  • Gaming-based streaming
  • Pog, poggers, PogChamp, 
  • Pepe (?)
  • Dead meme
  • Pentakill
  • Prepandemic
  • Discord
  • Mod the game
  • Stems
  • Shazam it
  • command blocks
  • red stone chains
  • Simpson wave
  • Rabbit hole

Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation in learning

Nate made evident the power of independent learning based on interest versus extrinsic motivation.  He spent time in a “Charter school” but is now home-schooled.  His inspiration to learn music and gaming seemed to come from his father, Seth Fling & Minecraft.  He recalls programming at age 8 years, making his own “claw machine”, and talks about the “spatial memory” of his “first Minecraft place”.  He used geometry for his own purposes to create his projects and mentions staying up until 4 a.m. to figure out how to “mod the game” (intrinsic motivation).  This is a math teacher’s dream. Flinging out vocabulary such as “command blocks” and “red stone chains” Nate talked about how he created a “cows with Heelys” volleyball game called BattleCattle. At age 11 years,  Nate wanted to make video games, so he taught himself the programming and mathematical concepts  (specifically variables) that he needed.  His interest in variables was infectious.  “School has never introduced a topic that I have then stuck with” (N. Phillip, 2021).  Nate educated himself on a need-to-know basis, using programs such as GameJammer and Scratch. He talks about creating a never ending game that starts in his lifetime and ends when he passes away. Nate is currently finishing his album and has put gaming on the backburner for the time being. 

What struck me about his conversation with the students were the moral and philosophical questions that arose.  What programs have students turned to during quarantine and why? Is it possible to “monetize quality of life”_measure happiness the way we measure financial value?  How can teachers present mathematics and geometry in a way that triggers deep curiosity and makes a student want to stay up until 4 a.m. figuring out a problem?

Music Copyright and Stewardship

The students integrated the topic of copyright on social media, and explained how it is “important to credit” their musical sources. Nate posed complex questions that arise when trying to build a career in music.  “I’ve really gone back and forth on music and advertising,” says Nate. He goes on to explain how he publishes his music on “Bandcamp” and poses moral questions about advertising and being connected to certain advertisements. What are the moral implications of using advertisers to fund music? Nate ponders,  “Do I risk exposure but a deep hatred through association?” and his slogan reads, “making a dystopian, coming of age, art pop album about the constant uncertainty that comes with trying to figure out how to be happy.” (Philip as cited in Bandcamp, 2021).

Nate introduced the concept of “stems” (“submixes of a larger mix” [Bullen, 2020]), in a sense, separating instrument tracks to study the guitar or drums, etc. of a song as a means of “studying” the music. This was then related by the Tech Bandits to copyright issues and aligns with The Grade 8 Ontario Curriculum: “demonstrate an understanding of a variety of media texts“ (Ministry of Education, 2006, p.146).  Nate feels that when a person “steals” or reposts his music, this gives him exposure, which is positive.  Students are “sharing” knowledge, rather than hoarding it.  One of the students declares, “The music I listen to, I think it’s important to credit.”  Nate and the students talked about the morality of posting unedited streams, using strategies such as speeding up or slowing down music clips to get past copyright, and how AI (artificial intelligence) can detect “stolen” music using bit rate. They pose critical questions such as whether “Fan Edits”, “Meme Rap” (clips of animes behind songs) should be subject to copyright. This discussion also aligns with the Ontario Curriculum’s “Active Listening Strategies” (demonstrate an understanding of appropriate listening behaviour by adapting active listening strategies to suit a wide variety of situations, including work in groups” [2006, p. 138]).  As an educator, these types of conversations lead to critical questions that can be used to inspire group learning.  For example, I came away wondering, “What is bit rate and how does it affect detection for copyright of music?”

Participants also demonstrated stewardship by giving “shout outs” to various companies who had contributed to their knowledge.  For example, one of the Tech Bandit exclaims, “Thank you Harclay!”  

Giving credit where credit is due is an example of using “language to interact and connect with individuals and communities, for personal growth, and for active participation as world citizens” (2006, p. 4-5)

Children’s Voices in Media

“Motivating students and instilling positive habits of mind, such as a willingness and determination to persist, to think and communicate with clarity and precision, to take responsible risks, and to question and pose problems, are integral parts of high-quality language instruction.” (2006, p.23)

As the conversation led to children’s programming in the media, the Tech Bandits considered how youth are depicted in the media.  The students spoke passionately about the simplification of bullying in television programs, and how students’ experiences are depicted as simplistic.  One of the Tech Bandits expressed frustration with teenage characters being portrayed as “stupid”, and how the language used by characters in media does not accurately represent how this generation speaks/behaves.  

Critical Question:  Should media use more young writers to build authenticity into media entertainment?

The conversation then led to the relationship between knowledge and age.  Does your age relate to your experience/knowledge?  How does experience differ from knowledge?

Overall there were many complex questions asked and answered by the students throughout this podcast that relate to the Overall Expectations in the Ontario Grade 8 Curriculum.  Here are just a few examples:

 Oral Communication: 

1. listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of situations for a variety of purposes; 

2. use speaking skills and strategies appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes; 

Media Literacy:

1. demonstrate an understanding of a variety of media texts; 

2. identify some media forms and explain how the conventions and techniques associated with them are used to create meaning; 

3. create a variety of media texts for different purposes and audiences, using appropriate forms, conventions, and techniques; 

Curiosity is Contagious

This Tech Bandits “chat” seems to be an engaging and effective means of teaching Media Literacy and encouraging Oral Communication_two of the underlying principles in the Ontario Curriculum (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 4-5).  Educators or parents/caregivers might consider how to strengthen reading and writing skills on this platform by asking students to research a question that sparked their curiosity and share at the next group. Lastly, Nate spoke openly about the lack of socialization that occurs in homeschooling and online learning.  Tech Bandits seemed to give him a platform for sharing and left me hopeful that online classrooms can keep students connected and social during a pandemic.

Moyra Hewlett is a visionary Early Childhood Educator and Ontario Certified Primary Teacher who nurtures and values the diverse talents of children in order to realize innovative educational projects.

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