Coding for Kids: The New ABC’s of Digital Education
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2015 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
There’s a greater push to teach kids computer coding at school. But you don’t need to be a technology whiz to introduce it to your students. Here’s how some teachers are bringing coding to their classes—and how you can do the same.
A plumber from Brooklyn lies next to a racetrack. His vehicle—smashed. The audience—shocked. His condition? Unknown. A few Toronto children could determine whether he lives or dies.
Their task: “Check if Mario is dead.”
This isn’t a CPR class. They’re learning visual basic, a computer programming language developed by Microsoft. They’re practising with the game Mario Kart as part of classes run by Real Programming 4 Kids.
“That’s a key part of my day,” Real Programming 4 Kids’ co-founder Elliott Bay remarks as he reads the instructions. He never envisioned he’d run a business that teaches children computer coding by using video games. In the 1990s, he ran a math tutoring business in Winnipeg. His business partner, a programmer, put a beer down on a Pac-Man machine in a bar and said, “I could teach kids to program this.” They started Real Programming 4 Kids years before organizations like the U.S.-based Code.org introduced Hour of Code, an initiative to have students spend at least one hour coding in December during Computer Science Education Week.
In 2000, Real Programming 4 Kids expanded to Toronto. It now only operates in Ontario and has classes throughout the province. Many students have become programmers; most teachers are alumni. But what students learn applies to more subjects than just computer science, says Bay. Programming computer games builds math skills—plotting characters’ movements requires geometry. Making jumps realistic uses physics. Most importantly, games make learning fun, says Bay.
Still, learning computer coding is serious. Few skills are as essential to children’s lives as coding, or computer programming. Computer code is the language computers speak. It’s how they receive instructions to operate. Because much of children’s activities—and social interactions—involve computers, learning to code is as crucial as learning to read and write.
“The importance of computer programming is literacy,” explains Kate Arthur, co-founder of Kids Code Jeunesse, a non-profit that helps teachers incorporate coding into their classes. A few years ago, she realized her inability to code limited her communication—despite her literature degree and communications background. “We’re not expecting everyone to be computer programmers,” she says of the organization’s goals. “It’s just making (students) aware of it. Not everyone’s going to become the next Bill Gates and the next James Joyce.”
But all students need to understand how computers and the Internet work. Many think the Internet is Google, says Arthur. Adults expect kids to live in a digital world, but children don’t always know how this digital world is made, or how it works.
“It’s important for them to know there’s information behind what they’re seeing,” explains Debbie Adams, an elementary science and technology teacher in Montreal. “You don’t just press a button. There are ways where you can take control and create your own buttons.”
How students should learn to make these digital “buttons” is debatable. Businesses and not-for-profits offer classes and teaching resources, but many schools don’t provide coding instruction. It’s not mandatory in Canadian elementary schools. Some high school electives include coding. This doesn’t mean schools don’t want to teach coding. It may not be an option for them. Budget constraints make it hard to keep up with ever-changing technology. Teachers may not have enough time in their day to teach computer coding. They may not know how to code.
But teachers don’t need to break a code to teach code. Another set of ABC’s: accessibility, bravery and creativity, can help them teach students to code, and learn it themselves.
Coding applies to virtually any subject. Arthur doesn’t think it should be part of computer science. Not all students take those courses. Kids Code Jeunesse has developed curriculum, in French and English, which coincides with Quebec’s educational goals. Coding involves making plans to solve problems, breaking something complex into simple steps. This is useful in math and science, as well as literature and social studies. Coding gives students another communication tool. Programs like MIT’s Scratch, a visual-based program that helps people make animated projects, are like pencils and markers for writing on digital Bristol boards. Adams knows of students who have presented animal classification information in science class using computer coding and web design.
Coding can engage more reluctant learners. Students with learning disabilities, especially those that impact spelling, may find coding an easier way to communicate. The Internet has allowed people from underprivileged communities start their own businesses. Coding can help them do this. To help as many people as possible learn, Kids Code Jeunesse plans to translate its materials into many Aboriginal languages.
Coding can also help high-achieving students learn to handle failure, explains Seema Ali, a high school math and computer teacher in British Columbia. Learning something new can be scary, especially for students who may feel expected to always know the answers. Coding can be done independently with the computer, not with a teacher watching. “It allows them to try something out, and if it doesn’t work, go back, and try it again,” explains Ali. “Nobody has to know (they made a mistake).” Students learn resilience by trying different solutions, she says.
Separating coding from computer science isn’t just good for students. It’s also good for teachers. Most haven’t studied computer science, explains Graham Rich, a teacher in Hartland, NB. His computer science degree makes him an exception. He’s been introducing students to coding for years. Rich uploads tutorials of his lessons to YouTube, linking them to his personal website where teachers can learn from his mistakes and successes.
Although he’s experienced, he still wants to learn. He’d like a central place with teaching resources that shows how coding connects to curriculum, he says.
Manitoba educators may be granting his wish. David Wall, educational technology consultant at Pembina Trails School Division, has been encouraging schools to improve how they teach kids coding for several years.
“You would not question someone about learning French or English,” he says about the reluctance some schools have to teaching programming. “So why coding? I think it’s because it’s a language we don’t understand.”
Students can learn this language. “It’s not a university-level interest. Kids in Grades 4 and 5 can do this,” Wall says. “They can write English, they can write French, they can write Punjabi, and we don’t trust them to write code.”
As more teachers asked him questions about computer programming, he realized they lacked teaching resources. Wall, and others, began creating a continuum that makes high school coding expectations relevant to elementary school teachers. He hopes it will be available by September, in a format all teachers can access, he says.
A specific coding curriculum for elementary schools isn’t necessary, Wall says. Curriculum can take a long time to make or revise. That’s a challenge with instant digital communication and constantly changing devices. With curriculum, Wall explains, a student’s grade level determines what they learn. With a continuum, their skills determine what they learn. Students in the same grade could be at different places on the continuum. Wall would like to see coding included in curriculum as a continuum on which teachers are required to report.
For students to learn, teachers need to be brave. “I was the stereotypical adult who felt like coding and computer science was a really scary, advanced skill that only the top-notch programmers would be able to acquire,” says Leah Obach, a Grade 2 teacher in Hamiota, MB. She began learning coding a couple of years ago. For Hour of Code, her students helped younger students code. In the classroom, they have created posters using coding. Students can also code during independent activity time; it’s particularly popular during indoor recesses, she says.
The best—and hardest—thing teachers can do is ask students for help. “Realize you’re probably going to learn more from your students than you will on your own,” Rich explains. Students become leaders this way. It can help unlikely students find recognition. “There’s no team for coding,” explains Wall. It’s not as “glamourous” as athletics. But when a coding project earns praise, it can be like winning a championship, he says.
Teachers can’t solely rely on students’ interest—they need to be creative. Technology won’t always work; devices may be limited. Students need time away from screens. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends children older than five spend less than two hours a day using screens for leisure activities. Play and socialization should involve physical activity. Using computers for learning is fine, “as long as we don’t ignore the fact that there’s people in the room,” says Dr. Stan Lipnowski, a Manitoba paediatrician who has written about health concerns of increased inactivity. Teachers can have students take regular walks and discuss what they’re learning, he suggests.
Balance is crucial, says Obach. She teaches with guided reading and project-based learning. Students can’t always choose technology-based activities. There’s technology-free time each day in class, she says.
Teachers need to engage students’ creativity to teach coding. Algorithms or theory aren’t interesting. “They just want to solve a problem,” Rich says. This often means making a game. Nearly 10 years ago, he introduced Python, a text-based code, to a group of Grade 10, non-computer science students. It wasn’t as successful as he hoped. He had the students use it to make a calculator. “It was a really cool calculator—it had green backgrounds and purple backgrounds and pink backgrounds,” he remembers. “But it was still a calculator, so there was no joy in making it.” They would have learned better by making a game, he says.
When his students learn the theory behind coding, it occurs almost “by happenstance,” Rich says. Because they learn it while doing something, he often has to tell them they know the theory—and should remember it for tests.
If the Real Programming 4 Kids students are any indication, that approach works. Harry, a Grade 4 student who recently began classes, says learning code could help him become a businessman. But his first priority isn’t landing promotions. He wants to reach higher levels in the game Minecraft. To get there, he needs new weapons. He needs to learn to code to make them. “That’s really my goal this year,” he says.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance journalist in Toronto, ON.