Finding the Right Code for Kids

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Greenfoot.org Programming

So many educators want to incorporate coding into technology education. Is it just a fad? An article from 2014 New Yorker suggests we are jumping the gun. Why is there such a push for children to learn to code in school? As technology director I rarely need to know code except to occasionally modify a default setting in a browser or customize a website, or lookup an IP address. When it comes to coding to make our systems work, I call upon trained professionals who are “coders”; often behind the scenes types, without whom our world might fall apart.

So why are we bringing it into education? Why all the hoopla? I mean, besides the obvious answer that pretty much everything we touch functions because some coding wiz kid made it operational. Here’s my unqualified explanation.

As a technology teacher, coding is as important as the pencil and paper that is a staple in every other class. It is the language of those who rarely volunteer, who neither lead nor follow, and those who can spend hours doing something that requires nothing but intense concentration. You know, those kids who don’t seem to contribute anywhere else.

Some kids are just built to understand the curious nature of code. They are often, but now always, the same kids who sit quietly in the back of the classroom daydreaming; the ones who stay up all hours obsessed with playing strategy games online while their parents see the activity as pointless. And they are likely the same kids who never really stand out – until we need them.

Over the years I’ve observed these traits in students who join my coding classes. They are creative, smart, hard working, and dedicated to mastering their craft. Failure has no effect on them. I am yet to have a student give up, cause trouble, or fail to complete what he or she started. The problem is that many of these same kids have no passion for the mundane riggers of math, history or  English classes, instead they crave the logic of a coding puzzle.

maxresdefaultWhat these students really learn from coding is that they have a place in the world. They discover they are an elite bunch who recognize “friends” as those who conquered the farmer level in Code.org, or make it through the Khan programming animation program. These students are a mix of girls and boys who are self proclaimed nerds, athletes, introverts, and socialites. Why do we teach coding? Maybe it’s because we might just need more than the basics to keep our world humming, and it will be those thinkers who can tackle the jobs that haven’t even been created yet. code-and-minecraft

On a side note, for anyone wanting to introduce coding as a class, an after school program, or even a summer camp, there are plenty of FREE resources for you – the teacher – to lead the way. You don’t actually need to know how to code, you simply need to know how to get the kids connected to it so they can learn on their own.

khan-academy-logoTry Code.org up to middle school. It is a great precursor to real coding. I use Code.org code studio at the middle school level beginning in 6th grade. From there students can easily move into java script using Khan programming intro to animation, which builds on the basics from Code.org.  Finally, consider Greenfoot.org, which teaches how to build games using java developer. Visit my students’ robotics website for more information at www.poprobotics.wordpress.com.

3 thoughts on “Finding the Right Code for Kids

  1. One thing that I hope comes out of all this is a collection of teachers (many of whom would honestly know more about instruction than coding) that are capable of describing better, even hypothetical tools for teaching this stuff.

    I dont just want teachers to be dragged through “ideal” tools (most of which would never be ideal) without input as to what would help them teach. In fact I would love for there to be courses for teachers (and collaborations with teachers) in developing new tools for teaching code.

    On the one hand, higher-level grades want tools that are closer to “the real thing” in terms of industry (for better or worse. Its not like the industry never shifts before the freshmen can reach graduation.) But with younger grades, more abstract (and easier to learn) tools work just fine. I dare say that the right group of teachers could out-design a tool like that than all the expert coders in the world. They all tend to follow somehow from the example of Logo, a common ancestor. Keep thinking about how you would describe a better design, rather than just waiting for one to exist! Good luck.

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    • Great thoughts. Now, let’s figure out how to make them reality! We underestimate the skills of children, I think. Guiding them in coding is easy when they are already curious but I see the real problem to be the lack of authentic opportunity to see code in action. I was stumped when it was time to help my most advanced students more to a real platform. For one, they are too young to peruse the internet aimlessly, and second, I couldn’t find any sources requesting simple code to solve real problems. Thanks for bringing up this very important topic. I’ll pose this issue to some coding friends and see what comes of it. I hope you will do the same.

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      • Oh, this is something Im working on all the time. I dont want you to think Ive settled for a single solution though– like many a program I think it will take more than one iteration to perfect it.

        One thing I feel strongly about that I think youd agree is: practical applications. Im a fan of Logo and I work on little graphics snippets for fun too, but for me its difficult to say “this is coding” (though it is!) because then the obvious question is: “ok, but what do I need…” [making a turtle or cat move around and draw a line.]

        I want to give (have) a better answer than that. So I really think we need *easy* languages that *do* useful things.

        The closest ones are Python and HTML. Python is a *little* much for age 5– I know; thats roughly when I started teaching myself coding (in the 80s.) Drag-and-drop coding so far has mostly non-practical applications. (App Inventor is useful but Python is easier than that.)

        I personally believe a modern, low-syntax, smaller-sized language is the answer, but also we should be looking at a variety of options (and iterate.) I noticed youre a Greenfoot fan; that has come up before while looking for a variety of options. On the easier/younger side, “LittlCodr” cards are a great idea, but still like a game (no practical application.) I dont think its impossible to make LittlCodr-like cards that actually demonstrate more realistic programming tasks– like looking up information using an array, except still having a peer do each part of the “program.”

        Ive been at this for a couple years, feel free to send me an email if you need anything or just want to talk about ideas. Good luck! Sounds like youre doing good things.

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