The Coding Conundrum

Age Range: 5 - 11

The Coding Conundrum

You can’t read anything about computers in schools these days without hearing about coding. It’s one of those things that we all we know we have to teach but we’re never really sure where to start.

Coding is now a major aspect of the new curriculum - it seems as though Michael Gove was determined that every child would grow up to be a software developer! And I was quite pleased… I’ve taught coding in primary schools since 2001 in various ways and it seemed to me that this was a positive step forward. ICT (or Computing, as we now call it) was finally moving beyond ‘manipulating text and graphics’ in Microsoft Word.

But what the government neglected to consider was that whilst it was admirable to want every child to learn to code, not every teacher could.

In fact, most primary school teachers have never attempted to code a thing in their life and the closest they get to coding is setting the Sky+ box to record the next episode of Strictly. That’s by no means a criticism. It’s not too dissimilar from expecting every teacher to speak French. After all, coding requires knowledge of computer languages.

This shift in curricular provision was music to the big educational publishing houses who rushed to produce software allowing children to drag and drop code to make something move or dance.

For me, as ICT Subject Leader in 2014 (I’m now an Acting Head and have had to give up my ICT baby!), I thought it was incredibly important to plan for progression with coding. In order to do this, I had to look carefully at what resources were available to schools and weigh up how beneficial they would be.

For me the challenge was making coding accessible to our youngest children and challenging for our oldest children.

With the youngest children, I really wanted to find ways to get the children to understand how computer programs worked and I found the best way to do this was to go nowhere near a computer.

Instead, I planned a series of lessons to teach children about algorithms using the ‘Hokey Cokey’. The beauty of the Hokey Cokey is that it’s a song full of instructions.

I began by playing the song and doing the dance (yes, I’m cool like that!). Once everyone knew the song, I put the children into groups and asked them to write some instructions for aliens to do the Hokey Cokey. For those children who struggled with writing the instructions, we recorded them saying the instructions on iPads.

Now the key here is to stress how an alien wouldn’t know what a lot of things mean. For example ‘in, out’ is not very specific. How far should we put our left arm ‘in’? When we turn around, do we turn the whole way? You get the idea…

Once the instructions were written, we swapped them around and asked the children to follow each others’ sets of instructions – emphasising that they MUST only do as they are told.

We then looked at how similar to the actual dance the resulting dances were!

This leads in nicely to showing the children how a computer only does what it is told to do. It cannot think about what the Hokey Cokey SHOULD look like. It can only follow the instructions given.

Once children are confident with the idea of step-by-step clear instructions to achieve a goal, introducing BeeBots or simple coding software such as Espresso Coding becomes much easier. The children will have a much clearer understanding of algorithms and will have thoroughly enjoyed making fools of themselves putting their left arm in!

When it came to looking at Lower Key Stage 2, it was much easier to plan for. Scratch. I’m sure you’ve heard of it! Available as an online tool, Scratch is a drag and drop coding tool. The idea is that children drag blocks of code to make the objects (known as ‘sprites’) on the stage do things. The default sprite is a cat. So the first task I always give to the Year 3s is to make the cat move up, down, left and right on the press of the appropriate arrow key.

Just in case you’re interested, this is how you do it:

Scratch is quite commonly used in primary schools and as a result, there are loads of resources, lesson plans and guides available for free online.

But it wasn’t Lower Key Stage 2 I had the problem with. It was challenging the older children in Year 5 and Year 6.

A lot of schools stick with Scratch or something similar and just extend the tasks. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

But I wanted to do something different…

I wanted to teach my kids to build an iPhone app!

Now this is not something you can just do with no help. I taught myself to code apps back in 2009, and I’ve been learning ever since. By 2014, I was confident enough to teach children. But I needed to buy an Apple Mac computer as you cannot code apps for iPhones without one.

But you only need one. I taught the children the code, what it meant and what it did and got them to type it up on a text editor such as Notepad on a Windows computer and then picked different children to help me at break and dinner to copy the code into the special (free) software Apple distribute to allow people to make apps for their devices.

And this got me thinking… How cool would it be if every primary school had the means to teach their older children REAL coding? Coding for a purpose.

But as I said at the start, there aren’t many teachers in primary schools with the technical expertise or confidence to teach this.

So I wrote it down.

I put my whole process from designing an iPhone app to putting it into the App Store into a book written for teachers who have never coded before and to be used as a teaching guide. It took me a while to put it together and the result is over 280 pages of illustrated step-by-step instructions for you to share with your class.

Now, you still need one Apple Mac, but armed with that and the book, you can teach your class to code an app for your school.

Coding is great fun! It’s about problem solving, lateral thinking, maths, design and languages. But it’s even more fun when it’s for a purpose. In fact, the first app you build in the book doesn’t even need any code! And the excitement was almost tangible when my group of children ran their app for the first time…

Even after it crashed due to a missing capital letter!

And then began the lesson on debugging!

Whichever route you choose, however you code, it’s important to keep it fun. And if you ever find it’s not fun anymore, it might just be time to do the Hokey Cokey…

 

Doug Stitcher is Acting Head at Townfield Primary School on the Wirral. He is the author of ‘From Classroom to App Store’ available at The CE Press.

From Classroom to App Store

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