I’ve banged on a lot about why it’s important that children learn about computing (mainly here, but also here and here). After attending the excellent coding for kids un-conference run by @hubmum and @katybeale, I made a promise to myself to do something practical to help more young people discover coding.
So… I pitched the idea of a coding for kids pilot to the Head Teacher of my son’s primary school and was pleasantly surprised that she was very open to the idea.
Shortly after that, a bit of serendipity came into play through a post on the Computing at School mailing list. Peter Higginson (mentioned on Stanford’s “Birth of the Internet” plaque) happens to live near me and was interested in doing something to help bring computer science to schools. Over a coffee (and some fascinating stories about the early days of the internet) we agreed to doing some sort of double act.
After a couple of planning meetings with the Deputy Head we settled on doing a pilot with a group of ten Year 5 (ie 9 year old) children. It would be two 1 hour sessions during school time. I was keen to target Year 5 as there is a general consensus that it’s about the age when people develop some of the thinking skills that computing needs (Plus I was somewhat influenced by Emma Mulqueeny’s Year 8 is too late thoughts)
So here’s what we did, what happened and some thoughts on what’s next…
What We Did
We decided fairly quickly to use MIT’s Scratch as the basis for the sessions. It’s free, very accessible for children of that age and there are lots of online examples and resources that the kids could run with on their own if they wanted to.
We structured each session so that it would start with Peter covering theory and explaining some principles; followed by some guided practical work led by me; then ending with some freeform kids-do-stuff-while-we-walk-round-and-help-out-where-we-can time (I’m sure theres a proper ‘teacher-phrase’ for that – perhaps someone will enlighten me).
In session 1 (full notes here), Peter introduced them to the basics of the Scratch environment, talked about variables and operations, made a dog chase a cat and showed how Scratch could be used to do some mathematical number crunching finding prime numbers (examples here). I then helped the pupils build their first programme – drawing simple shapes – starting with squares and incrementally modifying the code to draw more complicated shapes.
In session 2, (full notes here) Peter covered more theory including conditionals, loops and broadcast messages. We had then preloaded a simple game I’d put together - Moon Monsters (example in all its glory here). I showed the students how it worked and then we encouraged them to modify it – changing how fast the monsters move, adding more monsters etc.
Firstly, the kids lapped it up. It was super-satisfying to see the penny drop that they could tell the machine what to do. Since doing the pilot we’re told that the school has been opening up their ICT suite at lunchtimes and a few of them are still going in and coding off their own backs. I’m chalking that one up as a win.
Secondly, there was something fantastic about watching Peter teach the kids. A veteran of the earliest days of the internet enthusing and passing his knowledge onto a new generation – I hope that the group will remember that for a long time.
With no experience of teaching, I found prepping the practical parts of the sessions hard work – trying to get the right balance between something that the pupils will be excited by, but also be within their grasp was quite challenging. I have a new-found respect for the work teachers must put into new material for their classes.
The Future ?
The question I keep asking myself is “How do we make this sustainable?” – perhaps the answer lies in those of us who code, helping those who teach to get up to speed with something like Scratch. Maybe I can use the community we’ve built at Reading Geek Night to move that forward. Perhaps the answer lies in peripatetic coding teachers (much like the model of music and other specialist teachers). Perhaps there’s merit in out-of-school clubs and mentoring support for our newly minted coders.
Wherever the answer lies, we’re keen to keep experimenting and help get a few steps closer to an answer.