Do you remember learning to read? I have such a clear memory of sitting in the back of my parents’ car at age five, decoding every word on each sign that we drove by. Now that I have a daughter of my own, I see her going through the same experience and I am reminded of the feeling I had when I first learned to read and write, as if I had been given a key to unlock a secret world of endless possibilities.
In our modern world, teachers now have the responsibility to empower students by giving them the tools to unlock another world: the world of digital technologies. Every day, 21st century students use ‘code’ to speak to machines, to each other and to the world around them (Mozzadrella, 2017). Many people of influence suggest that we should be teaching students to code for economic reasons. Code.org projected that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computing jobs in the world but only 400,000 students to fill them (New Media Consortium, 2014). Some critics argue that we should be wary of teaching every child to code, as having an entire nation of coders would only drive the cost of coding down.
For me, teaching children to code has far less to do with their future employability and more to do with giving them the skills to express themselves creatively using digital technologies, as opposed to simply being consumers. Child-friendly technologies, such as Scratch and Makey Makey, enable students to create their own products, games, animations and more, through coding. I will elaborate on those tools more, further in this post.
Despite coding’s obvious value and the fact that computer science has now been a part of the Australian curriculum for 5 years, the majority of teachers I speak to about this are still apprehensive about integrate coding into their learning programs, due to their lack of confidence. This is understandable, as many teachers have only recently developed confidence in using digital devices themselves and now they are overwhelmed by the thought of having to explain how it all works!
For teachers attempting to cross over from their comfort zones and enter the world of coding, ‘unplugged’ activities can form quite a nice safety net. CS Unplugged have developed a wide range of excellent, free resources for building computational thinking skills, without any need for devices. I have used many of these myself when I have been unable to access digital devices for my class. However, Dr Gary Stager argues that trying to teach students how to code without using computers ‘is like teaching dancing on a piece of paper’. It is simply not enough.
Tutorials, such as Hour of Code, are also tremendously popular for introducing students to coding, with that particular initiative reaching over 300 million users since its launch in 2013. While completing tutorials does help expose students to different coding concepts, the structured environment means that there are no opportunities for integration across the curriculum. The TPACK model highlights the need for modern teachers to design lessons where Technology, Pedagogy and Content Knowledge are all integrated simultaneously, creating an environment where deep learning occurs (Koehler, 2012). This highlights the need for teachers to familiarise themselves with more versatile tools, where students can create rich projects with code, such as Scratch and Makey Makey.
Coding with Scratch
‘Children have a remarkable capacity for intensity, and computer programming is an intellectual and creative outlet for that intensity’ – Dr Gary Stager (2017).
Scratch is a free visual programming language aimed at children and, at the time of publication, it has been used to create over 32 million projects (Scratch, 2018). Teachers are able to create class accounts, allowing you to set your classroom up as an online community of computer programmers, who can create, share and discuss their projects in an online space. Although it is ‘child friendly’, Scratch is so sophisticated that it is also used by adults and the skills learned in Scratch can be applied to other programs such as Python and Java.
Using Scratch, students are able to invent their own games, animations, quizzes, text and more, only limited by their own creativity. I first introduced Scratch to my Year 5/6 students by setting a task for them to create an Eco Calculator, to encourage others to think about their impact on the environment. While this was a teacher directed project, it still allowed for much more creativity and self expression than a tutorial, and enabled me to integrate coding into other learning areas. I found this project on the government funded Digital Technologies Hub, which has project ideas for integrating coding and digital technologies across the curriculum. My students were amazed by the idea that creating their own calculator was even possible! They researched different Eco Calculators online before planning their own program on paper and creating them in Scratch.
An unsurprising result of introducing my students to Scratch was that the majority of them went home and tinkered with the program outside of school, experimenting with different features and creating their own projects. Suddenly, our class page was full of games and animations based on the students’ individual areas of interest such as sports and animals. Mozzadrella explains that, in order to make significant strides in the area of computer science, we need to attract students who have strengths in disciplines other than computing (2017). Scratch makes this possible by appealing to all learners, no matter what their interests.
Coding in the Physical World with MakeyMakey
Makey Makey is an electronic invention kit which was created by the same team at MIT that created Scratch. In Australia, the retail price is around $50, making it an affordable addition for any school. It is able to be connected with Scratch and allows students to bring their coding projects into the physical world, giving them even more opportunities for creation.
Innovative Melbourne educator, Anthony Speranza, demonstrates various Makey Makey and Scratch projects on his blog (Speranza, 2017). In one example, his upper primary students were working under the inquiry question of ‘How can we change human behaviour to have a positive impact on the environment?’ Students then worked through the design process to come up with a product that would encourage people to use bins. They ended up designing, prototyping and creating electronic bins, using Makey Makey and Scratch, which interacted with humans as they were used.
It is undeniable that 21st century students have the potential to create and shape their world like never before. As teachers, we owe it to them to integrate these tools into our learning programs. We must give students meaningful opportunities to develop and practise these skills, so that they can express themselves creatively through the language of computers and become active participants in the digital world.
Koehler, M. (2012, September 24). TPACK Explained. [Blog post]. Retrieved from:
Meneghini, S. (2013, December 10). Is Technology shoving Pedagogy to the center stage? TPACK Reviewed [Blog post]. Retrieved from: http://langwitches.org/blog/2013/12/10/is-technology-shoving-pedagogy-to-the-center-stage-tpack-reviewed/
Mozzadrella. (2017, August 8). Innovating in the Liberal Arts: code as language at Bard College [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://blog.github.com/2017-08-08-innovating-in-the-liberal-arts-code-as-language-at-bard-college/
The New Media Consortium (n.d.). NMC/CoSN Horizon Report > 2016 K-12 Edition. The New Media Consortium. Retrieved from: http://www.nmc.org/publication/nmc-cosn-horizon-report-2016-k-12-edition/
Speranza, A. (2017). Makey Makey Projects for Years 3 to 6 Students [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://anthsperanza.com/2017/06/27/mmprojects/
Stager, G. (2017, October 17). A modest proposal [Blog post]. Retrieved from: http://stager.tv/blog/?p=4153