Coding Matters

If you are involved in education in Australia, for the last twelve months or more you would have heard the clarion call to have all children learning how to code. The publicity has stretched far and wide and now coding education has become a part of the political sphere. With the recent endorsement of the new Australian Digital Technologies curriculum and the announcement of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘Innovation Agenda,’ the buzz is certainly in the air. A glimpse into your average school may not paint this exact picture just yet, but many schools both primary and secondary, public and private all over the country have been embracing ‘coding’ as a part of their school curriculum for a while now and things are only just getting started.

Why?

We know that today’s students live in a technology-saturated world. Emerging technologies are changing education and the world as we know it but while many students (and, in fact, adults) often know how to use technology, rarely do they understand how it works. Think for a minute about the things around you, how was it built? How did it transform from an idea to reality? How did it get to you? Somewhere, along that chain, computer science was involved. Did you know that Ikea’s ‘Billy’ bookcase does not come in contact with human hands in manufacturing? The entire factory operation runs 24/7 and is facilitated by machines and robots with employees there to simply feed materials into the machine and then take out the packed boxes. With over 25, 000 bookcases being built a day, this operation could not happen without coding.

Digital disruption is transforming both the manufacturing and service industries and in order to future proof Australia’s economy and workforce, changes need to begin now. The skills students develop when learning to code will enable them to participate in this future workforce, where flexibility, agility and entrepreneurial thinking will be at the forefront of many careers. It is indeed possible that the jobs that today’s primary school students will have in the future, do not even exist yet.

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So what exactly is coding? 

Coding, or computer programming is the way people command and communicate with computers and machines. It can be described as the process that people take to design, write, test and debug computer programs. Coding in education is about understanding the process of how a computer works.

But what about coding and learning? 

When we discuss the thinking involved in learning to code it is imperative that teachers are familiar with the work of Seymour Papert. Papert was one of the designers and inventors of ‘LOGO’, an educational programming environment that was built in the 1960’s. LOGO is based on the thinking of Piaget (with whom Papert worked)- to allow students to think and solve problems in a play-based environment. Papert likened these environments to ‘microwords’ describing them as a place where strategic thinking and powerful ideas can be developed.

Papert’s work on coding and learning also identifies that whilst students are developing their programs they are constructing mental processes and patterns of thought used to make sense of information. This process, Papert coined as ‘Constructionism’. Constructionism is similar to what we know as the Constructivist learning theory in that learners construct knowledge and make meaning through experiences, however, in Constructionism the key difference is on knowledge being built by the learner making something tangible and sharable.

When Papert said “I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge…” it is easy to assume that the logical thinking, problem solving skills and meaning being developed when students are creating through code is a step in the right direction for education and students in today’s world.

There is more to learning to code than just recalling a set of symbols and commands. More than 20 years ago, Steve Jobs famously said: “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.”.  With that in mind, it is fitting that the new Australian Digital Technologies curriculum is designed for students to develop a deep understanding of systems thinking, design thinking and computational thinking. In fact, coding is just one part of the new curriculum that endeavours to allow students to develop an understanding of being able to use and create with digital technologies.

Making it happen…

Aitken Creek Primary School prides itself on being an early adopter in the edtech world. When the draft Digital Technologies curriculum was released ACPS saw this as a fantastic opportunity to engage both staff, students and the wider school community in the future of digital learning at the school. As more than half of the student enrolments at ACPS are in the Foundation to Year 2 area, the school has focused heavily on introducing the new curriculum in the early years.

Through an inquiry learning process a number of students in Foundation at ACPS spent weeks exploring and investigating ‘Robots’ with their teacher Erin McNamara. Students began by being immersed in Robots through playing with them, reading about them, listening to the different sounds they make and viewing many different kinds. Students then delved into collecting and representing data about them and what they observed as well as comparing and contrasting different robotic toys. Students even had the opportunity to pull apart a BeeBot to investigate what was inside. Students also investigated and created simple circuits using LittleBits to discover and be able to explain the inner workings of their robotic toys. Once students had developed a significant understanding of what robots were and how they worked they had the opportunities to construct their own programs. The use of robots in this experience allowed students to take the ‘code’ off the screen and see their programs come to life. Through this experience, students were able to develop a sense of how digital systems work and how to solve problems through programming, rather than only focusing on how to use them.

Developing a deep understanding of how digital systems work and creating digital solutions was the focus for Level Two students, taking their learning further by integrating other curriculum areas- specifically student learning about Narratives. Students developed a sequence of scenes for their narratives using a story board and published their work by programming robotic devices as their ‘actors’ and using a Green Screen to make their stories come to life. Not only were students able to achieve specific literacy outcomes they were able to meet each of the achievement standards for the Digital Technologies Curriculum for Year Two.

With inspiration from Melinda Cashen and the Bell Gaming Festival, Year Two teachers Tamryn Kingsley and Emily Fintelman embarked on a ‘Gaming Project’ with their students. Again, through an inquiry learning process students investigated ‘games’ and used Scratch to design and construct their own games resulting in a gaming convention at the school where students were able to showcase, share and receive feedback about their games from other students, teachers, parents and the wider community.

While there has been a major focus on the early years, developments in the middle and upper years are occurring at ACPS as well. Years three and four students have been predominately using the iPad application Hopscotch– allowing them to experiment and create their own iPad based applications and games.

Selected students in years 5 and 6 have taken part in a project with Code the Future that facilitated a software developer to work with students for six weeks. Students used Intel Galileo Boards to design and create their own projects. A classroom monitoring system that measures temperature and an encryption machine that allows users to send and receive ‘secret’ messages being just some of the innovative ideas that students explored, designed and built.

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Thinking about each of these examples, not only were students developing the fundamental skill of coding they were able to develop logical thinking skills and problem solving through constructing and making their own games, apps or programs using a variety of digital technologies.

For coding education to be a success it is important that teachers are developed, empowered and trusted to teach it with confidence. Top tips for developing this in staff include:

  • Purposeful and specific professional learning
  • Workshops and learning experiences built around play
  • Breaking down and unpacking the language in the new curriculum
  • Developing understanding of Papert and constructionism

Teaching our students to code does not mean that we expect ALL students to become professional computer programmers. We teach students how to write music, but we don’t expect all students to become professional composers or recording artists. We teach students physical education and how to play sport, but we don’t expect all students to become elite athletes. We teach the basics of science and history, but we don’t expect all students to become scientists or historians. What we do expect however is that all students, in all schools are given the opportunity to learn about the world they live in, how it works and how they can be successful. In the continuously changing digital landscape we now live, learning about digital systems and being able to create through code should be an essential component of a balanced education for every child.

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