Tracy Henderson tells me that she learned to type on an Olympia typewriter. “It’s something you’d find in a museum,” she laughs.
I can relate. In my attempts to keep up with my kids’ digital education, I admit to glazing over when they talk excitedly about learning to code at school. My year 3 son has started tinkering on Scratch, while my year 1 daughter is exploring TinyTap. It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s more that I have no idea what they’re talking about. They lost me at Minecraft and Slither.io. Coding feels light years away from my weekly 10 minutes of allotted computer time on the enormous and solitary Apple at the back of the classroom.
While I’m sure virtually all teachers are more adept with digital technology than I am, Henderson makes me feel like there is hope for even the most tech-challenged individuals.
Henderson, who has clearly made greater digital leaps than I have since our respective childhoods, works alongside Professor Tim Bell at the University of Canterbury on the CS4PS (Computer Science for Primary Schools) initiative. A recent CS4PS conference in Christchurch confirmed that with the right professional development, even teachers with no computing background can become proficient at teaching coding and other computing topics to a class full of eager minds.
Computing without the computers
The flurry of tweets flaunting #CS4PSchch indicate that the two-day course, which was capped at 40 participants, was a huge success. For many, the lightbulb moment came with the realisation that they can teach computing concepts with hands-on practical activities using regular classroom equipment.
The idea of teaching computing without computers is a puzzling one, but a quick lesson in CS Unplugged confirms that not only is it doable, but it is incredibly effective.
CS Unplugged is the baby of the University of Canterbury’s CS Education Research Group’s. Supported by Google, CS Unplugged is a collection of free learning activities that teach Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and lots of running around.
It was designed so that young students could experience the sorts of challenges that computer scientists experience, but without having to learn programming first. It was originally intended as an optional extra, a resource for extension, but now is widely used for teaching.
The CS4PS course participants embraced CS Unplugged elements as well as how to transition from an unplugged situation to a working program.
For example, a simple activity with sheets of paper and dots helps explain the binary system and what bits and bytes are to kids. In another activity, balance scales are used to compare weights to help students understand the basics of sorting algorithms.
In a third, a magic trick using pieces of card simulates the same methods that computers use to figure out if an error has occurred in data storage.
CS Unplugged is about paring back coding to its fundamental concepts and allowing students to gain a better understanding of what they’re essentially doing when they take up coding on a device.
Sarah Gifford from Ladbrooks School has been part of the CS4PS pilot programme and says every child in her class of year 6-8 students was able to enter the discussions or investigations at their own level, using their peers as experts.
“After my first session with Tracy [Henderson] and Tim [Bell] I went back to school and started a discussion with my class about Binary… they knew nothing! By the end of an hour and a half my class was able to create a code and crack a code using binary numbers. They then went home and created codes for their family to crack and taught them how it worked.”
From there, Gifford’s students have progressed to creating programs on Scratch.
“They have created maze games including questions and answers, a point system, timed levels and having to start again or lose points when a question is wrong. Most recently they created a Scratch program that measured and taught others about naming angles as part of our geometry unit.”
Gifford says she has learned that as a teacher of computer science you don’t always need to know all the answers.
“Although I have learned a lot, I know too that the questions we ask are more powerful than giving the answers. I am always asking, why do you think that is? How can we find out? What have you got so far, read your script to me… through these questions the children answer their own and delve even deeper into their thinking.”
Ali Duncan, who teaches years 2-4 at Ladbrooks, agrees that at first she felt out of her depth teaching computer science, and dreaded the tricky questions from her students. However, she gained confidence as she saw how effective the UC Unplugged resource was with her students.
“My children were amazing. I noticed those who can be quiet and reserved blossomed and showed strengths in computational thinking, reasoning and logic. They problem solved, challenged themselves, made connections and are hungry for more.”
They are now all regular Scratch Jnr programmers. Some prefer Hopscotch, a similar coding game. Computer science is integrated into maths every week and the class has deep critical thinking conversations.
“I love it,” says Duncan. “I feel like this is relevant and impacting on the children’s engagement and understanding. It’s easy to integrate and my own knowledge is growing with the children.”
Duncan says she isn’t worried about the tricky questions anymore.
“Like I am with any other question, I just answer it the same way, with ‘What do you think?’ or ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’.”
Magic tricks, games – it all sounds terribly fun. Tracy Henderson is adamant that computer science should be introduced to students in a fun way, to help engage them with a subject that is set to play a significant role in their lives.
Henderson takes this approach to her role as curriculum developer for Code Club Aotearoa.
Code Club was started in the UK in 2012 and has now gone global with thousands of clubs around the world, all with the same mission of teaching children to code.
Michael Trengrove of Orion Health founded Code Club Aotearoa several years ago, as an attempt to address the IT sector’s struggle to recruit talented locals. He felt Kiwi kids needed more exposure to the vast array of careers that involve different aspects of working with digital technologies.
Code Club Aotearoa is flourishing, with code clubs sprouting up all around New Zealand, some in schools and others in libraries or community centres. The clubs are extracurricular and are led by volunteers who teach one project per week. The projects are created by the team at Code Club Aotearoa and aimed at teaching children to program by showing them how to make computer games, animations, and websites.
Students learn the basics of programming using Scratch and the basics of web development using HTML, CSS and Python. Resources are currently in development to teach children to build their own Internet of Things projects. (For the uninitiated, the Internet of Things is a network of connected devices that collect and exchange data – in a Google nutshell.)
Code Clubs are helping bust the myth that coding is some “exceptional skill” that only few people can master.
Henderson says there is a misconception that because digital technologies are getting easier to use, we shouldn’t bother teaching things like coding. In reality, she says, the fact that technology is getting easier to use is a reflection of the sophisticated programming and hard work that has gone on behind the scenes. It’s not enough for children simply to know how to use technology, they need to be exposed to the endless possibilities technology provides, including programming, web development and content creation.
Melanie Riwai-Couch, principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Whānau Tahi says the Code Club at their school has changed the way their students interact with technology. Students at the kura have 1:1 access to devices, but before Code Club they used them primarily to source content.
“What I love about Code Club, as an educator, is that the tamariki are producing rather than consuming.”
The kura’s Code Club was instigated after Code Club Aotearoa liaised with Ngāi Tahu to form a Code Club that taught the basics of coding in a culturally relevant way. As such efforts have been made to ensure the material used by the Code Club reflects the iwi’s history and values.
Riwai-Couch says this approach enables the tamariki to find their own voice, helping them to communicate through a medium with which they are familiar.
Te Whānau Tahi student Te Hinemaia Te Raki shared on Radio New Zealand a project she was working on at Code Club. It involved the creation of an animated story about a family all named after her whakapapa. The story was about her iwi and where she came from. She described how she had learned, by using sprites to make the characters speak and interact with each other.
Te Raki said it had been “a lot of fun” learning something entirely new and expressed a wish to continue learning to code.
Pathway to what?
Code Club may well sow the seeds for students like Te Hinemaia Te Raki to go on to pursue digital technologies at NCEA level. The recent announcement that digital technologies is to be formally integrated into the New Zealand curriculum is likely to result in a more structured pathway for coding from year 1 and up.
However, Henderson says Code Club is less about providing an educational pathway, and more about allowing kids to have fun and opening their eyes to the opportunities that exist in this field. It is also about exploring hidden talents and passions.
“It’s not that every child is a computer scientist, it’s more that you don’t know you’re good at something until you stumble upon it by accident,” says Henderson.
Henderson gives the example of a girl in a Code Club she has worked with who displayed great attention to detail, ensuring that every pixel looked just right. “We want her to be part of the design process at the front end,” she says.
Indeed, the recent announcement about integrating digital technologies into the curriculum has drawn some emotional responses from the tech sector about the importance of exposing children to this multi-faceted field.
“Many children have their sights set on being a YouTuber or gamer – many have no idea of how digital technology filtrates everything we do. There is going to be a huge shortage of people with the right set of skills,” says Henderson.
Concerns have been raised about the dearth of funding to support the necessary professional development in this area. Henderson says ideally they would like to roll out the CS4PS training to many teachers around the country, but they are currently limited by the funding.
It is arguably too much for one university, as well, and no doubt there will exist opportunities for collaboration among New Zealand universities and industry partners to help roll out some of these initiatives to schools and communities around New Zealand.
The pace of technological change means we need to keep up. There is a vast number of eager young Kiwi minds waiting to learn about coding. We shouldn’t keep them waiting much longer.