Changing mindsets over learning coding
‘It’s boring’, he groaned, glancing sideways beseechingly. ’Do I have to do it. Why do I need to learn to code?’ Part of the year 6 gifted and talented class, this student punched keys, slammed the laptop shut, yanked it open again. His friend offered to help. Desolately he turned back to the coding lessons.
I continue cruising the classroom stepping over lanky legs harbouring slumped socks, dodging flailing arms. ‘It’s really easy – it’s like the games we play. I’m trying to trip it up,’ one boy tells me as I watch the psychedelic coloured spinning shape. It reminds me of a rapidly created multi-coloured elastic band ball. He’s chuckling with glee. I am amazed.
This was my first coding class as a supply teacher. Was I naive to expect the students to enjoy this lesson? It involved laptops – the one tool students struggle to resist. It involved games – the one topic guaranteed to engage all the class. Why are students here no longer motivated to master each level? Or survive a challenge? All of them had been part of the continual clatter to set up a class Minecraft server couched as an educational activity, pitched as a collaborative learning experience. Minecraft is the end product – my son’s observation jolts. Coding is the syntax you use to express the creative logic needed to create that end product.
It is clear on one level this lesson is no different to any other lesson. I could work out where and how each student was learning on Bloom’s Taxonomy. My gleeful student was creating. But his peer was still trying to remember what he had to do. What can I do to scaffold him? I cannot code. Not yet.
Technology is a tool we increasingly use. It can be applied to any field. There seems little doubt that these students should be exposed to even the basics of how technology is programmed. At a rudimentary level, such experience may help them understand their increasingly online lives.
Right now, some of this class are raiding the lesson sequence, most are working through methodically, a few have stalled after the initial levels or activities. At a raw level I want more of the glee than the dejection. I doubt it is as simple as changing the program – that would be like changing the textbook and blindly believing your students will subsequently not only understand but be able to apply that formula! Just because the lesson involves beloved tool laptop, we cannot assume the students will persevere and experience authentic learning.
‘I’m not doing it. My dad said I don’t need to learn. I can employ someone who can.’ I stare at him. Thunderstruck. This student was a cheerful, contributing class member who regularly exhibited a positive growth mindset across his subjects. Is this evidence of the ability to recognise when and what to delegate? Sure. That’s a life skill. But his outburst is inconsistent with his seemingly normal class attitude. Furthermore, what has happened to his problem solving strategies? The logical reasoning I have observed during his maths lessons, and his writing?
This school is in transition. There are lunchtime and after school clubs for the passionate and curious students. And those parked by working parents adamant their children need to learn how to code. But coding lessons are increasingly included at the class level too. Hence transition. Hence this lesson.
There are many coding programs schools access – Tynker, Scratch, Grok Learning, E.A.K to name a few. My limited experience thus far with these programs is that the students have to solve problems, develop reasoning skills. Such skill development coupled with cooperating with peers is part of most students’ journey through school. Exploring how to create the logic, then coding it combines lateral and algorithmic thinking. What beautiful synergy.
I am a supply teacher. One of the fun parts is I move around a few schools. I can plan a lesson for one class then reflect on what I have learnt to improve and change the lesson plan with a fair chance I can run the lesson again in another class or school within a few weeks. I don’t have to wait the 12 months of a classroom teacher. I merely grab an opportunity when the classroom teacher hasn’t had a chance to set a lesson, or says those rare words – do what you like!
.So what did I do with the coding? Today’s school doesn’t have a laptop per student in the classroom. We sing along with that old favourite Hokey Pokey. Why? Familiar to this year 4 class, and the song is a series of instructions. Perfect for small groups to write an algorithm. We decide our mindset is to create an algorithm for recently arrived dinosaur aliens. Yes it was challenging. Each group has to cooperate. How would they instruct each step? How best could I challenge their assumptions?
‘We can say repeat!’, one girl’s face lit up. ‘Oh – we’ve said turn 360 degrees for the turn around,’ another student chimed in. ‘But how do we say put your left hand in? The aliens may not have hands,’ He was frustrated.
‘We’re ready,’ two groups volunteer. Each group passes their carefully worded algorithms to the next group. Silence. Then a low hum fills the classroom as each group works through the instructions. Now the real test commences. Could they follow the algorithm? Could they resist drawing on prior knowledge; algorithms learnt as they mastered walking for movement?
I have this class again. We spend some of the morning working on changing our mindsets: exploring how they perceive their learning, then challenging and changing the words to be more friendly. To accept and work with ‘not yet’. The class construct a wall display. After lunch in small groups they create an algorithm to instruct a robot to move.
This time, the algorithms are more complex. More detailed. Far more creative. Most of these students are experiencing deeper learning on how to write an algorithm. They have visualised the problem, and are exploring spatial reasoning. They are breaking the instructions into segments, and creating patterns.
Again there is frustration, even fury at the challenge. They swap algorithms. And we all watch each group be the robot. ‘That’s not what I meant; oh yes! ….I could follow your instructions; Yours were confusing. This is better than doing the Hokey Pokey… ’
But I’m still pondering about the other class. How can I scaffold particular students to get to the deeper learning of, and for, technology via coding programs? Students take more control when they engage in higher order thinking and apply what they have learnt during coding. Less of the passive, more of the active interactive engagement with their use on end products.
What can I learn from this year 4 class? I hand out post-it notes, and ask them to write down how they felt now. Now they have tested their algorithm. ‘I felt very annoyed. Very annoyed; I felt like it was quite hard to program a robot but when you get the hang of it it gets easier; I felt like I was learning more and more each time I was reading the instruction to make me move.’
There are no short cuts. Was that what my year 6 student struggled with? School lessons build on prior knowledge. All the coding programs start at an introductory level.
You work through at your rate. But if you run from challenges, or tell yourself you cannot do something because it is too difficult then you don’t dream about where you can fly.
I walk up to the mindset wall after school. These students were brutally honest with themselves and most had had the courage to share with their classmates.
‘I can’t do this’ became ‘I can’t do this but maybe I can try another way’; ‘Sometimes I try’ became ‘If you all try it will get easier over time.’
I’m going to try changing mindsets on my next classes.
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