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Watching Kids Code

Watching Kids Code

Written by Joe Dillon
January 28, 2014

While there are debates to be had about whether all kids should learn to program, the best arguments for teaching kids to code, I expect, will not be sharpened in debate, but come from watching and listening to kids who are learning to code, and partnering with their teachers in the spirit of shared inquiry. Recently, I had the honor of participating in a lively conversation on Connected Learning TV about teaching kids to code. The discussion included Mia Zamora from the Kean University Writing Project, Doug Belshaw from Mozilla, Mitch Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, Alec Heifetz, a student at MIT, and Ciara Byrne, a technology journalist for In what was supposed to be a point-counterpoint discussion, our panel quickly discovered that we all generally agreed that kids should have the opportunity to learn to code. We even agreed that kids who didn’t want to shouldn’t have to learn to program. As it turned out, our panel had no designs to chain kids to computers so they could log endless hours if those kids didn’t have a desire to tinker with code. Still, this debate that fell flat amidst all of our agreement raised an issue of equity:

How do we provide exposure to coding for girls and students of color, who are underrepresented in computer science courses in higher ed and in computer science-related careers? How do we make sure all kids have engaging, thorough, supported opportunities to practice coding and programming so they have a chance to identify if they are in fact interested?

Maybe it is telling that we had more interest in equity than argument, especially when there are so many things we might disagree about. A New York Times Room for Debate discussion in 2011 called, “Computer Science’s Sputnik Moment,” identified a number of debatable issues, questions like: Does instruction in computational thinking support critical thinking? Should the current state of the technology job market dictate the emphasis on programming in schools? Is fluency with tech tools essential to creative expression? All of these questions persist and loom even larger for educators as more students carry mobile computing devices and schools seek to increase access to tools (if only to support online testing.)

With Computer Science Ed Week and the Hour of Code in our rearview mirror this year, I’m left reflecting that it makes more sense for me, and maybe for teachers in general, to join an inquiry rather than a debate, especially since most teachers have more experience kidwatching than coding.

In my school district, we’re engaged in just this type of inquiry. Teachers are discovering rich potential in having kids program games and simulations as part of “Scalable Game Design” research conducted by Alex Repenning and his team at CU Boulder.

In just the last year, our school district has sought to broaden the scope of Scalable Game Design in APS, expanding from one pilot teacher to eight teachers’ classrooms at the middle and high school level. Here are some of the questions that fuel the inquiry and keep us too busy to debate:

Does having an opportunity to design games change students’ attitudes about programming and computer science?

Reppening reports that high school students, asked about their interests, say programming and computer science are both hard and boring. Which prompts Repenning’s team to say, “That’s not a trade off.” In other words, kids won’t tolerate boring work to relish in its difficulty, or persevere through challenging coding to log a few hours of boredom.

To combat students’ perception of computer science, software like the AgentSheets and AgentCubes programs used in SGD, or the programming language Scratch from the MIT Media Lab, make game design accessible to novice programmers and will help us find out if more engaging projects, tasks, and instruction change the way all kids see programming and computer science.

Do kids write more, and more willingly, when they write as part of a game design project?

This question floats near the surface of conversations I have with teachers implementing Scalable Game Design. Admittedly, I enter into this inquiry with an optimistic bias fueled by observations like those of my NWP colleague, Kevin Hodgson, who shared some inspiring observations in this blog post about how game design helped one middle school boy find his writing voice. Game design, or any other programming project, presents a number of entry points for student designers to produce authentic texts that support the design. Hodgson’s student wrote for a variety of purposes with an audience of gamers in mind.

Gaming was the hook, and soon he was personally pushing himself to craft the narrative of his video game and to write out detailed instructions of how to play the game. He began to understand the connections between the writing process and the design process that underpinned the structure of something he loved.

In my own school district, where Middle and High School teachers who have just begun leading students through game design ask students to produce narrative texts that provide background for the game. These students also have to produce informational writing in the form of instructions and design plans. The indications I see, whether I’m listening to teacher conversations in professional learning, or if I’m reading exemplary narratives posted on the walls of a computer lab, suggest that these highly interest-driven projects hold many opportunities for authentic writing that has relevance for students.

How might teaching and learning change now that schools can engage all kids in coding to support the development of problem solving skills and critical thinking?

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