Kids Who Code
The newest class in kindergarten: Coding 101
By Kate Morgan

At the beginning of the school year, Liz Kahn’s third-grade class learned about making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was their first lesson in coding.

Kahn is the lower school coding teacher at Moorestown Friends School – a new position established for the current school year. She was showing her students a video of a robot attempting to make a sandwich to demonstrate to the 8- and 9-year-olds the importance of details in computer programming.

“When you don’t give specific enough instructions, the robot doesn’t know what to do,” Kahn says. “If you say, ‘Open the peanut butter and spread it on the bread,’ the robot smashes the jar – because he doesn’t know what ‘open’ means – and spreads it on the bread with the glass in it.”

Liz Kahn teaches coding to kids in pre-school through 4th grade at Moorestown Friends School

Liz Kahn teaches coding to kids in pre-school through 4th grade at Moorestown Friends School

Kahn is developing the coding curriculum for the MFS Lower School, marking its place as one of the first programs in the nation teaching kids as young as 3 to write lines of code. When Kahn set out to design the curriculum, the first thing she did was figure out how to engage students. She succeeded by linking code to things the kids experience and enjoy in their everyday lives.

“I’ll say, ‘OK, what’s the algorithm for brushing our teeth? If we miss a step, what will happen?’ I tell them their favorite Pixar films are made with code. So then it’s, ‘How do we get a character on the screen, change their color, make them say something?’” she says. “Then they’re hooked, and I can build the curriculum around that.”

With her youngest students, Kahn starts by teaching directionality – how to get a robot to move from point A to point B. With the oldest students, MFS’ fourth-graders, she works on more advanced material.

“Right now they’re working on debugging, trying to find issues with programs they’ve written,” Kahn says. “The idea is to work from the ground up, so when they’re young they learn to recognize patterns, then write things sequentially. Eventually they’ll get all the way up to creating their own apps and games.”

The first coding language Kahn’s students learn is called Blockly, an easy-to-learn language created by Google for educational purposes. It’s heavily based on JavaScript, a more complicated but widely used language.

“Blockly is basically exactly what it sounds like,” Kahn says. “It’s block pieces of code that you click together into a complete program. It’s basically JavaScript written in a really digestible way. What I hope to do in the next few years is move from Blockly into JavaScript, and eventually I’m going to need to teach them Python [a different high-level language gaining in popularity].”

Over at Osage Elementary School in Voorhees, technology teacher Leta Strain fills a more unconventional role. While there are no classes dedicated solely to coding at Osage, Strain runs a design lab where students teach themselves coding as they take on self-directed, hands-on projects.

“It’s a very different type of learning,” Strain says. “I guide them and provide materials for them, but they’re free to pursue their projects and their research. Our lab functions like a real-world research lab; you put fertile minds together and they end up collaborating and producing great ideas and great work. It’s not a traditional teaching role at all – they’re way beyond the traditional classroom learning experience. I question them a lot and lead them by questions, but what they’re doing here is student-centered, student-driven and student-created. This is 21st-century teaching and learning.”

The students in Strain’s class, most of whom are in third through fifth grades, learn coding languages through YouTube, iTunes U and resources like Google’s Blockly. Strain says that while she facilitates the learning environment, the students learn best when they teach themselves and one another.

“They’re learning to code online and helping one another learn new pieces of code and new ways to think about it.” Strain says. “It’s easy for the children – we have kids who can’t read, reading code and working with code. The older kids in the lab have worked with the school’s younger children, showing them how to do it. They didn’t need to know how to read to learn how to code. They pick it up so quickly; it’s so innate to them.”

In fact, the students are such naturals with technology that some of them act as the school’s “Geek Squad,” popping into classrooms to resolve teachers’ issues with computers, projectors and smartboards.

Both Strain and Kahn say one of the most important lessons students absorb when learning to code is that it’s acceptable to fail. That’s something Kahn says her coding students have taken with them into other subjects – and it’s paying off.

Students at Osage Elementary teach each other coding basics

Students at Osage Elementary teach each other coding basics

“So much of coding is trial and error,” she says. “And they learn very quickly that when they fail and something doesn’t work, they just figure out what’s wrong and fix it. They try again until it works, and that’s the whole idea. I’m getting so much positive feedback from their other teachers, especially in math and science. The kids are showing more persistence and resilience. They’re saying, ‘OK, if I don’t get it the first time, I’ll do it again. I’ll find another way to get it right.’”

Kahn says she expects to see dedicated coding classes popping up at schools everywhere in the next few years. The things kids are learning in her classroom, she says, are quickly becoming mandatory skills.

“Ten years from now kids are going to demand it, parents are going to demand it,” she says. “Employers are already demanding it. It’s no coincidence that Google is putting out these educational resources. It’s because they’re not able to find people who already have the skills they’re looking for, so they’re basically training their future workforce.”

Strain says she constantly encourages her students to think outside the box, brainstorming solutions to problems like how to build a better flash drive reader or how to deliver mitochondrial DNA into a cancer cell. The development of these ideas – and the coding skills they’re learning to bring the ideas to life – are preparation for a workforce that will look very different once her students join it, she adds.

“This kind of thinking and collaboration is what their jobs are going to require,” Strain says. “We’re preparing them now for jobs that aren’t even invented yet.”

Kahn agrees, though she thinks current-day jobs will also require new applicants to have a firm grasp of programming and code.

“We’re also training them for traditional jobs, which will look totally different by the time they get there,” she says. “They’re going to need all of these skills to be teachers, doctors, lawyers – an understanding of code is going to be necessary to keep the jobs we already have, in any profession.”

While the teachers are aware they’re imparting invaluable lessons and real-life skills, for the students, Kahn says, this is all just fun.

“They’re so engaged in class,” she says. “They’re so excited about this material, and there’s something for everyone. It’s not just, ‘I want to grow up and make a video game.’ There’s literally something for every person and every interest.”

Strain’s investment in her students’ futures goes well beyond preparing them for standardized tests or even for their transition to middle school. As far as she’s concerned, she’s helping them prepare to change the world.

“I think people in general underestimate the capability of a young mind,” she says.

“I’m trying to give these kids the opportunity to work at a high level at a young age. We foster their ideas and help them learn to write the code that makes it all work, but they’re the driving force. Kids think without limits – they just think anything is possible. So let’s let them think that way. That’s how they end up becoming great.”

February 2016
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