03 December 2020

10 things I have learned from running coding workshops (Blog by Steve Lewis)

At Sony UK Tec, we believe that computer learning is an incredibly important part of education and we have worked hard to provide Welsh students with access to coding workshops within our facility.

So far over 13,000 students have taken part in our school visits programmes, including our ‘Learn 2 Code’ workshops which started in 2017, with the numbers growing every year.

Our tailored one-day workshops are led by a qualified coding instructor, Steve Lewis, who encourages children to use their creativity across a variety of digital platforms to help them with their STEM learning.

We caught up with Steve to find out his top tips on delivering coding skills to children and how he has found teaching computer learning in a digital landscape that is constantly evolving.

 

Catch their attention

Many children who have experienced coding activities in school have done so through the online platform J2Code in Hwb where they have moved the Turtle around the screen or created pretty patterns using Logo.

Whilst these are good learning tools, they don’t really capture children’s attention or imagination. I find that giving the children ‘wow’ moments really gets them engaged and enthusiastic.

Instead, I introduce them to Mission Zero where they create code that is sent to the International Space Station, we hack Minecraft using Python to create houses out of melon with lava windows and we even drop exploding TNT blocks automatically as we walk.

We also build and control circuits using Scratch and Python and create a working set of traffic lights or a motion activated camera.

It’s these sorts of activities I find really capture children’s attention and get them enthused about coding.

 

Build-up – small wins early on help to break negative attitudes towards coding

‘Hello World!’ is where all coding starts.

When children first attempt to code in Python it can be a bit daunting. Some even decide they can’t do it before they start and would rather not attempt it than fail.

But, by starting with this simple command, everyone gets an early win and it helps to really build confidence.

This also results in a more engaged class environment as the lesson goes on. It’s all about letting the students know they can do it.

 

Make connections

When children start to code, they do so in a very linear way – just focussing on the basic skills they are trying to develop on a single platform.

I find that by introducing multiple platforms, they can take skills and processes that they have learned from a basic platform such as Scratch or Sonic Pi and apply it to a more complex language like Python.

For example, Sonic Pi uses the same debugging processes as Python.

I also found that by performing the same activity in Scratch and then Python, children can compare each language through discussion. Deepening their understanding and appreciation of each.

 

Broken code

I find that many children become disheartened if the code they have created doesn’t work first time and they don’t want to spend the time fixing it.

Trying to develop debugging skills with code that they have created simply doesn’t work as emotions get involved and frustration ensues, especially among high achievers who aren’t used to getting things wrong.  

Instead, we learn debugging skills with broken code that I provide them with.

Using code that they aren’t emotionally attached to allows them to debug objectively and, usually, much more enjoyably. They get a sense of satisfaction when they finally correct it and see it working.

They then have the skills to tackle their own lines of code.

 

What’s the point?

Coding for coding’s sake isn’t appealing for any child.

Learning anything in school where the children don’t see the point of it is incredibly difficult and frustrating for everyone concerned.

I find that by sharing real uses and projects it gives a purpose to any activity.

We start with a flashing LED, where children can then use the skills they’ve developed to build and code a working set of traffic lights!

So, with this task we’ve implemented a real-life situation that the students will immediately recognise as useful.

 

Keyboards

Keyboards tend to be quite a surprise to my coding students.

But, with the way technology has been going I guess that shouldn’t be a shock.

When iPads first made an appearance, many schools replaced their computer suites with them and parents who previously had laptop or desktop computers now have tablets.

Point and click has been replaced with swipe and tap, and children are no longer being exposed to keyboards.

I first noticed this from the quizzical looks that I had from children when I asked them to hit ‘enter’ or ‘shift’.

Many children that come to workshops at Sony UK Tec can’t navigate a keyboard, so this often became part of the introduction to any activity and if ‘shift’ was involved I would take it extra slowly.

 

Tinker time

With such a limited time in the workshops, it’s very easy to quickly finish off an activity and move onto the next. But the times of greatest realisation, those ‘aha’ moments, for the children often occur at the end of the structured time.

I try to build in ‘tinker time’ where the children can play and experiment, making mistakes in a low risk environment.

They play with circuits and try to get a second or third LED to light up, make Scratch the Cat do something bizarre when a button on a circuit was pressed, or even adapt code in Minecraft to see what would happen.

The learning, discussion and skills developed during this self-guided time makes it invaluable and incredibly exciting.

The energy in the room is always amazing.

 

Collaborate

Good learning is good learning, and the best comes from peer to peer discussion and questioning.

It gives the children the opportunity to share what they have created with each other or share their problems and piggyback on ideas.

Keeping children isolated at their own workstations often stifles creativity and I love to see them moving back and forth between each other’s computers.

Often what they come up with doesn’t solve the problem that I have set them but it is something much more interesting. And that’s all part of the learning experience.

 

Don’t jump in – frustration is part of the process

Often, children don’t succeed immediately and start with a struggle.

At this point, I’ve noticed a member of staff would often jump in and give them the answer. This means that the opportunity to develop resilience and perseverance is lost.

I find this quite frustrating and it soon became evident that some children would sit and wait for an adult to come and do it for them.

They had become conditioned to this behaviour.

But, if the adult pauses and gives the child thinking time or asks a question to guide their thought process, often the child will come up with the solution themselves. This allows them to gain a sense of achievement that they had succeeded themselves and they then take this into other aspects of their learning.

Ultimately, this does wonders for their progress.

 

Competition works but everyone succeeds

Our final activity is often to use the skills developed throughout the day to build and code a working set of traffic lights.

At first, some groups would go through the motions and often wouldn’t complete the task before the end of the day. Some would become disinterested and lose focus.

So, I decided to add an element of competition to my workshops.

Whoever completed the activity first would get a prize. House points, Dojos, reward certificates, it really didn’t matter.

The energy in the room changed immediately.

There was a buzz of competition that pushed everyone along. But as well as having a competitive element, it was essential that everyone completed the activity. I didn’t want their abiding memory to be one of failure.

So, if a pair completed the activity, they could help others.

They were instructed to ask questions and give pointers, but not to do it for them. So, when it was time to go back to school every child had created a working set of traffic lights and had succeeded.

 

The take away?

I try to apply these points to every workshop I run.

Now, with workshops being run remotely, it has become even more challenging. The dynamic has completely changed, and different elements have become increasingly important.

But as I move forward, I hope that even more children understand the importance of coding, the impact it can have on their whole learning, and the development of essential life skills.

And hopefully this will help others approach teaching coding with a little more confidence and witness the same student growth I do.

 

 

*Please note all photos included in this blog were taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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