Teaching Coding 1: What is Coding?

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The hour of code has been thrust upon us again.  I missed the “designated week” because I had something else already on the schedule. Instead I asked the teachers I worked with for three days for each 7th and 8th.  The first day was a surprise.  Kids walked into the lab, to find everything off: the lights, the computers, everything.  They had two simple instructions, don’t touch their computers and sit with a friend.

In the nearly four months I have worked in my new district my students have come to expect some surprises, some unconventional moments, and a flair for being somewhat dramatic when a lesson is all mine.  Many of the lessons I work on are collaborations with teachers, but often I the material is my own.  In this case, coding is entirely on me.

For two days, five hours each, I introduced coding in my own way.  These are kids that have grown up with Hour of Code. They have been doing it for three or four years, the class period of code studio work and they take a mixed approach to coding activities.  Today was different.  Instead of teaching them about how to code asked them a question: What is coding?

They came back to me with “programing”, “typing lines into the computer”, and many more along those lines.

I wouldn’t tell them right away.  Instead I simply told them that coders solve problems.  I asked what problems we had. Clearly, it was dark in the room.  The solution was simple, turn on the lights.  It seemed so simple, only, I would be playing a programable robot.  I followed every direction they gave, exactly as it was given to their remarkable frustration.  But, just as in coding, we went back, found the bugs, and tried again.  Before long they were making adjustments, not just to the directions, but to the types of language they were using.  After the lights were on, I asked them a question: Why was this so hard?  Their answers were spot on.  It was hard because I didn’t understand them, or at least, I misinterpreted what they were telling me to do.

Coding is a language.  It is not a traditional language like English, Spanish, or French (subjects most of them have) but it shares many similarities.  It has rules, it is used to communicate, and it can be understood.  Unlike those other  languages, however, coding is devoid of common context.  Any normal person would know to avoid the obstacles on their way to the light switch.  Any normal person would know not to walk into walls, or how to raise their arm and hand to make contact with the switch.  Computers are not a normal person.  They are without that context unless we give it to them.

The lesson was impactful, and I ended with one last reminder.  Learning a new language isn’t easy.  It takes practice and continued use.  More importantly though, learning coding takes four things.  They would need to learn to be clear, learn to be concise, learn to be critical thinkers, and above all they would need to be persistent.

This whole lesson went beyond coding, but you can’t teach a language in an hour.  Let alone the realization that it is actually many languages.  Instead all I can do is provide them with an overview of what coding is, how it works, and the potential it has in their lives.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching Coding 1: What is Coding?

  1. gillianjud

    I like your approach here–it was experiential in terms of teaching why those details matter so much. I look forward to the next in the series Brian!

  2. Aubrey Yeh

    It would be fun to be in your class, Brian! I love this idea of backing up and starting with the big picture question, especially for students who have been well-exposed to the Hour of Code before. I bet there were a lot of laughs and giggles as you played a robot!

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