Coding for the Younger Generation #NationalCodingWeek
It’s clear that technology plays a major role in both the home and school life of today’s children. However, despite both primary and secondary schools embracing Technology, and Computing being part of the curriculum since 2014, fewer students are choosing ICT for their GCSEs. Also, there is a marked imbalance between genders and, according to the organisation STEM Women, the percentage of female graduates in computer science fell from an already low 16% to 15% in 2017.
One reason is that schools do not have enough staff trained in the basics of computing and coding and hence resort to incorporating computing into the curriculum through task-driven app consumption. Moving the emphasis from the consumption of digital products back to creation is why organisations, such as the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Code Club, are so important.
Code Club is a supportive, nationwide network of volunteers running coding activities for children in schools, youth centres and other public places. As well as networking opportunities it offers training, support and a free curriculum for learning Scratch, Python and HTML/CSS. Shacklewell Primary School in Hackney, London, has been home to a weekly Code Club, run by a group of dedicated volunteers, since 2015.
Since it started, our club has offered over 100 children the opportunity to learn the basics of coding and has become one of the most popular extra-curricular activities at the school. Code Club’s projects are generally aimed at ages nine to 13, but we include students from year three (aged seven to eight years old). If they can follow written instructions and manipulate blocks with a mouse they can participate & benefit from Code Club.
Beginners in our club are introduced to programming using Scratch, a web-based graphic programming platform developed by MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten Group. Scratch uses coloured blocks to represent code. Users move, duplicate and connect blocks on-screen to assemble their code. This reduces the requirement for accurate typing skills and makes coding much more accessible to younger children. The strong visual aspect of Scratch also encourages children to make connections between concepts and their applications. For example, the platform highlights groups of blocks as they are being processed which clearly shows how the code is reacting to user input.
The projects in the Code Club curriculum increase in complexity as students progress. Early projects introduce learners to basic programming concepts such as variables, conditional statements and loops. Later projects introduce more advanced concepts such as collision detection and simulating gravity.
Scratch gives young coders a great start but we also try to expose them to a variety of other programming contexts. For example, one term was dedicated to web technology. We wanted to give the children a clear sense of the relationship between HTML source and the rendered page, so we took them back to the 1990s, coding HTML by hand in a text editor.
The quick feedback loop of coding, refreshing the browser and seeing the results gave them a great initial insight into the basic inner workings of web-pages.
As well as helping the students learn the basics of HTML & CSS we also explored web-related issues such as privacy, information veracity, the history of the web and its physical infrastructure. At the start of each session, we would present a particular topic, watch a related video and discuss issues around it.
In another fun session, we used the browser’s developer tools to edit the source of various high-profile websites. The feeling of empowerment the children got from putting their own names and photos on the front page of bbc.co.uk was amazing.
In our club, we try to reach as many children as possible and we have a mixture of new and returning students each term. The success we had with going beyond the Code Club curriculum inspired us to form a secondary, Advanced Coding Club. This contains students that have shown a strong interest in the normal club and expressed a wish to develop their skills further.
Running a Code Club has been a hugely rewarding experience for us. Although we have seen a broad range of motivation and ability, each and every child has gained positive experience from attending the club, sometimes in unexpected ways. We have learned to be patient and recognise opportunities to encourage the children to challenge themselves. It’s not something that can be forced, but when you see a child becoming engaged and wanting to learn more it’s fantastic!
Mirela & Dan have been volunteering at the Shacklewell Primary School in Hackney weekly Code Club since 2015. Since it started, the club has offered over 100 children the opportunity to learn the basics of coding.