Screen-free coding for schools

Daniel Lindegaard, co-founder and COO of KUBO Robotics, discusses how screen-free coding can be simply and effectively incorporated into lessons for even the youngest students

Whilst we know that the skills associated with computational thinking are vital for today’s children to flourish in the 21st Century workplace, the practicalities of teaching coding in schools can often be tricky. With a full school day and extra-curricular activities to consider, how can busy teachers break down the barriers to teaching coding and help children build these skills? I’ve found that the key to success when introducing coding is to turn off the computers…

For many it may seem counter-intuitive to take screens out of the equation when teaching coding, but in fact, by doing so you will be bolstering your pupils’ education. With ongoing debates on the amount of screen time children should be having, coupled with the cluttered marketplace of online resources, it’s hard for teachers to work out whether it really will enhance coding in the classroom. However, taking a step away from the screen and providing an alternative way to learn problem-solving algorithms and all the associated skills can be even more effective.

Not only is this easier for many teachers who do not have the time or expertise to dive in at the deep end of programming, but screen-free coding will also help bring robotics to life for your pupils. For younger children in particular, learning on 2D platforms can be confusing and some studies have even shown that it is far more difficult for them to grasp tricky concepts in a 2D format. Surely then it’s a no brainer: hands-on learning is the way to go!

With universal agreement that coding is part of the future of our digital literacy, helping pupils to educate themselves about coding should happen at the same time that they learn to read and write. Teachers can easily weave an introduction to coding into lessons using readily available objects such as building blocks and a pen and paper. Encourage pupils to build a robot and place it on a table top map for instance, and then ask them to write out a set of directions or a ‘code’, and watch the robot move across the map and avoid any obstacles. This will get them thinking in terms of solving a problem, setting them up to grasp more challenging coding concepts later on in their academic journey.

Educators seeking inspiration for teaching the basics of a code or algorithm can look to everyday tasks to help their pupils master these concepts.

As well as boosting your pupils’ confidence and aptitude for STEM subjects, coding and the computational thinking skills that come with it can often be used as part of cross-curricular activity; you’d be surprised at how well storytelling and coding link together! For example, when introducing a basic code to students, encourage them to think of writing a code in a similar way that they would write a story – it must have a beginning, middle and end and there may be some challenges to overcome throughout. Creating a narrative around the reasons why their robot is moving around the room will help them come up with diverse codes and help them to be more strategic in their thinking. As pupils begin to learn how to master structure and sequence, teachers often find that their creative writing also improves as they begin to use the same problem-solving skills to create stories.

Educators seeking inspiration for teaching the basics of a code or algorithm can look to everyday tasks to help their pupils master these concepts. For example, ask your pupils to act out or draw pictures of a familiar task that they repeat every day, such as putting on their shoes or eating breakfast. Then ask them to think about what would happen if the order changed or a step was missed out and why this would be a problem. Set them simple challenges and watch pupils work individually, together or as a whole class to find a solution; often it’s as easy as solving a puzzle. Once they’ve grasped the basic concepts, you can take it one step further and introduce basic robotics or technology resources. For example, add a giant activity map (replicating a town) or build a real-life environment to set the scene and then get children thinking about how they can move their robot from location A to location B. By using puzzle-like pieces that fit together, children can create a physical pathway to help them work out how the robot would travel along the road, and at which points it would need to turn and spin in order to avoid obstacles in the road.

Simple activities like this will allow computational thinking to become part of their day-to-day rationale, making coding part of their lives from an early age. Classic games such as Simon Says can be used to help pupils grasp the concept of events triggering conditional outcomes, as they would in a code, and are quick and easy for teachers who want to incorporate coding into their busy days.

By engaging your pupils early with hands-on coding techniques, you are setting them up for a bright future in an increasingly digitally-centred work force. Encouraging imaginative thought and creativity in pupils is paramount to their computational thinking success, and it will also ensure that those who may otherwise shy away from STEM subjects are inspired to explore their creativity through coding and tech.

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