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Hour of Code: A reflection on the importance of teaching coding.

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On Wednesday, December 9th, our school hosted an Hour of Code event in conjunction with Computer Science Education Week 2015.  We sent the flyer home in the middle of last week and within a few days we knew this event was going to be well-attended.  The building in which I teach is a 3rd and 4th grade building, containing just over 320 students.  61 of those students attended our Hour of Code - nearly double the turnout from last year's event.  Thanks to the support of our principal, parents, and teachers, these five dozen students who chose to stay after school for an entire hour had a blast, while learning a skill that could last them a lifetime.

codeIn order to handle the large number of students, we planned two different activities.  First, we had the obvious: students participated in the Hour of Code from Code.org on computers or iPads.  If you are looking for a great site to get students interested in writing software code, look no further.  Code.org allows students to use a code-writing system called Blockly to create programs using some of the most popular games out there, including Minecraft.  Our other activity was "unplugged" coding created by Thinkersmith.  In this activity, students become a team of programmers writing code for a cup-stacking "robot" (played by another student).  

I am happy to report both experiences were well-received - in fact, the kids were engaged the whole hour.  There were absolutely zero behavior issues, and the room was practically buzzing with excitement.  Many mentioned wanting to code more, and they will, thanks to this great list of resources from Common Sense Media.  Afterwards, we heard from parents who said they loved the event and even suggested we start a coding club for our elementary students who were interested in learning more about programming and software engineering.  In the several hours since participating in this event, I've had some time to process why I think it was popular and why I feel it is important for all kids to learn how to code:

Coding improves critical thinking and problem solving.

As I floated back and forth between both rooms, observing students participating in digital and unplugged coding, I would periodically stop and ask a child what he or she was doing.  Each task students described to me required them to analyze a situation and find a solution.  Most challenges required students to process multiple steps, building on their previous learning. Code.org even encourages students to create code using the least amount of lines possible.  This challenged students to dive deeper into their learning and perfect their new-found craft.  

Writing code teaches students the art of perseverence.

We all know how important perseverence is in learning.  The best and brightest individuals in our society are those who refuse to give up until they achieve their goals.  As students were trying to write code using the correct amount of lines, they would often make mistakes.  A line of code would make their character turn the wrong way, build in the wrong place, or move backward instead of forward.  Students in the unplugged coding room would see their "robots" stack the cup in an incorrect location or upside down.  In both cases, students went through the error analysis process.  Sometimes they had to analyze errors over and over, but not one student quit.  They kept trying until they achieved their goal - just like the best and brightest always do.

By learning to code, students are also learning other core skills.

Coding teaches students math, inquiry skills, and even communication or language.  Many students were able to draw correlations between code and communication arts by realizing the lines of code they write are the "language" computers or robots speak.  When students learn how to code, they are developing many beneficial abilities all while having fun - they feel like they are simply playing a game.

One hour of code can create a spark.

The final reason to teach students how to write code is my favorite.  One of my students who participated in the Hour of Code this week often struggles with school. However, while writing code for Minecraft, his face lit up and he came alive.  He had fun at school - after hours, even!  He told me the next day that he wants to learn more about how to make games.  As teachers, those are the moments we live for, aren't they?  By giving students an opportunity to learn this skill, we might just help one or two of them find a new passion, too.  Who knows, maybe one of those students will become the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates.

While Computer Science Education Week is ending soon, it isn't too late to engage your students in this powerful learning experience.  Code.org is available year round, and not just for one hour of code.  You can build this into your instruction any day of the year.  You might even learn right along with your students.  Try it, just for an hour, and discover the power of coding. 

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Brian McDavitt spent ten years teaching elementary students in Pleasant Hill, MO. He taught third grade for eight years and has taught fourth for two. In addition to teaching in the classroom, he has served as vice-president and president of his district's professional development committee, been a team leader for third and fourth grades, and is the chair of his building's standards based grading committee. Starting in August, 2016, Brian will be taking on a new position as the Technology Integration Specialist for Millennium @ Santa Fe Elementary School, part of the Hickman Mills C-1 School District in Kansas City, MO.  He holds a BA in Elementary Education from Graceland University and a Master of Education in Technology-Enhanced Teaching from MidAmerica Nazarene University. Brian is passionate about creating authentic learning experiences for his students, technology integration, professional development, and improving classroom management. Connect with Brian on Twitter: @bmcd25.

  • Guest
    Hank Meeks Thursday, 10 December 2015

    Very well written summary of what I saw yesterday, Mr. McDavitt. It was definitely a great experience for them, and for me as well. I loved seeing the excitement when one of the kids would get a line of code to work. Thank you for letting me participate, and please let me know if I can help again!

  • Errol St.Clair Smith
    Errol St.Clair Smith Friday, 11 December 2015

    Thoughtful and persuasive case for teaching coding. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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Guest Sunday, 11 December 2016