Coding on the Carpet

In a perfect world teachers and students would have all the technology they need. But the reality is that in most schools we have to make compromises. So how can you teach coding if you don't have any student technology?

Embracing STEAM in my classroom has also meant incorporating more of that tricky A (the arts). Last school year I was fortunate to work with a dance educator as part of a Wolf Trap classroom residency. She did amazing lessons with the students, and gave me some new strategies to carry with me that were not only educational but also highly engaging for students. My favorite strategy was her use of picture cards and movement to connect to the plots of stories. It really made me think of new ways to introduce my students to computational thinking.

Dance, literacy... and computers. Where is this going? Well we never used any technology at all, but it was amazing how much symbolic thinking, sequencing, loops, and other coding skills were involved in some of these activities. For symbolic thinking, students had to pair a photograph of a book-related vocabulary word with a simple action (that they decided on as a group). They then had to represent another photograph with a different simple action. For sequencing, up to four photographs were placed in a row and students had to remember the order so that when it was their turn they knew which photograph they would be representing as part of their group of four students. For loops, each student had to take a turn representing the four-photograph-sequence with their actions, either individually or as part of a four-person group of students. For other coding skills, students had to know the "triggers" and "end blocks" for their code - they had to start when the music played and stop when the music stopped.

Here are five ways that I think this strategy succeeds as a coding lesson:
  1. It focuses on the learning objective, not on the tech tools
    What do students need to understand in order to code? Much of it has nothing to do with the conventions of coding (using one finger on the tablet, putting code blocks into the correct area of the screen). Do your students understand that a symbol stands for something else (an action, a word, a sound)? What do your students understand about order and patterns? Concepts, not computers, should be the foundation of your students' technology learning.
  2. It teaches students to think like a computer
    Even very young students can learn logical thinking and when to use logical thinking. See if your students can give and follow sequential directions, or try conditionals (if-then statements). By giving your students a different way of thinking and problem solving, you are giving them what Seymour Papert calls a "powerful idea" that they can use throughout their lifetimes.
  3. It makes coding meaningful
    Why should your students learn to code? If you don't make it meaningful for them, you're missing a chance to give your students a personal connection to literacy. Start with what your students care about and enjoy. Let them struggle with real problems rather than giving them the answers. Most importantly, let students be the teachers. You would be surprised by how much computational thinking takes place when a student is just trying to explain to another student how to, "Put that one red block on top of the big tower." Look for those moments rather than artificially creating them.
  4. It makes coding playful
    Give your students opportunities for hard fun. Emphasize debugging rather than right or wrong ways of doing things. Students who haven't developed flexible thinking skills through play will have a very hard time with the problem solving required for coding.
  5. It uses the whole body
    I recommend starting with music and movement as the first steps towards symbolic thinking (and eventually literacy through print and code) because it's engaging and allows multiple means of entry for different students. For example, a word can be represented through singing, humming, tapping, or dancing. A student learns that he or she can pass on an idea not just through words but also through mimicking body movements or repeating a sequence of sounds or rhythms. Students can embody the pictures and words in books and learn how writers make their thoughts clear to others.
Want more specific ideas to help teach your students coding concepts without technology? I've created a series of lessons and visuals to go along with the song "Head & Shoulders, Knees & Toes" that are meant to teach the basics of coding during brief music lessons. It's perfect for your students' very first coding experience, or for a refresher in symbolic thinking. Pick it up in my TpT store!

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