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Training and Development

My life as a tech teacher, part 3: The coding lesson that runs itself

I think I know now why some of my old school teachers seemed to be permanently drunk. It's because they were.

The pub across the road was just too tempting to ignore. A liquid lunch would ease the pain of having to face intelligent, enquiring and occasionally unruly minds in the afternoon. You don't understand exposure until you stand in front of a room full of children, some of whom might well know more about the topic than you do. I'm sure booze helped dull the anxiety all those years ago.

But teaching has come a long way since the Seventies and Eighties, and such behaviour is now frowned upon. Not that I was tempted. There may be gaps in my IT knowledge but I'm no novice, and I have enough psychological awareness to turn awkward questions into class discussions. So caffeine was my drug of choice before the second lesson.

I had high hopes for this one. After the previous week's introduction we mostly talked, it was time for action. I was going to let the kids loose on programming tools. With a laptop connected to an overhead projector, I loaded Scratch in the browser and instructed the children to do the same.

First problem. Because of Steve Jobs' stance on Flash players for iOS (30% technical, 70% petulant) the school's iPads were no use to Scratch. Possibly they could have been upgraded, but with 20 or more laptops to use instead, it wasn't an issue. It did mean some kids had to share, but I wanted that to happen anyway: collaboration can help learning, if organised properly.

Scratch opens with a sprite of a cat in a blank square box. I started by showing the children how to get the cat to move. I dragged a 'move XX steps' box into the programming area, changed the number of steps to 30, and clicked on it. The cat moved. I explained the concept, then added a 'turn XX degrees' box, changing the number to 90. The cat walked and turned right.

That was enough to start with. I asked the children to copy what I'd done and make the cat move. With a few exceptions they picked it up quickly, and those that didn't had fallen foul of the user interface rather than logic. Scratch is good, but no software works the way every user expects it to.

Time for some initiative. "Try to make the cat walk around a square," I suggested. This is simply the same thing repeated four times: walk a set distance, turn 90 degrees. I suggested adding a pause so that the cat would stop at each corner, otherwise the animation would run so fast that it would be hard to see.

They were off. Their minds were free to explore, and they did. We had cats spinning in circles, cats following the mouse pointer around the screen, cats bouncing off the window borders, cats changing colours, cats being cloned and cats changing sizes. And a few cats walking dutifully around squares.

I didn't discourage any of this. My goal is to help them when they get stuck but encourage them to explore. There's no need for the entire class to go at the same speed.

After 10 minutes I brought them back – not without some difficulty – to the real world. I explained the repeat loop concept, showed that instead of repeating the same code four times to get around the square, we could write the instructions once and then drag a 'repeat 4' block around them. This set them off on new tangents of their own.

When the bell rang to announce the end of the lesson, they didn't want to stop. That's good enough for me. Next week I'll add some structure at the start to explain more clearly what they're learning, before letting them loose again.

Feedback from the teacher: "They absolutely loved it! One went home and made a game ... I did like the way they were working together and going further with the programme ... Thanks heaps for yesterday, myself and the students loved it."

If teaching is always this rewarding, I don't think I'll be needing that beer.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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