An Inquiry into Coding in the PYP

Should coding be a 21st century requirement? Could it be offered as a new foreign language? Might coding be the most important language in the world? These are just a few of the questions that have been at the center of many educational discussions across the world as schools grapple with the value placed on coding across the curriculum.

Photo Source: https://www.quora.com/Blockly
Photo Credit: https://www.quora.com/Blockly

There has been a recent push for coding in educational settings thanks in part to Mitch Resnick and code.org, who have made coding not only more accessible to students of all age levels by providing accessible tutorials and apps, but have also worked on reformulating the social image we hold of computer programmers. An outbreak of recent articles and resources in the last few years has also justified a push for coding in schools by explaining a number of its benefits: to anticipate future employment needs, to stay competitive with other global economies, to enhance problem-solving and thinking skills, to improve logical and computational thinking and to empower the next generation of innovators.

As someone who grew up cracking these types of codes, it is safe to say that I am operating way outside of my comfort zone this week as I introduce coding to my 3rd grade/Year 4 students. With any change, especially one found within an already packed curriculum, there always seems to be those parents, colleagues or administrators that question what you are introducing and why you are doing so. It is important that we anticipate possible reluctance towards the adoption of something new and consider what types of questions we might face when implementing it. It is from those questions that we as teachers can truly reflect on why we do what we do. Asking ourselves deep questions ensures that we do not get caught up with societal or educational trends; it forces us to evaluate the long-term needs of our students.

When I was thinking of ways I could not only justify coding in the elementary curriculum to others, but also advocate for it, I began to envision potential questions from those who might question its place in primary education:

  • What is coding? Is that like HTML? Can they do that at this age?
  • Why do students need to learn how to code? Shouldn’t we be teaching them how to read and write first? It seems like a waste of time.
  • What is the benefit of coding? I mean, how many of these kids are actually going to go into computer science? If they want to code, can’t they learn about it in high school?
  • Shouldn’t we be teaching students to write legibly instead? I keep getting students in my class who can’t even hold a pencil correctly!
  • When you are teaching students to code, what part of the curriculum are you cutting out? Why should coding be a higher priority than ________?
Photo Credit: KaroliK via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: KaroliK via Compfight cc

In most cases, well-intentioned, yet suspicious, questions like these come from a lack of knowledge and familiarity with coding. Since I am the farthest thing from an expert on coding, having only learned about it recently, I would not be able to discuss the personal or societal benefits of coding with them. The most I could do would be to pass along the resources I have used to teach myself about its advantages and let them decide for themselves if they are interested in trying it out.

Over the last two months, I have read up on coding’s potential in elementary education and can say I have a clearer understanding of why and how coding should be a part of student learning.

If you can’t code, your experiences are limited to what others have created for you. If you can code, you are only limited by the scope of your imagination. With creativity and design thinking becoming more valued in today’s society, coding gives young students the opportunity to make something from scratch. All they have to do is come up with an idea and, theoretically, they can make it. In the process of building something, students break down problems, test their ideas and create visible maps of their thinking. They persevere through challenging tasks that have relevance to them because they are invested owners in their creative vision. Coding encourages risk-taking, innovation and collaboration, which are 21st century skills necessitated in an evolving and interconnected world. Most importantly, teaching coding is teaching the primary form of communication used today: that of computers.

Reading and writing code is a new form of communication that should be taught to students using a system-wide approach, similar to how we instruct numeracy and literacy. The goal would not be to make all students fluent coders like we expect them to be fluent readers and writers. Coding also should not be seen as a replacement for reading and writing.

Photo Credit: Vicki's Nature via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Vicki’s Nature via Compfight cc

Rather, coding should be viewed as an adjunct to the elementary curriculum, either through a logical-mathematical lens or a digital literacy one, which exposes students to the basic computational skills that govern communication in today’s world. Doing so will not only transform students from passive digital consumers into active producers of content and tools, it will also help them become better global citizens for creating tomorrow’s world.

While sifting through the growing body of evidence for coding being taught across the curriculum, I began to recognize many of the skills, concepts and mindsets experts made reference to. They were naturally embedded in the curricular framework I was already working within: the Primary Years Programme (PYP).

In Making the PYP Happen, it outlines what inquiry actions look like. Aside from stating that, “Inquiry involves the synthesis, analysis and manipulation of knowledge,” it also states that inquiry entails:

  • exploring, wondering and questioning
  • experimenting and playing with possibilities
  • making connections between previous learning and current learning
  • making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens
  • collecting data and reporting findings
  • clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events
  • deepening understanding through the application of a concept
  • making and testing theories
  • researching and seeking information
  • taking and defending a position
  • solving a problem in a variety of ways.

The emboldened skills are the more obvious examples of inquiry inherent in coding that do not require persuasion and extension. A few of the above-mentioned approaches that were not emboldened could also be argued as present in coding, depending on the context and developmental level of the task.

Photo Credit: dawnzy58 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: dawnzy58 via Compfight cc

In addition to the PYP taking an approach to learning through the spirit of inquiry, the framework also places an emphasis on learners constructing their meaning through purposeful engagements. Coding, which is a form of learning by doing, is based on the learning theory constructionism, where learning happens most effectively when people are active in making tangible object in the real world.

 

Aside from being inquiry driven learning, coding also follows the majority of the criteria for unit of inquiry central ideas: engaging, relevant, challenging and significant. It is unlikely (although not unreasonable) that schools would write central ideas around coding. Although unit of inquiries might not be based in coding, this should not deter from the fact that coding is rooted in many of the curricular foundations of the programme: conceptual understanding, transference of skills, as well as engaging, relevant and challenging problem-solving through collaboration. It may not be a unit of inquiry in and of itself, but coding could easily be fused into language arts or math strands that dovetail within other units. If there is no direct unit of inquiry connection through knowledge, we can further explore how coding is manifested in other Essential Elements.

In examining the key concepts in the PYP, we can recognize the conceptual nature of coding and explore a plethora of questions:

  • form (What is computer code?)
  • function (How does coding work?)
  • causation (How do codes cause computers to complete different tasks?)
  • change (How can changing specific elements of code affect the outcome?)
  • connection (How is code connected to my daily experiences?)
  • perspective (Why are there different coding systems?)
  • responsibility (How can we use code to take action?)
  • reflection (What might be some different ways we can learn to code?)

Looking at the transdisciplinary skills, there are a variety of skills across the sub-themes (especially thinking skills) that stand out as obvious opportunities to engage with while coding—either independently or collaboratively.

Further exploring the Essential Elements of the program, we can identify ways coding might foster certain attitudes:

  • appreciation (I appreciate the numerous, specific directives required for computers to respond to my desires.)
  • commitment (I am committed to the coding task I am working on and won’t give up.)
  • confidence (I am confident that I can make a computer respond the way I want it to by speaking its lanaguage.)
  • cooperation (I am cooperating with my peers to problem-solve tasks we are stuck on.)
  • creativity (I am creatively designing new uses, applications and experiences for myself and others by coding.)
  • curiosity (I am curious as to what will happen when I try this.)
  • empathy
  • enthusiasm (I am enthusiastic about learning to program computers to do what I want them to.)
  • independence (I am independently problem-solving and making my imagination come to life.)
  • integrity (I am acting honestly and assigning credit to those codes I am modifying.)
  • respect
  • tolerance
Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey via Compfight cc

The end goal of all inquiry in the PYP is taking responsible action. Since coding is, and will continue to be, an essential part of every economic sector (both public and private), the opportunities for taking action are only limited by the coder’s intention and attitudes. Ironically, the attitudes that were not emboldened above in the direct practice of coding yield themselves perfectly to initiating socially responsible action. Increasingly, we are seeing how writing code is not an isolated activity that only serves the coder’s fascination with computer science. Rather, coding is an integral part of participating in a digital world and making a difference in the lives of others. And as the foundation for an ever-growing number of human activities, coding empowers all students by giving them the potential to take action, help others and change the world so far as their imagination will allow them to.

Just because I can’t code doesn’t mean that I’m going to prevent my students from coding. As a community of learners, we will help each other along the way. And when I introduce coding to my students, I will learn more from them than they will learn from me. We will learn together, we will inquire together and we will code together.

And if anyone asks me where coding fits into the curriculum, I’ll ask them, “Where doesn’t it?”

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If you don’t know where to start with coding in your classroom, take a look at the learning sequence I am using to introduce it to my students. You will also find articles I used to select coding apps and websites appropriate to my students’ needs.

I would like to thank Amanda Klahn for her unbeknownst inspiration to educate myself about coding so I could expose my students to it.

 

12 Replies to “An Inquiry into Coding in the PYP”

  1. What I love most about this (and a blog post of my own that is coming) is that you are not “adding technology” but rather replacing what use to be done with something new. You can hit the same outcomes. You can get to the same old learning we’ve always gotten to, just in new ways that are more relevant to students today. Logical sequential thinking is the same…we just change the method of teaching that skill.

    That is what I think is the next step…we’ve talked about integrating technology, or embedding technology…but the next step in my head is that it has to start replacing what we use to do with something new that makes sense to students today.

    Coding….makes sense to teach students today and we still get to the “good old skills” of yester year in the process as well.

    Love it!

    1. Thanks Jeff. I’ll be examining a similar topic to what you mentioned about looking at already written curriculum from a new perspective in my next blog.
      Cheers,

  2. Great post looking at coding and the PYP specifically. I really liked how you broke it down and looked at actions and concepts in inquiry. It seem like coding integrated into the curriculum instead of a standalone is a natural fit for the PYP but just needs teachers willing to take a risk and trying something new.

    I forwarded your post onto my wife who introduced coding last year to her Grade 5 students (created polygons using Scratch in a math lesson) and it is amazing to see how this year’s crop of students applied their coding skills in the PYP Exhibition. I know both her and her students loved the journey and am sure she would like to see how it goes for you.

    1. Thanks Dan. I appreciate the feedback and the inspiration. The Codeathon looks cool, but I’ll be out of town that weekend, so I won’t be able to satellite from NIST. Perhaps next year, though? All the best,

  3. I love this post for so many reasons. I love to read about you taking the leap to introduce coding when you aren’t yet confident in it. I love that you are making connections to how this fits into the curriculum, especially the PYP. So many people are talking about coding in schools but people completely miss the point of teaching coding if they think it is just about teaching syntax. You hit the nail on the head with your outline of how it fits within an inquiry framework and how it enables students to take action. I came across this slideshare link to slideshare.net which describes how learning to code is like becoming a superhero. I think that is a really good point to teach kids. As they learn to code they become empowered and with that power they can take amazing action. I was very pleased when I introduced coding to my students and they then created their own website about saving animals. Then for the PYPX I had 3 different groups choose to use some sort of coding in their sharing. I have created a document which has a list of ways teachers have integrated coding into the classroom. link to goo.gl Please feel free to add to it. All the best with your venture into teaching code. It will be awesome.

    1. Thanks so much Mindy for your wisdom and resources. I’m glad there are teachers out there like you to inspire late bloomers like me. I’ll keep you posted and might pick your brain in the future if I’m looking for some guidance. All the best,

  4. Reid, great writing, great thinking, great post.

    The coding wave is up, and we’re certainly paddling out to ride it, and I’m glad to see this thinking brought into mainstream classrooms via Scratch and code.org. I took a class on teaching math in middle school, and one reading was about research completed at the turn of the century (the other one 19th to 20th) in which students were taught math via language rather than numbers. Distances were discussed through approximations, and logic was built. Teaching the CMP (Connected Math Program), I found that the well-rounded student mathematicians were both able to articulate their logic (logicing is what I called it) and complete odd series of questions (1-99) for homework each night. Then Scratch came around, and it continued the practice of building logical sequential thinking with a math-less focus. I don’t see coding as such a watershed as much as it is a natural progression as technology becomes more prevalent and it’s usage more of a no-brainer.
    Yes, I too am a neophyte in regards to coding, but I’m always curious how my thinking would have evolved had I coded in middle school instead of chugging and plugging. Perhaps it’s time to start coding.

  5. Hi Reid

    Thank you for this informative post. I will bookmark for when I, too, have to explain to parents and admin the place that Coding can have in the primary curriculum.

    Like you, I’m new to all of this and finding my way through the dark. The students and I are learning together. If you get a chance to visit my blog home, you can read about my adventures with Code.org, Scratch, and my afterschool coding club: link to coetail.com

    Right now, Coding is looked upon as a novelty for an afterschool club. Eventually, it will be integrated into the curriculum as teachers learn it themselves and start to see where it might fit into the curriculum. The great thing with Scratch is that it is another tool for students to “show their learning”. It can fit into any subject area if you look at it that way. It’s also a tool that resonates with young people today (more so than paper journals).

    I’m curating a Paper Li about Coding in the elementary school. Please feel free to take a look. Send me links to relevant articles too, to share on it. I’m going to include some of the links you’ve provided on this blogpost in the next issue. We can all learn together.

    Thanks again

    ~Vivian

    1. Hey Vivian:

      Thanks for the shout out. I’ve been following your progress with teaching yourself how to code via your tweets. It’s very inspiring. When I look to where I want to be in a year or two, I think about you. Next year, I’m looking to improve and expand on how I can teach coding throughout the year, as I just recently learned about it late in the second semester. I’m sure I’ll be picking your brain for inspiration and ideas in a few months.

      Take care,
      Reid

  6. Hi Reid

    Woops! I just realized that I forgot to give you the link to the Paper Li: link to paper.li

    Oh my, I can’t believe that you want to be “where I am” in a year or two. I want to be WHERE YOU ARE in a year or two! 😀 As I was reading your blogpost, I kept on thinking, “Man, I wish I was writing this blogpost!”. I aspire to, one day, be able to make pedagogical connections between Coding and the Elementary School curriculum (including the PYP if I get into a PYP school). It’s exciting times for teachers and we have the opportunity to lay a foundation of understanding and to do some research about the area of Coding in the PYP. The door is wide open, so I definitely want to go “there” to explore the lay of the land.

    I was not holding a teaching post during my Coetail studies and this was not because I didn’t want one, nor because I didn’t try to secure one. 🙁 So, despite how wonderful Coetail has been, I have not had a chance to apply my learning with real live students. The best I’ve done is to try them on my 4 kids and to use them as guinea pigs. 😀

    I started this Afterschool Coding Club about two weeks ago and this is really the first time for me to try anything Coetail-related with “real students”. My coding club will be my Coetail graduation final project and I had to get special permission to be able to run it. Of course, this is also my first time to try Coding with “real students”.

    So, while I’ve had the extra time to do the Code.org puzzles and to try things with Scratch, I’ve lacked the “interface” with students. You have a classroom to work in, and that is why you can so easily make the connections between curriculum and coding. You are definitely in the stronger and better position and I really hope to be where you are, soon!

    We’ll keep in touch via blogging (I hope you’ll continue blogging! I intend to.) and continue learning from each other…

    Have a great summer and talk soon!

    ~Vivian

  7. First off, thanks for your informative post on coding. A lot to digest on the issue of coding and it’s place in education.

    My answer to your first question is yes, coding should be a requirement. The push on computing in UK and American curriculums illustrate that point. Then again, you have quite a few resources there to support your point. Thanks for sharing those.

    I love that you have tried to integrate it into the curriculum and have recorded potential questions that you may face. They are useful. We are about to start teaching coding at my school (ICHK-HLY in HK) and I believe these same issues may be raised at some point along the line. The PYP framework does lend itself well to what coding is all about. At the heart, isn’t it all about inquiry? Coding is way to explore your imagination and creativity. To be able to create and design are valued skills like you say. Those alone are good reasons for introducing coding at a young age.

    I will definitely be referencing your work in the future. It’s a good starting point for me and my colleagues to discuss our own implementation of coding in the curriculum.

    Cheers,
    Jamie

  8. Thanks for the great blog post! I’m working on a planner for this and it was very helpful.

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