Commercial Coding suites Vs “open” software
Ever since the announcement of the new curriculum for computing, there has been quite a clamber to create coding platforms for primary schools to use. Many educational content suppliers have bundled coding packages with their already excellent software packages.
Great you may think. They are addressing the needs of the pupils and providing content to match. This is the case and these packages are perfect for the non-specialist to teach coding in primary schools. I myself have purchased one such package to use within my school for this very reason. I do have some reservations about being too reliant on them as a sole way of teaching coding.
My issue with these software packages is they are very rigid in the way they are presented and used. Generally, they follow the pattern: Watch this video; copy the code; see what happens then move on to the next exercise. It is a very inflexible way of working akin to children completing a worksheet or following a textbook.
While the concepts are introduced, the children may not necessarily be learning why the concepts actually work. For me copying code is like copying out a paragraph of French, without stopping to try to translate its meaning. A child may complete the task quickly, but do they actually understand it, if there has been no chance to apply their knowledge? Are we teaching coding we want the children to learn it or is it just a tick box exercise?
Secondly, when children are restricted to making ‘one thing’, all creativity is lost. Sadly, it seems to be the way of things now. Where construction kits used to be about the joy of tipping all the blocks out on the floor and assembling them into something different each time, now we buy kits to make one particular model.
This is why as someone with a good subject knowledge about coding within primary schools, I prefer software like Scratch and Kodu. While they can be taught in the rigid way I wrote about above, they can also become an invention kit for whatever the pupils can dream up.
I have tried to flip my computing planning on its head for the forthcoming term. Rather than decide I am going to teach repetition or variables, I instead will ask the children to design a game. I will ask them to include elements that I know will lead to them needing to use repetition and variables. It is my hope they will be inspired to find out how and why these concepts work, not just because that’s what we are learning.
When I have done this in the past, children have included all of the concepts I have wanted them to, but more importantly they have wanted to take it further. “how can I..?” often leads to the more able being shown other aspects of coding that they may not have access to within a closed session.
We also are able to ‘reverse engineer’ games they have played such as flappy birds and emulate the gameplay through expanding our code to achieve a certain event.
What about the children who find coding a struggle? There is an argument that the closed coding packages support these children through video tutorials and set activities, which provide scaffolding. I agree with this to an extent, but know that a skilled teacher with good subject knowledge can achieve the same thing.
Teacher subject knowledge is improving, but there is still a lot of training needed at primary level. These coding packages provide a good stopgap in allowing the teachers with limited subject knowledge to deliver the computing curriculum, but worry they spoon-feed the staff too much, leaving them without the need to expand their subject knowledge.
As confidence and subject knowledge grows, it will be fascinating to see how these coding platforms evolve to meet the needs of the pupils. Will staff move towards a more open environment or will the coding platform become more open themselves. I know there are some, which already offer an element of creativity.
It is my hope that both of these eventualities happen and we have a choice for schools to cater for the whole range of teacher and pupil needs. We are only a year and a bit into this new curriculum. It has already evolved. There are teachers out there doing great things with all manner of platforms. We just need to make sure all children have the same opportunities to learn this valuable skill and apply it creatively.