Coding, Design, Engineering and Stories(CoDES)

A guide to teaching coding as a literacy skill - Crafting meaningful engagement for students

CoDES is a blog series to help educators approach teaching coding as not just a new skill - but a new literacy - as a way for students to express and share their ideas. As a literacy, coding enables new ways of thinking, and new ways of communicating ideas. When we start teaching kids to read and write, we don’t want every child to become a professional writer. So it is with coding. We do not teach coding for the children to grow into software developers and programmers. We want them to have computational literacy so they can engage with digital artifacts as producers, and not remain mere consumers.

The second blog of the series further explores different methods for making the learning experience meaningful, joyful and actively engaging for students, and the problems teachers encounter creating these learning experiences.

Build on students’ interests

There are multiple pathways to help students get acquainted with Scratch. One of the effective ways is to let students create stories. Children love imagining stories and adapting the ones they enjoy. They are also naturally attracted towards sprites and backdrops - the vibrant images of people, things and places in Scratch. Students new to Scratch often enjoy simply browsing through these images in Scratch library. When working in groups, these images organically serve as conversation prompts. As they scroll below to reveal new sprites, students share ideas about what they can create with those images.

Even students who are just getting introduced to the platform enjoy creating scenes on the stage by placing sprites in certain backdrops. This simple setup, devoid of any coding and animation, engages them deeply. They create stories about who those characters are and what they are doing in the frame. In doing so, they organically discover questions that lead to further exploration of coding concepts. Like we did in the previous article, let’s visit a classroom to see this happen.

During the introductory lessons on Scratch, Mr. Ramesh has allowed his grade 6 students to explore Scratch and get familiar with the platform. A group of 2 boys have placed sprites of football and basketball players against the backdrop of a basketball court. After adjusting the position of the players, one of the students asks his partner. “How can we move[these characters]?”

“How do we change the size?” asks the partner, who seems enthusiastic about basketball.

Mr. Ramesh, standing nearby, hears them and tells them about the change size block. He asks them to play with the 10 blocks, shown on the large screen in front of the class, and try to get their sprites to move.

About two months later, Mr. Ramesh was late in coming to one of the classes. While the students were waiting for their teacher, two students seated next to each other decided to work on a project based on something one of them saw in the morning. This idea led them to interact with the co-facilitator and explore the possibilities of building on their idea in Scratch. The idea had given them questions. They needed to know how to get the sprite they wanted, and how to create the animation they imagined.

Below is the reflection from one of Karkhana Samuha members about his classes. He co-facilitated the pilot classes at one of the schools. During the class he believed that the students were enjoying the challenges he gave them. His interaction with the student, however, revealed something different.

I had given students the task to get a fox sprite, based on the story they read, to interact. Some improvisations happened organically and two students changed the speech bubble text to “I want to have a drink.” They had also changed the backdrop. Then I gave them a challenge to take the fox to a container that supposedly had the drink. This seemed to engage them a little better. One of them was making changes to the farmer sprite based on the blocks in the fox sprite. I gave him a challenge, asking if he could replace the straw load on the farmer's shoulders with water buckets. In doing so, he learnt to edit costumes and copy one costume element and paste it in another. He, however, later shared that he found the activity quite boring. He added that he didn’t like drawing, and liked working with code.
Students can sometimes be creative when immersed in their Scratch work they love. While working on their project, Instead of typing the dialogues in the say blocks, a group of students recorded their own voices. It was a new idea that nobody had tried in that class. They took turns to record their voices; laughing when it went wrong and re-recording.

Successful creation of project might not mean learning

It’s a wonderful feeling to see students successfully create projects they enjoy. However, this might not always equate to learning. It’s possible for students to create projects without grasping the concepts. This often happens if the students build a guided project following a tutorial. Tutorials are wonderful for engaging students and giving them something to work on; especially when they are much ahead or behind their peers. But the teacher needs to interact with the students about their projects to assess how much they have understood. These interactions are wonderful opportunities to make students think about concepts, their process and giving them more challenges to work on.

Encourage peer learning and peer interaction

As the lessons progress, students become more familiar with Scratch and can help each other learn. There’s also a natural urge in them to share something interesting with their peers. During one of the lessons, a student figured out that modifying sprites is easier by zooming in. He immediately shares that with the student sitting next to him. In another row, a girl changed the color of a sprite’s T-shirt. She seemed to love it and showed it to her friend. “See how awesome it looks!”

Experienced educators know that students helping each other makes things easier for the teacher. It’s especially true in lessons where it’s often not possible to move ahead without understanding the concepts from the previous lesson. Teachers who teach math, science, and programming know this very well.

Supreme is working on a project where he is using the next costume block inside a loop to make a dino sprite dance but it’s dancing too fast. “how to slow down the dancing dino?” he asks. He tries “1 sec” in the wait block and it's too slow now. He seems to not be aware that there are numbers between 0 and 1 too. I ask him the question, trying not to help directly. “What number is between 0 and 1?” he asks friend. One student, sitting beside him, says 0.5 and gets back to his own work. He tries the number and the speed is better now.
If a teacher assumes the role of sole knowledge giver in the class then they are only making their work more exhausting. Often, as the classes progress, students encounter similar challenges. They stumble upon challenges that their peers might have figured out in the last class, or just some minutes ago. It saves time and energy for the teacher if students can help each other out with such things.
Suraj is playing with the color of the cat’s head and changes it to all black. He tries to revert it back to the original state and tries to find the original shade of orange. The co-teacher asks him what color he is trying to get. Before the co-teacher can guide him, his peer Ashu teaches him how to use the pick color tool. Suraj uses it to get the desired color.
Students, however, often tend to give direct solutions when helping their peers. The ones receiving help too often seem uninterested in understanding how the solution works. In such cases peer intervention might actually prevent students from engaging in a meaningful struggle with the concepts.
Sapana, at the back of the class, asks for help to fix directions of the beetle in the debug challenge. Rajesh, seated next to her, offers help. He gives the exact numbers she should enter in the blocks and she simply types them in. It works and she, excited, calls the teacher to show. She doesn’t show interest in knowing how the numbers work.

In such cases, it’s useful to build some common understanding for the class. These are simple things we make sure of while engaging in certain recurring activities, such as helping our peers. For example, asking students to give hints to their peers instead of direct solutions can be a useful and fun understanding.

The effectiveness of peer learning depends on the classroom culture. In spaces where students are used to being disrespectful to each other, it can be difficult.

“I’m struggling to get ideas,” says Supreme to the teacher. He asks Samyam to help Supreme but Supreme doesn't want the help from Samyam, and says “I know everything.” Supreme goes back to his place.

Later, Mr. Ramesh goes to help Karima, who’s seated beside him. Samyam intervenes while the teacher is explaining to Karima and comments “Is that all you have done in all these days?”

Getting students to work together in pairs can be difficult as each student wants to be the one holding the mouse. The teacher needs to actively make sure the other student also gets a turn. The classroom culture plays a big role in creating an environment where new, unfamiliar learning experiences can happen.
Preeti and Anisha had a hard time working together. Preeti, usually the dominant one, often takes control of the activity. Whenever the teacher asked her to let Anisha do the work, Preeti complains that Anisha doesn’t do anything. In another group, Rita, although struggling, was diligent to try to do things. Asif from grade 4 helps her later but he seems to be doing things for her rather than guiding her.
Some students struggle to understand the instructions included in the student guide. Peers can help each other overcome these struggles.
During the lesson on debugging, I was observing Supreet as his work had previously fascinated me. He was mumbling “What kind of ball is this” to the randomly moving ball. His partner was on a separate laptop and didn’t know how to open the student guide. He asked Supreet for help. Both of them were reading the instructions and discussing with each other. His partner didn’t seem to understand the problem. “No, it's not like that! It will only go with the dog if it touches it. Otherwise it won’t. Do you understand?” Supreet explained to his partner.
Peer discussions are often about thinking together rather than one student explaining things to the other. While the latter is helpful, it’s the former that makes these interactions meaningful.

Mind the “learning gap”

As the lessons progress, a gap in students’ learning becomes more prominent. Some students will grasp things well and some will struggle to learn the new concepts. This often happens when they are unable to grasp the concepts from the early lessons.
Manjari, seated at the corner of the last row, wants to change the scene in her story. She’s working on an adaptation of Sanu’s story and has attempted to draw the scenes in the scratch editor. She has drawn houses of black lines, trees with green color outlines, and rivers with blue. Some are sprites, some are backdrops. She asks me how she can change the scene, and it looks challenging to change all at once, having to hide many sprites together.
Towards the end of the course, while working on her final project, it became apparent to the facilitator that Manjari wasn’t clear about the difference between sprites and backdrops. Another such example was that of Manish, who had created a project with multiple sprites and backdrops but wasn’t clear about the effect of the block that changed backdrops.
Manish has a problem with the backdrop. There are many switch backdrop blocks he has placed here and there without being aware of the effect they have on his project. He wants the backdrop to change to a castle one, after clicking the green flag, and remain there but it quickly changes to others.
Students not showing interest in the topic is a challenge even for experienced educators. But often students lose interest or never discover their interest. One reason why this might happen is when they see themselves falling behind the rest of the class. Being absent in a few classes, being seated in a part of the class that’s difficult for the teacher to visit, and not getting enough attention from the teacher - all these factors can discourage students.
Towards the back of the class sit a group of girls who enjoy working with fashion sprites. They usually don’t code and enjoy playing with images. They have started to code after I nudge them. But they are hesitant to talk about their codes. It seems like they don’t understand the basics of coding yet. One of them had placed a say block inside a repeat block. Another had placed a move block inside a repeat block, inside a forever block. When asked what they are trying to achieve, they hesitate to speak. It seemed that their teacher had given up on them midway through the course. Too many students and their projects to manage, the girls’ lack of interest in learning to code, and the limited number of classes influenced his decision. He often watched them engage and made sure they were working on Scratch but seldom visited them and interacted with them. He told me, during a post-class conversation, that these girls find fashion and dressing related projects interesting, implying that they aren’t interested in coding.

It’s difficult to bridge the learning gap once it forms, and it usually only widens as the lessons progress. The best way to deal with this is to be mindful of it from the start of the class, and watch out for students who are struggling and are at risk of falling behind. Providing additional support and attention to those students and making a good use of peer learning can help mitigate the problem of learning gap.

The blogs captures our experience of piloting Scratch in three public schools in Lalitpur through the support of the Scratch Foundation. The 72 students participating in the pilot were between ages 8 to 11 years old.

By Sameer Prasai

Sameer is a researcher & learning resource designer at Karkhana Samuha.

Website by: Curves n' Colors

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