The Power in Teaching Students to Understand Computer Coding

I love teaching sixth grade, and it’s one of the reasons why I wake up so happy each and every morning.  I love challenging students to think critically.  I love watching my students struggle through problems using perseverance and a growth mindset.  I love guiding students to the metaphorical watering hole of learning and watching them figure out what to do once there.  I love teaching Humanities and our study skills classes.  I love helping students learn how they learn best.  I love helping students broaden their perspective.  I love everything about my role in the sixth grade this year, well, almost everything that is.

Last May when the school needed to hire a new co-teacher to work with me in the sixth grade, I was offered a choice: Teach STEM or teach Humanities?  As I majored in English in college, I feel most qualified to teach the Humanities class; however, I developed the STEM class three years ago and have been the only teacher of the course since its inception.  It’s kind of my thing, but I was never formally trained in teaching math or science and so I always felt like I had to do much learning on my own outside of class.  My understanding of the STEM content was very limited.  While I loved teaching STEM class, I always felt a little in over my head.  So, I chose to stick with Humanities.  While I love teaching my Humanities class, I do miss the hands-on and engaging projects I had the students do last year in STEM class.  Don’t get me wrong, my new co-teacher is doing a fabulous job teaching the STEM course this year, but I do miss all of the fun I had in STEM class the past three years.  It’s very easy to get students excited about a topic when they are able to play with Little Bits to create a working rover.  It’s a lot harder to get students excited about the topic of government in Humanities class, no matter what type of project or activity is used to convey the information.  I miss working with the students in STEM class.

Today reminded me, yet again, of just how much I miss teaching STEM class.  In our study skills class today, I pushed the PAUSE button on our regularly scheduled unit on Academic Integrity so that I could have the students participate in the global Hour of Code event taking place this week.  After showing the students a short video created by the wonderful folks at Code.org, I had the boys choose an activity on the Hour of Code website to complete for the remainder of class, which ended up being about 30 minutes.  The boys had so much fun learning how to create the fun and engaging video games they often play including Minecraft, Flappy Bird, and other such games.  The students persevered through challenges, asked peers for help when needed, used a growth mindset to think critically about their problems in new and unique ways, and had a ton of fun learning how computer coding works.  They learned how if and then statements work as well as how difficult it is to create just one tiny portion of a very complex video game.  They realized how important every space, digit, or letter truly is when coding.  At the end of the period, the boys looked as though they had lost their puppy dog when I had them shut their laptops to close the class.  They didn’t want to stop programming games and having fun.  They didn’t want to stop learning.  A few students remained in the classroom during their free period 90 minutes later to keep working on the coding projects they had started earlier in the day.  The boys had so much fun engaging in an activity that hopefully inspired them to learn more and perhaps made a few of the boys realize where their passion lies.

In STEM class last year, I had the students use the online program Code Combat on a weekly basis to learn computer coding.  The boys had so much fun learning how to make computer games.  I really missed that, until today.  Today gave me a taste of what I was missing, and made me realize that I don’t have to miss it.  Coding isn’t just a STEM topic.  Coding applies to every subject.  Computer coding can be used to help students learn how to be brief and succinct writers in English class.  Coding can be used to help students work through challenging math problems in the form of games.  Coding can be used to help students understand complex ideas such as government.  Coding doesn’t have to be something that is only taught in tech or STEM classes.  Coding could and should be taught or covered in every class.  I could easily use coding programs in Humanities class or our study skills course.  I don’t have to pine away for what once was when I can bring the magic into the classes I am currently teaching.  I can use coding to inject a little more engagement into the classes I do teach.  Coding is the language of the future, and so I should capitalize on this in every way possible.

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Can Computer Games Serve an Educational Purpose?

Computer and video games were just starting to take off when I was growing up.  The big deal for me in the fourth grade was learning to make the turtle move around the screen by typing in simple commands.  I’m not really sure I learned anything by doing that, but it sure was fun.  As technology has evolved, so have the games.  We live in a world where almost everything has been turned into a computer game.  There is a game where you pretend to use a fingerboard to do tricks.  Wouldn’t it be more fun to just get a fingerboard and do tricks in reality?  To each their own I guess.  Due to this switch in how our students learn, live, and think, we as teachers need to adapt.  Lecture-based classes are becoming a thing of the past.  Our students struggle to stay focused for long periods of time due to the way they live their lives.  We need to account for that and mix things up in our classes.  We also need to utilize the games they play for educational purposes.  Like Ani DiFranco states in one of her songs, “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”  We need to change the way we think about the games and technology our students live and play with.  If we don’t accept and embrace the change happening to our students, then are we really helping prepare them for the 21st century?

Today in my STEM Class, the students began working on the final phase of the Geology Unit.  Using the computer program Minecraft, they have to create a model showcasing at least five major, historically accurate geological changes Earth’s surface has undergone in its past.  They are pumped for this project because they already love Minecraft.  They get to demonstrate their understanding of the content using a game they enjoy.  It’s like their parents told them they were having ice cream for dinner.

Of course, the explanation and purpose for the use of Minecraft is crucial for a project like this.  The students need to understand exactly how they must use Minecraft.  They need to know that this isn’t an opportunity to just play around and create whatever they want in their Minecraft world.  We reviewed and discussed the purpose and expectations as well as the due date.  The students understand what to do, how to do it, and when to have it done by.  If clear parameters aren’t placed on a project like this, it could easily turn into free computer play time quickly.  Preparation is key when using computer games in the classroom.  But so is risk.  Sometimes, you just have to jump and hope for the best.

As I observed my students today, I was impressed and amazed by the ways they challenged themselves.  Some students are creating a floating Earth to show the layers of the planet and the changes it underwent as it evolved while other students are creating separate areas of their world to show the changes.  A few students are making interactive models that will change as the users move about them.  So cool!  I made sure to check in with each student by the end of the period to be sure I knew what he was doing.  I asked them, “Tell me what I’m looking at.”  Every student was able to scientifically explain how their world displayed Earth’s formation.  Amazing!

Now, realizing that all students are different, those students who were not inclined to use Minecraft, could brainstorm another way to demonstrate their understanding of the content.  Two students chose to use Play-Doh to create the various stages of Earth’s development.  One student wanted to make a papier mache model of Earth.  Providing the students with options and choice allows for creativity to be fostered and developed as well.  The students feel heard and respected this way.  It also awakens the inner artist within the students.

So, while this is the second year I’ve done this project, I still have many colleagues that question its validity.  They say, “Why do you let your students play games in class?” or “How are they learning anything?”  To them I say, “Please, come, observe my class and find out for yourself.”  Of course, no one comes, but the door is always open.  It’s frustrating that despite all the current research on games, student engagement, and learning, many teachers still have a fixed mindset about games in the classroom.  They think games have no place in school.  Then why is it that the students from my previous class last year still talk about how much fun and learning took place during this project?  Why is it that some teachers are stuck in the way they feel education should be delivered?  We are not living in a factory model society any longer.  We need to prepare our students to think critically and creatively and solve problems in new and unique ways.  We need our students to learn to persevere through struggles and overcome adversity.  How can they do all of this if we never give them a chance to play and DO the learning?  Games like Minecraft are an easy way to get kids learning, thinking creatively, and having fun.