Experiences on Teaching Kids Programming

In autumn 2014 Agile Finland ry started a working group of people interested in Next Generation of Agilists, namely work on children. The group set out to work on helping kids with interest in computers and software from a wider angle than just programming: including collaboration methods to create together, all sorts of tech fun,  and working with ideas, artwork, testing and business in addition to programming. With a wider angle, there’s a wider set of interests that might create the spark for choosing to contribute to our future with software.

Teaching programming embedded with good agile technical practices sparked interest for Maaret Pyhäjärvi from Agile Finland ry as she listened to Llewellyn Falco speaking at Tampere Goes Agile about a course he has co-created with Lynn Langit: Teaching Kids Programming.  Listening to the explanations of reasons why kids should be working in pairs and how to run a part of the course in Randori-style and hearing about effective use of unit testing to guide learning just made sense. Selection of programming around very visual concepts (Showing turtle as the ‘hello world’) seemed like a good approach to get started. Demonstration of some of the exercises showed that the course was really about Java with a selected interface – with great resemblance to real programming instead of small puzzles that we tend to use on smaller kids with code.org -materials.

Awareness of materials is different from the experience of using them and Maaret Pyhäjärvi had an opportunity to co-teach the first module of the course with Llewellyn Falco for four groups of students in 8th and 9th grades at Ylä-Malmin peruskoulu 26.-28.11.2014, supported by the local teachers Jukka Pajunen and Marina Aalto.

The four session were significantly different. As we learned to deliver the materials in Finnish, the students got further into the module. By fourth session, Maaret Pyhäjärvi and Jukka Pajunen were co-teaching in Finnish and we went through the basic 5 minute paired implementation as code comments instruct, follow-the leader styled variations to the basic implementation with guided explorations to changes and the quiz taken in pairs that students really seemed to enjoy.  We also learned to include a motivational bit on why it is good to be a programmer / know how to work with software. By end of the four sessions, the local teachers had also experienced the courseware themselves to a degree that they were asking for guidance to run the whole course through spring semester 2015.IMG_2213

Some lessons learned:

  • Doing the quiz is important: it gives the students feedback on the idea that they did learn what we were teaching them as they are able to repeat and apply similar concepts without a stepwise guidance
  • Modelling expected behaviours is strong mechanism: switching roles for teachers with same cycle as switching roles for students works. And having women teach without emphasising that women are rare in software field sends a good message.
  • 8th graders can be rowdy and intimidating – setting the rules in the beginning (like “I raise my hand, everyone raises hand and is quiet”) will be useful for the class
  • The students are not happy with just what’s, they need the why’s: in particular why we pair them up, why we force them to stand up when rotating, why we have them translate from Finnish to English to Java.
  • The penflip instructions for the course have great step-by-step guidance but having a creator show us around the course is a whole different experience. Special thanks for Llewellyn Falco for volunteering his effort.
  • The style in which your courseware teaches you to teach can be relevantly different. Teaching Kids Programming has a great feel of agile technical practices that isn’t visible on all courseware.

Steps forward

Agile Finland ry continues experimenting with the Next Generation Agile Kids -theme, as in 1.5 years programming will be taught fro 1st grade in all schools in Finland. We would like to see that we don’t teach just programming – as important as it is, but also agile thinking, collaboration and diversity of views that together can build something extraordinary.

We’re participating in December 8th-14th on week of #HourOfCode in Helsinki and Oulu with Krista Kiuru (minister of Education) as our guardian, and continue running a Smart Creatives -club for 1st graders with all sorts of tech fun (multi-media books creation, 3D printing, programming, testing). If you would like to be involved in these efforts, contact maaret@iki.fi. For teaching kids with a good example, we’d like to see what we had this week: an even 50-50 split of both genders in teaching. No emphasis on the gender issue – but actions speak louder than words. Ladies, volunteer. We need you. And you don’t have to be a super-techie to love this stuff and help out while being one does not hurt either. For the scale at hand, we would need much more volunteers in general.

We also learned that there’s great work done on teaching children programming. In particular, as Finns we should feel special pride on the outstanding work done by Arto Vihavainen et al. at Helsinki University since 1997. Linkki has extensive teaching materials for children, something we should be promoting actively. Let’s put all the great stuff we have together and make life easier for teachers and students in preparation of 2016 – start of teaching computer science in elementary schools as part of overall curriculum.


Maaret Pyhäjärvi

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