Simple Steps to Teach Kids to Program

Teaching kids to code starts with helping them understand the concepts behind coding before you get into syntax. Aditya Batura, Programmer and Entrepreneur, talks today about the concept behind helping every student understand computational thinking.

This week I'll be sharing the 7 Pedagogical Shifts That Make Interactive Displays a Key to a Student-Centered Classroom on the Cool Cat Teacher blog sponsored by SMART Technologies. Shift #1 is that Students are collaborators. My interactive display is the common workspace for the whole class. I use it as a digital workspace, to display any screen for the whole class to see, as a large multi-touch drawing and brainstorming space and so much more. My interactive display is a must-have device. I wouldn't want to teach without one. Recent research shows that large interactive displays are vital to the classroom ecosystem.

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Simple Steps to Teach Kids to Program

Link to show:

Date: February 27, 2018

Vicki: Today we’re talking to Aditya Batura @ohpotatopirates.

We’re talking about how to get people really excited about coding and interested in it.

So, Aditya, you are a cofounder of Potato Pirate, which basically teaches 10 hours of concepts in 30 minutes.

How can we condense down what we need to learn in coding to such a short period of time?

Aditya: Hi Vicki. So the whole point of learning programming — it just sounds so daunting because people have to understand the logic as well as the syntax.

Programming is daunting when you have to learn logic as well as syntax

The syntax is basically the makeup of the language. It’s the grammar behind it. Unfortunately, in programming, that’s just made up of mathematical jargon like parenthese, semi-colons, colons, brackets and a lot of different symbols. This gets overwhelming for people.

Most programmers who are just starting out, or anyone who is just jumping in to learn programming — this could be any age, from a 6-year-old onward up to an adult. The problem is that it’s way too overwhelming for someone to grapple with the syntax in order to enjoy the underlying logic behind it.

I’m a software developer by my formalized profession. Before I started doing all this, I’d say that I learned programming for the same reasons. And that’s the main problem that people face. So instead of overwhelming people or any student with both the logic and the syntax at the same time.

Mind you, syntax for every programming language is different, as it is for any spoken language.

Tip: Start with Computational Thinking Steps (And Leave Out Syntax)

Instead of overwhelming students with all of this at the same time, we break it down, and we just explain the computational thinking steps, which I think are universal across all languages.

Regardless of whatever you may be trying to program, you will have to understand the same computational thinking concepts, which is really the beauty behind programming. It’s the decomposition of your thoughts into lines of instruction.

2 Visual-Based Block-Based Learning Program That Teach Computational Thinking Without Syntax

Vicki: Yeah. Absolutely. I’ll tell you this. One of the introductory programming things that I do with my students is just basic HTML. And you know, so many of the kids struggle.

Like you said, syntax into spelling and that sort of thing. So how do you get past that? Is it more object oriented or are there challenges to do? How do we get past the syntax issue?

Aditya: Nowadays, kids have it really good because there are so many visual-based, block-based learning forms like Scratch and MIT’s App Inventor platform.

These basically allow you to build an entire program without actually having to write a single line of code or instruction.

You can drop all of it, and it fits in like a jigsaw, so firstly you will know what fits and what does not fit in a certain block.

Secondly, it’s color-coded.

Third, no syntax. So you don’t need to worry about any of that.

So a lot of block-based learning platforms for students — or anyone, for that matter — to jump into and just get their hands on, and just push buttons and see how things work without being overwhelmed.

This Method is Simpler Than How We Taught Programming Previously

Five or seven years ago, you had to start with the Command Line. If you missed a semi-colon, everything would just break.


You’d just get this long list of a failure message, and you wouldn’t know what it means.

Vicki: Yeah.

Aditya: (laughs) Right?

So instead of having to do all that, now there are so many visual and block based learning platforms.

Getting Started: You Don’t Have to Use the Computer

But even with that, it seems like sometimes it’s a bit disjointed, and people don’t really know what the starting point is.

And that really was the motivation and the premise behind Potato Pirates — to try and provide a universal first step into the world of programming without having educators have to set up an entire class’ infrastructure.

Or for any parent to get involved in their child’s learning, by just playing this game. So both the parent and the child can pick up computational thinking concepts.

This can take place in any setting, in a classroom or outside. So achieving all this without the use of a computer, that’s really what we were trying to do.

So just the basic, fundamental computational thinking concepts that don’t hold you down to any language.

Once you’ve played the game, you proceed onto learning any different thing of your choice.

Our statistics show that we see a 78% increase in interest and an 85% increase in confidence of anyone who has played the game. Our sample size currently is about 400 K-12 students.

We see a 78% increase in interest and an 85% increase in confidence

So far the response has been pretty good.

So that’s really what we’re trying to do.

Vicki: So this really fits with, “If you can teach them the concepts, you can come back and teach the concept.”

It’s funny. I recall a conversation that I had. This has been several years back.

I had a friend from the very early days of computing. He was a bit older than me, and he actually learned how to program in 1’s and 0’s. He programmed a machine language.

Aditya: (laughs)

Vicki: And you know, he looked down upon what he called the “modern programmer” — you know, we’re talking 1990’s here — with arrogance. He said, “You guys aren’t real programmers. The real programs are written in 1’s and 0s.”

We must understand that teaching programming changes and can get easier so more can learn it

Are there programmers who have been taught classically with brackets and all the syntax who look at these easy entry type of programs with a little bit of disdain and arrogance, and claim that this is not to be introducing computer science.

Have you heard that?

Aditya: Oh, definitely.

I think there are always going to be proponents of both these views.

But what I think, I guess… Some people will always say that. What we’re trying to do is introduce it to larger group of people. We’re trying to achieve breadth instead of depth, if you know what I mean.

We’re trying to achieve breadth instead of depth

At this point in time, I think every student, regardless of their background wherever they are in the world, needs to at least have the basic computational thinking concepts and needs to have a basic understanding of what this programming means.

The generation before doesn’t really have that, and they didn’t need to have that. So you definitely get those naysayers, people who look at it with disdain because you’re really dumbing it down.

Most of these people who say that have been, like you said, doing it for years and years. For them, they really had to battle the good battle. In fact, even for programmer today, you don’t have to go down into the 1’s and 0’s…

Vicki: No… (laughs)

Aditya: Which is unfortunate, actually. You know, I’ve never programmed in a machine language. The lowest language I’ve ever gone is like C or something, you know?

Vicki: Yeah.

Aditya: So I personally find a beauty in learning computer architecture from the ground up, which I have done.

But most programmers nowadays don’t practice that.

Vicki: We’re also talking about teaching kids in elementary, middle, and high school.

Aditya: Exactly, exactly.

Vicki: And personally, as a computer science teacher, I see that when I start with Scratch — or even when I have my older students help younger kids in “Hour of Code,” I guess it becomes “stickier”… It becomes easier to learn when I do introduce those concepts, just because they understand what they’re trying to do, so then they’ve got to do it.

Aditya: Objectives here are pretty different.

At this point in time, I think what we want is to get all kids excited about learning how to code, and getting buy in from the students.

So if you gamify the whole process and make it look less mundane, that really achieves that much better.

I’m sure you must have noticed that in your classes also.

Getting buy in from students, getting them excited to want to learn more — that’s deep learning, right? That’s more conducive, which inspires students to want to learn more beyond the classroom.

Deep learning is more conducive

These tools, like gamification and all of that, really achieve that, especially for the younger students.

  • Note from Research Assistant, Dr. Lisa Durff: Research has shown that technology engages and increases academic achievement of students. Recently, Hamari et al. (2016) found in their study of high school students who were involved in gamification that flow and engagement had a positive association with learning.
    • Reference: Hamari, J., Shernoff, D. J., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn: An empirical study on engagement, flow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 170-179.

Vicki: OK. Teachers, so we’ve really dug into how to teach code to younger students, and really focusing on the logic instead of the grammar and syntax.

The name of the game is Potato Pirate. I’ll include the link in the Shownotes as well.

I think this is an important conversation to have, but I also smile thinking of my friend who was looking down on the rest of the world because he programmed in binary.

Aditya: (laughs)

Vicki: We have to be careful, as professionals, not to think that the way we learned is not the way that anybody else has to learn. If we can improve the learning process, by all means, we should!

The way we learned is not the way that anybody else has to learn

Aditya: Yes, I certainly agree with that.

So that’s really the premise of introducing tech literacy nowadays.

It’s becoming like learning English in the 20th century. It’s become like a basic necessity of educators to include their classrooms.

So like I said, we’re trying to achieve different objectives — like getting people to understand it from the fundamentals (like the machine code) — but what we’re trying to do is introduce it to a wider spectrum of people who have different learning capabilities and different inclinations and aptitudes.

So we’re trying to provide a learning experience that most of these types of students would appreciate.

Vicki: (agrees)

Very well said, Aditya.

Aditya: Thank you so much.

Contact us about the show:

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Aditya is CEO of Codomo, a Singapore-based ed-tech startup and is also one of the creators of Potato Pirates, a tabletop card game that teaches 10 hours worth of programming in 30 minutes all without any computers. Potato Pirates raised over a quarter million on Kickstarter and has been translated into 20 different languages already.

Blog: Potato Pirates: The Tastiest Coding Card Game

Twitter: @ohpotatopirates

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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