Case study: Skills and coding

Written by: Alison Henderson | Published:

Teacher Alison Henderson engaged with the popular Apps for Good scheme to push her pupils’ problem-solving and computing skills to the limit. She explains more

With the UK’s increased focus on technological skills, Lamlash Primary School in North Ayrshire, Scotland, decided that our students needed some coding experience, but we wanted to find a way of showing them just how the skill can be used to engage their various interests and abilities.

The students at Lamlash are avid users of apps, games and programmes, but never seem to really create anything new and had little to no idea of how computers actually work. This made me worried that they were purely consumers of technology, rather than producers.

I had done a small amount of coding at school myself using BBC microcomputers, which helped to inform my understanding, and I wanted to share this insight with the children. In order to address both of my concerns, I began looking for a project that would allow them to experiment with technology, while inspiring them to creatively explore the subject.

Like most young people, our pupils are highly adept at using apps, so we used this as a starting point for getting them interested and seeing the benefits of learning to code. We selected the course run by the Apps for Good charity because it was a combination of the technical elements and other skills such as design and marketing.

Apps for Good is an open-source technology education movement that partners with schools to deliver the course to young people. In the course, students work together as teams to find real issues they care about and learn to build a mobile, web or social app to solve them.

The children were really excited, thinking that because it is so easy to use apps, it would be easy to create them. But it is a challenge – there were even some times when I would have to take two computers home, watching tutorials of how to use Balsamiq on one screen and using the other to work through the steps.

The pupils found out quickly enough that the project would push their abilities, requiring them to make sometimes difficult decisions and learn how to re-evaluate and make changes when things didn’t go to plan.

My background is in engineering, which has a great deal of focus on design and how it progresses through various stages, and I thought it would be important to teach children the value of this process.

First, you need to identify a problem that you wish to solve. Then, you need to research all the potential solutions that could be implemented through an app, before selecting your preferred course of action and carrying it out. Not all of the children were interested in computers, but these design skills are applicable to almost anything, from fashion to cars.

The ownership that this gave them was fantastic, as it allowed like-minded children to get together and create something they really cared about. Doing the project in teams really helped accelerate creativity and helped the students to come up with strong, tangible ideas.

We had one team that was very interested in exercise, another that loved sweets, and several groups that wanted to base their app around animals.

As my class is a composite primary 6 and 7 group (ages 10 to 12), we would usually ask older and younger children to work together, ensuring that all of the pupils have an opportunity to see the outcomes and understand the material.

However, for the Apps for Good project, they were grouped by interest, and because of their enthusiasm for their ideas, even the less experienced groups were able to get themselves organised and really interact with the material.

There were arguments of course, and one rather significant fall-out, but once the children saw their ideas beginning to come together, they all started working really well in their teams. The prevailing idea was that “it’s okay for everyone to have opinions, and no-one should be excluded”. They were able to see how each person could contribute in their own way to the bigger picture, and their initial disagreements were worked out very quickly.

One of the best sessions we had during the project was when the children were practising their “elevator pitches” for the Apps for Good competition. As the class had really started understanding the purpose of apps and how they work, they were able to make very insightful points about the potential functionality of each idea.

Occasionally, a pupil would ask a complicated question that the group had not considered, which in turn helped to develop their projects further. It was incredible to see them all thinking through their ideas and providing constructive and practical criticism.

Going through this process at such a young age is invaluable as it teaches them various skills, like the ability to pitch and sell in a convincing manner. All these skills learnt now will help prepare them for when they experience something similar later in life.

The important thing to reinforce during the project is that it is not the end of the world when things go wrong. Sometimes, when you design something, the outcome is not what you originally wanted and you need to go back and make changes to the plan in order to fix the problem. In coding, this is crucial for bug-fixing, but the mentality can be applied more generally, keeping pupils encouraged that trial and error is a natural part of the process.

It can be difficult for the children to remember the logic behind certain elements of the design and marketing process if they only have a short amount of time in which to understand the decisions. However, as we have class assemblies, the pupils were, at one point, able to spend an entire day working on their presentations, which gave them the space to think very carefully about the content for their app and how they would promote it to their audience.

They were then able to talk to a professional from the UK technology industry (from the Apps for Good Expert Community), which was fantastic, as it gave them the opportunity not only to receive expert feedback on their projects, but also to ask questions about what working in technology is really like. It brought a real feeling of authenticity to what they were doing, which helped to keep their interest. I also hope this will inspire them to take these skills further.

Getting children interested in coding is all about applying all the elements together. If you can show the children everything that is involved in working with technology, they can gain a lot of knowledge and develop various skills during the process.
Associating coding with real-life situations and problems is essential in engaging pupils’ interest, and giving them ownership over their projects has maintained this enthusiasm. Providing children with the opportunity to work in teams for an extended period of time has really helped to develop their communication and discussion skills too.

Having a physical outcome at the end of the project, in the form of wireframe designs and prototyping, gives them something to work towards and be proud of, and all of our pupils have really enjoyed the journey to achieve this. 

  • Alison Henderson is a primary 6/7 teacher at Lamlash Primary School in North Ayrshire, Scotland.

Further information

Apps for Good: www.appsforgood.org


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