I’d like to demonstrate a lesson for you that teaches the basics of coding without the use of a computer.
Why would you need to know this? Because whenever you’re teaching something new, it helps to use context that’s familiar and deliver it in a safe, no-fail, even playful way. You want to create buy-in for students.
Here’s how it works. You start by writing your own computer language with a dozen or so basic commands. Then you apply that language out on the playground - literally!
Grab some sidewalk chalk and have your students draw a 20x20 square grid on the ground. Let them take turns being the programmer.
The programmer’s job is to issue commands, like “forward,” and then a number. Another student on the team plays the robot and has to follow those commands.
So if the programmer says “Forward 7,” the robot-kid moves forward 7 spaces.
Then, they can add more complex commands, like turning. “Forward 7. Turn right 90 degrees.”
This is a great opportunity for younger students to learn about degrees: If there’s 360 degrees in a circle, turning 180 degrees is an about face, 90 degrees is a ¼ turn to the left or right.
Add another command: Repeat. “Forward 7, Right 90, Repeat 4 times” has the robot-kid moving in a square.
Then we add a pair of commands: “Chalk down, Forward 7, Right 90, Repeat 4 times, Chalk up.” Now, the robot kid uses sidewalk chalk to trace the square they’re walking.
Those few instructions are enough for students to write computer programs that will write their names on the playground!
Some of the best moments happen when things go wrong. The programmer issues a command but forgets to add a number. The robot won’t go -- or might keep walking in the same direction right off the grid!
Or there’s a command to start hopping on one foot, but the robot kid is supposed to have their chalk down at the same time. It’s like a combination of “Simon Says” and tech school! Glitches are great ways to learn about the importance of checking code and debugging.
This exercise works for students at all grade levels. Even high school seniors enjoy getting outside and testing the limits of real-world programming and design. You can add in a design competition, a speed competition, a dance competition, team exercises, awards for the most creativity, filming, and plenty more.
And of course, chalk and playgrounds can give way to pen-on-paper exercises, artwork created by a group using shared logic instructions, collaborative desk arranging, kitchen preparations, etc.
The goal, besides giving students a chance to build confidence and creativity, is to prove to them that computer programming isn’t just about sending instructions to a machine. It’s about learning to break actions down to their smallest parts and start thinking logically.
While computers are very good at executing logic-based commands, the real work of solving a problem or accomplishing a goal is done by the coders -- the creators -- and that’s a very human task.