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Teaching teachers—and their students—the joys of coding

Later this month will mark a year since the Ontario government announced sweeping changes to the province's math curriculum. One of the new skills that's been rolled out across school boards for elementary students is coding.

Experts agree that learning to code teaches students skills far beyond computer programming. Even with students as young as kindergarten, early coding activities can boost both math and language skills.


From Lynda Colgan, Professor of Elementary Mathematics at Queen's University: teaching children coding helps them "learn to locate and orient themselves and other objects in space, and how to visualize such movements and relationships. They must also learn how to communicate and how to solve problems." Absolutely critical skills, to be sure.


But if you're a teacher who isn't familiar with coding, how do you then teach a classroom of excited grade one students the basics? Or troubleshoot a grade seven student's project using the coding program Python?


Enter Coding in the Classroom

Since March 2020, NII Explore's Coding in the Classroom instructors have delivered coding lessons to more than 1,400 students—initially as an extra-curricular offering and this year to classrooms across Bruce and Grey counties.


The program supports grade 2-8 curriculum goals of patterns, problem-solving and literacy education, helping rural students learn foundational skills that are key to working in a digital economy.


We caught up with NII Explore instructor Danielle McBride for her reflections on her time behind the camera teaching coding to these students—and on the importance of coding for building creativity, problem-solving skills and healthy relationships.


Continue reading below for our full conversation or watch the highlights here:

What part of coding do you most enjoy teaching and why?

DM: One of my favourites has become Python. When I first started teaching it, I was really intimidated by it, actually, but now that I’ve done it a couple times and been able to do some learning alongside the children, it’s become one of my favourites.


What kind of things can the students make using Python?

DM: Python is used in YouTube, in Facebook—so it’s really interesting and cool for the kids—and for me—to break it down and say “Oh, it’s not really huge and complicated.”


I think it is a little “A ha!” moment for students, especially those who don’t have—or didn’t start with—an interest in coding. It gives the kids a perspective that maybe it’s not so daunting.

Do you have to be a computer nerd—or super tech-savvy—to be into coding?

DM: So that is honestly what I thought when I was going to school. But what I’ve learned over the last year or so with NII and different coding opportunities is that you don’t have to.


You really see that it’s not stereotypical anymore—it’s very, very open. And you see people who are giving presentations and doing really amazing things who don’t look like the “average” coder.


And I think this is a perfect time for students to really step into that because they see people of all different backgrounds, of all different genders—they’re able to be comfortable and say “Oh, they look like me! I could be a coder.”

What has the response been from teachers in the Coding in the Classroom program?

DM: I have been so excited that teachers are really loving it. So when coding came into the curriculum, teachers were like “Where do I even start? We didn’t learn this at school—it isn’t something we can just sort of wing.”


Teachers didn’t really know where to turn to, so having this opportunity to give coding to both teachers and students at the same time gives teachers resources as we go through these four weeks of programming.

It’s been really cool to watch teachers relax through each session—you can always tell they’re a little tense right at the beginning… and then once we’re going through all those different levels and the activities, they’re like “Ahh… it’s not that bad.”

And what has been the response from students?

DM: I was teaching Scratch to a grade 4/5 class and we have a foundational start of about half an hour and then I give them some time to do some discovery and play around with it and make it their own—which they love to do.


They love to just be like “Okay, yeah yeah yeah—I’m trying to be creative here.”


But it blows the teachers away—they’re like “You know what you’re doing??” Students are just like “I want to try.”


And that’s something huge I try and plug into my classes: it’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay to experiment things—you don’t have to be right on your first try.

Trying different things and having that creative freedom in coding has been a really cool revelation for students as well.

It kind of is like art class—cause you have to get the basics (you get colours and shapes and things like that) and it’s like “Okay, what are you going to do with that?”. Recently we were creating stories and it was a really cool opportunity for students to add different components in and different blocks that interact with one another—and none of them were the same when they were sharing them.

How can parents help support their kids’ coding education?

DM: Kids pick up on things really really easily and really quickly. So I think just having that open mind for trying new things is a really good attitude to have.


Even doing it with them—parents and students working together—their kids can show the parents things; if they have questions, parents can kind of troubleshoot as they go. And I think that just builds healthy relationships anyway.


Learn more about NII Explore programs at nii.ca/explore.