Passion and coding

(post originally made to

Where’s the joy? Creating something, and sharing it, is an exciting and motivating endeavour. With the new 2020 Ontario Mathematics Curriculum now guiding mathematics in classrooms across Ontario, I think there is renewed excitement and potential to encourage creative learning with students, especially with coding activities.

Unfortunately, after accessing and reading through a long list of new coding resources produced by various school boards and other organizations, I am seeing mostly lengthy webinars and highly detailed lesson plans that ‘connect’ math curriculum expectations to coding assignments. I agree there has to be some direction in this regard but the way coding is “taught” in school, and the way students feel about it when doing it, is going to have a major impact on outcomes. I know this because I have been working with students and coding since 1995 and my own approach and philosophy has evolved as I have learned from my students and other talented teachers and researchers.

The most important question I ask when my students are coding is: do they love doing it? Strand A in the new Ontario Mathematics Curriculum is a fascinating new dimension with much potential. My guess is that Strand A is attempting to address and change long standing sexism, racism, and so-called ‘math anxiety’ associated with the teaching and learning of mathematics. If this is the case, then this strand is a start but there are still many issues. For example, ideas like ‘building personal resilience’ (which is mentioned in the Stress Management and Coping section) is an interesting idea but it is also a privileged approach. Why not first dismantle systemic factors in education systems that continue to oppress, degrade, prejudge, stereotype, discriminate, stream, exploit, and exclude non-white students? Maybe if these were dismantled then there would no longer be a need to ‘teach resilience’ to students. In any case, there is still work to be done to strengthen the ideas in Strand A.

Passion. This is one crucial, missing element in Strand A and is the main point of this blog post. I searched for the words ‘love’, ‘joy’ and ‘passion’ in the Strand A section of the new mathematics curriculum and found a total of zero hits for these words. In fact, none of these words can be found in ANY of the strands of the new mathematics curriculum. Why?

The focus of this blog post is on students who are using coding in their learning. The most important question I ask when my students are coding is: do they love doing it? I ask this because I want that to be motivating them. I don’t want it coming from me. I am happy to encourage, suggest, and have discussions with students about their projects. I have found, over and over, that students who are passionate about their chosen projects will work harder and longer, and learn far more, than students who work on assignments or puzzles that I have given them.

As it turns out, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT figured all this out a long time ago. Students who play, experiment, tinker and build their own projects (rather than assignments or puzzles) that they are passionate about, in collaboration with their peers, are far more engaged, interested, excited, motivated, and so on (I am sure you can fill in lots of words that reflect qualities you are hoping to see in your students).

Instead of lesson plans or assignments, I am trying to focus on creating opportunities for all of my students to design, create, experiment, and explore just like kids in Kindergarten do. The best way I have found so far to do this is to use the 4P approach as guiding principles (read Mitch Resnick’s book called Lifelong Kindergarten for more information about the 4P approach):

The LLK approach: Projects, Passion, Peers, Play

The passion element of this approach cannot be overstated. Learning to code and learning related mathematical ideas become secondary to the force and determination which students bring to their personal coding projects. I have seen students in grade 3 designing fun games in Scratch and they have learned intuitively that y means “up/down” and x means “left/right” not because of any lesson I taught but because the sprites in their games needed to move in certain ways… so, they needed to learn how to move the sprites in their game, sometimes in very complex ways. All sprites in Scratch are situated on a Cartesian plane (with the origin at the centre of the stage) and movements are controlled by the blue blocks:

Blue blocks control sprite movement on the Cartesian plane

The biggest difference I found with students learning within the 4P approach is that curriculum objectives cannot be taught or explored in a linear or arbitrary way. Also, artificial knowledge boundaries that have been created within a curriculum (such as: plot and read coordinates in all four quadrants of a Cartesian plane, and describe the translations that move a point from one coordinate to another starting only in Grade 6) are rendered ridiculous because mathematics is a language and every language is predicated on building literacy and fluency, not a checklist of skills learned in a sequence at different times. Students use mathematical ideas when they need them. Coding in Scratch is always ready and waiting. As children start to conceive of more and more complex ideas and projects, Scratch has the capacity to support the creation of highly complex programs. This was part of the design of Scratch from the beginning (low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls).

My continued concern is now that ‘coding’ has become an ‘official’ part of the Ontario curriculum, the stated objectives will simply become check boxes in a long list of expectations that need to be met by the end of the year bereft of any creative or exciting dimension. My contention is that all of these expectations can and will be met if we try, instead, to focus on creating opportunities for all students to design, create, experiment, and explore using coding tools like Scratch. Let’s focus on encouraging students to create projects they are passionate about in playful collaboration with their peers. As students work this way, then, as teachers, we can find the math, we can help students notice and name the mathematical ideas they are looking for to solve a problem or already using in their code. The conversations will be different for each student. I understand that a child-centred approach can be challenging and time consuming but I think that it’s worth it.

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