2 easy and 2 professional ways to teach coding

I’ve been teaching coding (along mathematics) for kids aged 9-16 for several years. I’ve proceeded in this order:

  • code.org
  • Scratch
  • Python
  • Unity

First two are quite easily doable for teacher/parent with no programming experience. About the last two, I personally think that Unity is more appealing for today’s youngsters, but as an example of text-based coding Python is ok.

Code.org

Contains several lesson for different age groups. Still, consider your pupils experience before starting. If they have no experience at all, they could shortly go through materials for younger kids before proceeding to their own age group and vice versa. If you have no experience yourself, it’s highly advisable that you do the lessons yourself beforehand. Make sure that you find the ways to use suggested amount of code lines, as there are sometimes many ways to solve a task, usually the shorter the better. Link: code.org

Scratch

Compared to code.org, Scratch is more open environment. It needs Flash player. You can actually do your own games if you’re registered user, for others to play. Coding happens by dragging blocks from left to right. Here is a picture of one of the most basic programs in Scratch:

Pay attention to block colors; color of the block will tell you from which block group it’s from.

  1. Every program has to start somewhere. This will start when clicking the green flag. This is a common way to start Scratch program. (Other common option is starting with a key from keyboard.)
  2. Forever-loop is important. Otherwise program will end before user gets to press anything.
  3. There is a coordinate system. Using this system makes it easier to move the way you intended. Other option is to use steps, but then you have to be cautious with direction. Steps always uses direction to determine where to go.

And there you go! You can modify this basic program in numerous ways.

Python

Sometimes you need an example of text-based programming language and Python is one of these. It’s relatively simple to learn. It can be used many ways:

  • Install Python to your computer. Write code to .py text-file and compile it. This is the hardest way, but best if you write longer programs. If you’re using Windows, change path-environment variable from settings according to where your python.exe is located.
  • Install Python to your computer and use ide that comes with installation. Ide means that you can write code and see the results right away.
  • If you don’t want to install it (yet), you can use online ide, such as ideone.com There you can also use other programming languages. Downside is that if you are not careful, you may lose some work.

Here are some very basic examples (and by the way, printing doesn’t mean it prints on paper, only on screen):

Printing numbers form 0 to 9:

for i in range(10):
	print i;

Printing multiplication table of 5:

for i in range (10):
	print ((i+1)*5);

Printing first Fibonacci numbers:

numberA=1;
numberB=1;
temporary=0;
while(numberA<1000):
	print numberA;
	temporary=numberA+numberB;
	numberA=numberB;
	numberB=temporary;
Unity

Unity unites text-based coding to graphical interface, making it fast and relatively easy to develop games. Several commercial games have been created with unity, see list of examples here. Unity is not the only one of it’s kind, but it is definitely one of the most significant game engines.

Good news is that Unity is free for private use and even when you are earning a little with your game you’ve developed. I’m not eager to put any specific details here, please check from Unity’s website if you have any questions with licences.

I have a plan to make some Unity related content for educators but that idea is still in its infancy. Before that, you can check their own learning page: https://unity3d.com/learn

Happy childhood is a myth

Which is the happiest age for human being? I did some googling and the most significant results shows that happiness curve seems to be u-shaped. In these graphs human life is at its worst around 40 years of age. But, these charts start from around age 15-16 so they really say nothing about childhood.

Still, most of us have probably heard talks about happy childhood. Idealized pictures of happy kids, maybe. Life with children may not seem so perfect in today’s talks, but problems related to running a family are seen as adults’ problems, and kids don’t have to worry about them. That’s how it’s supposed to be, children don’t have to worry about every problem. But does that necessarily mean that kids are happy and even the more important question, should they be happy?

Let me paint a mental picture of certain kid. He is doing ok in the sense that nothing is particularly wrong. School mornings are tiresome, homework is usually doable but feels boring. Maybe he has some hobby, which requires going to training couple times a week. Does he feel happy? Probably not that much. After all, he is doing on daily basis things that someone else has designed for him. He may have chose the hobby himself (not necessarily even that), but training schedules are off his hands.

What about school then? A reasonable kid understands that school is useful for his future, but the payoff is years away. If we compare that to adult who goes to work: An adult can tell himself that he is waking up early to get money, and that payday is less than month away! So we expect kids to motivate themselves with things that are years away, time period that is more than their age. Would you be motivated every day, if you had 100 years for the next payday? I’d say that it’s harder for kids to motivate themselves through daily necessities.

Adults may have stress to keep things together and make a living and yes, that can be really stressful sometimes. But they have couple things to make life easier for them: First, adults can usually make adjustments and chooses of where to live and other chooses of money usage. They can even affect to people living in same household, at least you don’t have to keep a spouse if he/she is causing much trouble. If you are a child and for example brother or sister is harmful to you, you still have to live with your siblings.

I don’t mean that childhood is miserable. In somewhat normal cases it’s not.

My point is that children should be informed that there is no pressure to have a happy childhood. And that it’s perfectly normal to be happier as an adult than as a child.

Even if parent remembers mostly happy things from his/her own childhood, that is no reason to leave this information untold. Humans’ memory is not that good and can distort things. Even if the parent has the clearest memory imaginable and remembers his/her childhood was happy, there is notable possibility that child has got different kind of personality and sees this differently. This is no matter of parent(s) being good or bad, just that sole information can make child feeling better.

Unofficial remarks on Finnish school system (part 1: Literacy)

It’s been widely noticed that Finnish school system definitely has some good properties. You can find official description for example on https://www.oph.fi/english/education_system but in this series I take into consideration some features that may not come into attention internationally that often.

Literacy rate in Finland is very high. Wikipedia uses Unesco 2015 list that doesn’t have Finland in it, other sources claim it to be even 100% [1]. This is rounded number, but we can anyway say that literary rate has been very high for decades.

The language

It’s said that Finnish language is very difficult, it’s conjugations are numerous. That’s true, it’s hard for foreigner to master these perfectly. But, when you can speak Finnish, it’s ridiculously easy to read. All letters have one-to-one pronunciation. Exceptions are very rare and minor. Here is a major advantage to English speaking kids, who almost have to learn new language, written English after learning spoken English.

Donald Duck

Wait, what some old Disney character has to do with this? Donald Duck (Aku Ankka in Finnish) is an institution when talking about magazines in Finland. It’s by reader count the most popular magazine if free [2][3] magazines are left out.  Reader count is bit bigger than number of under 20 year olds [4] , because some adults read it, too.

Lively language used in Aku Ankka has received several awards. University of Helsinki noted Aku Ankka in 2001 [5]  and Finnish Mensa in 2014 [6].

Television

You may know that it’s common to dub TV shows to other languages? In Finland, programs that are intended for adults are never dubbed. Programs for teenage audience very rarely are dubbed, either. Dubbing is for kids, and self-respecting 10+ years old can watch television with subtitles. If you are a school kid in Finland and want to see original (or new) Star Wars movies for example, you have to be able to read subtitles fast enough to keep in track. That’s one thing that adds motivation.

The last random fact

Finland has been under Swedish reign for centuries and Swedish language has been the language in society’s top layers for long, too. One of the first novels written purely in Finnish was Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers. It’s a growth story of seven orphan brothers. One part of the novel describes how it’s very difficult for this boys to learn to read and their theacher is harsh on them. But, they bang their heads on the wall (methaphorically) until they figure it out and that will give them church permission to marry. That is one of the stories Finnish school children have to get familiar with.

To sum it up, in Finland, there is a very strong assumption that every proper citizen can read. It’s the matter of discussion wether reading and understanding read text has gone downhill due to digitalization.

Random numeric facts about the author:
5 Number of years she’s been teaching in Finnish public school (other than public schools are rare exceptions.)
8 The author’s grade in English language (scale 4-10) in Finnish school. That should explain funny grammar/word choises in text.
20 Number of years the author has been a subscriber to Aku Ankka magazine.

References and notes:
[1] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-highest-literacy-rates-in-the-world.html (English)
[2] Some corporations send magazines to their customers, but people won’t pay a penny for those, so these aren’t quite comparable. (Yhteishyvä for S-Group, Pirkka for Kesko and OP magazine for Osuuspankki.)
[3] http://www.aikakauslehdet.fi/Etusivu/Tietoa–Tutkimuksia/Levikkeja-ja-lukijamaaria/Lukijamaarat-Suomessa/Lukijamaariltaan-suurimmat/ (Finnish)
[4] https://www.tilastokeskus.fi/tup/suoluk/suoluk_vaesto.html (Finnish)
[5] https://web.archive.org/web/20080612222837/http://www.helsinki.fi/hum/skl/helmi2001.htm (Finnish)
[6] https://www.mensa.fi/wordpress/?p=851 (Finnish)

 

 

Why feeding kids’ creativity is ever more important

Think of the World 30 years from now. Focus especially to work. What would it be like?

It’s given that some jobs which are still done by humans in 2018 will be done by robots/computers by then. This trend has been going on for long, in a way from the start of industrial revolution. For these centuries new jobs have appeared to the stage while old ones have disappeared, so that eventually people have had something to do for living. Will this still be the case in 2048?

Foreseeing the future is always hard, but there is a change that jobs keep disappearing faster than new ones appearing. Before, machines have been able to take only simple, physical jobs but they are taking more advanced jobs all the time.

Let’s think highly educated and well known type of employees: doctors. Accuracy of diagnostic algorithms is getting better all the time often outperforming humans. They are still mainly supportive and may not replace human doctors in 30 years, but that will definetely mean that number of doctors needed will eventually decrease. (For more about doctors and algorithms see for example https://dataconomy.com/2017/10/18532/)

If that is the case with highly educated workforce, what will happen to simpler jobs? I see no reason for them do disappear entirely but the problem is that there will be less jobs and less salary. That is due to global competition, more people who are willing to do the same simple job will affect the paycheck.

So, you don’t want to count on your children or grandchildren getting some easy, nine to five well paid job. Those simply won’t exist any more. What kind of jobs and earning possibilities there will be instead? Over the years, people have made some more or less enlightened guesses about that. Maybe it will be the case that jobs that collaborate physical and mental aspects are less likely to vanish, but no one knows for sure.

Here’s where creative thinking comes in to play: You can’t assume that teaching kids certain facts about biology, maths and English literature will do the trick. In addition to that they will need several thinking outside of the box skills. When they are adults, they should be able to figure out themselves what is the most efficient way to earn a living in 2048.

Here’s the key thought: When rising children, try to emphasis creativity and throw in new angels to look at things on daily basis.

Implementing that may not be so easy in hectic lifestyle. Practical solutions come in handy. I’d suggest starting to do every week something different with the kids, maybe at some certain time of the week. It don’t have to be expensive. Going outdoors and painting things that you see? Library? Some new boardgame? Creating your own boardgame? Presenting to your kids online environments where they can learn to code? Theater? Writing your own poets? It’s likely you’ve already tried some of those, the idea is that try to experience new things and go to places (real or mental) where you and your kids haven’t been before. If you have the energy, try to incorporate these to everyday life, but weekly time dedicated to exploring new things is a good place to start.

Teaching your kids how to see things from many perspectives will be beneficial to them when they’ll try to figure their place in the World years from now.

On the mercy of Twitter algorithms

This is not the key subject of this blog but I made some observations about Twitter. I might be wrong at some point, but it’s not likely. So, here comes 5 things that affects your visibility on Twitter.

1. Twitter’s own algorithms

Admit it or not, this is what really matters. If you follow, let’s say, more than 10 people only some tweets will be shown to you. Twitter algorithm chooses. Had some suggestions who to follow? Twitter algorithm. Had several users following you even if you didn’t do anything special? Twitter algorithm probably suggested you to some users.

2. Bots’ algorithms

We all know there are lots of bots out there. Sometimes they attach to some hashtags you used. Some obviously register new users and start to follow them. If you’ve registered (relative) recently, maybe you noticed that some social media marketing “persons” started to follow you out of the blue? We may also include some bot & human co-operated users here.

3. Change

Who will see your tweet? After all algorithm involving, who is even online at the right time? Who will type the right search word, who happens to retweet?

4. Networks

Yes, there are some nice networks boosting other users in the same specialized field, but there is only so far it can go. Social media marketing and blogs are the most active network boosters I’ve seen. And for some odd reason, wrestling.

5. You said something ingenious

Sometimes accidents will happen and someone sees what you’ve written. World would be nice place if this was the first on this list.

To sum up, algorithms don’t usually get me. If one day I like something, that subject will be shown in large scale the next day. But for person who is interested in various subjects, that’s restricting. It would be really valuable to know how these algorithms work, but I bet it isn’t public knowledge. Or, if there is even roughly similar platform that doesn’t do picking for you, I’ll give it a try.

Games are good for kids (except brain dead ones)

Computer and mobile games can be devided into three main categories: Strategic, reactive and braindead.

Strategic games

Success is based on planning your actions. Sometimes you have unlimited time to think, sometimes game goes on at some speed. In simple cases, the ultimate strategy is to gather and build everything (as fast as possible.) As simple as that is, it teaches planning ahead for children and older players.

If the basic concept of planning is clear, it’s time to move to more complex games that have plurar strategies but not one above all solution. For example Civilization series aims to that but there are plenty of others.

From educational point of view it would be best if the “right” solution would be different every time you play certain game, that leads to really think what is worth doing and what is not. If, anyway, the variations are only distractions like random disasters, that often results player just starting over.

Reactive

Reactive games are somehow based on player’s quick reactions. Most first person games are like this. These are good for reaction time but too much playing can lead player being on the alert all the time even when not playing. Violence can be involved, too. Age rating system gives some clue, but is not equivalent to violence only. In UK, ratings are legally enforceable (12, 16 and 18 years.) In addition to that, it is always advisable for parent to stay in touch what game really contains and talk about it with their kids.

Brain dead

Last and very least, the brain dead. I’m referring to those games that require no strategy or right time movement what so ever. The simpliest for of this is when you tap mobile screen to get points. And that tapping goes on and on and on … It’s hard to belive how much time can be consumed to this kind of game. There is others, bit less obvious forms of the same idea (or lack of idea.)

If your kid plays brain dead games, it’s advisable to lead him/her to some other activities.

To sum up, nothing is good in too heavy dose, but strategic or reactive games in proper age and proper amount do more good than harm teaching to plan, solve problems, react and be part of a social group. For braind dead tapping games, there is no excuse.

Balancing simple and difficult tasks

You need the right kind of challenges to encourage child’s abilities. But not every challenge need to be as hard as the other. You obviously need some difficult ones but the beauty in simpler ones is that they build up kid’s self-confidence. So they will feel that they can solve problems and that’s a valuable lesson going forward in life and studies.

So, you shouldn’t be worried that some task (for example puzzle or maze) is too simple, as long as you keep an eye on the balance! Remember to take into account things they are doing in school: If school is difficult at the moment, maybe something simpler at home for balance and vice versa. That way your kid will build up both self-confidence and new skills.