What I Learned Teaching Kids to Code

Released by Blog, Editorial, Frontpage on

KrakkenFrog is a lifelong tabletop and PC gamer. As a teacher, he shares his experiences teaching math, history, and computer programming.

There are few creatures on the planet less sure of themselves than a middle school student. Typically the 11-12 year old, wedged between the tail end of a childhood but not yet hitting the independence-driven teen years, is aching to find a place to belong. Though admittedly biased on the subject, I think there is a tremendous opportunity for teachers and parents to reach their students to spark something amazing. Over the better part of a decade, I have had the unique opportunity to work on sparking the imaginations of thousands of students.

“What people don’t understand about teaching, and why it’s so important to have teachers who are capable and respected, is that they are constantly in a position to open a child up to a world of opportunity.”

I have experienced the unforgettable sensation of success when a student surprises even themselves with what they were capable of doing, as well as the soul-crushing moments when opportunities are squandered or crushed in front of their eyes. Every one of these experiences burns themselves into the psyche of the student, to be carried with them for the rest of their lives. I know this because each of us has a story from our childhoods when some teacher left that indelible mark for better or worse. For me, it was a geometry teacher who made a comment in passing that she probably didn’t think twice about. After a particularly frustrating session where she was trying to explain a concept, she uttered, “You’re just no good at math.” In the moment, I remember laughing it off, but it burned inside me like an ember. So much so that when I went back to school to add a new endorsement to my teaching credentials, I decided the only option was middle level math. Not because I had discovered some hidden passion for numbers in the years since the geometry class, but because I needed to prove that teacher wrong.

What people don’t understand about teaching, and why it’s so important to have teachers who are capable and respected, is that they are constantly in a position to open a child up to a world of opportunity. Constantly, knowingly and not, teachers open doors and close them for their students. A comment made in passing, or unexpected encouragement for a seemingly inconsequential act can have ramifications that extend way beyond the end of that school day. Every day, in millions of classrooms all around the world, this chaos theory of education plays out. All a teacher can do is try their hardest to make sure that every interaction opens a door to opportunity.

When I was tasked with teaching middle school students to learn how to write computer code, the first thing I did was sit down and decide what the opportunities were for the students. Most tech-savvy people online have heard about the various coding initiatives run by various organizations over the past few years, so I won’t deluge you with the very good evidence-based support for teaching kids how to code. Staring at my list of reasons on a sheet of graph paper, I kept being drawn to an underlined word at the bottom that was hastily scribbled with a pencil that needed to be sharpened several lines before that. That word was, “Create.”

“‘The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.’ We’re the happiest when we’re working hard creating something new.”

The prolific games designer, and future forecaster, Jane McGonigal describes gamers as a human resource for the power of problem solving. She reminds us that human beings are the most fulfilled when they are blissfully productive. In her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and Can Change the World, she writes, “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.” We’re the happiest when we’re working hard creating something new. I believe that today’s kids aren’t allowed to create nearly as much as they should. For a long time, especially in the American education system, play has been considered a bad word.

Kids are born as these amazingly creative beings who have no concept of limitations. Only through years of conscious effort and many standardized tests, do we finally produce a high school graduate who is almost entirely devoid of creative thought. Even working with middle school students, who are only mid-way in their journey through the system, I will often get blank stares when I tell them to explore and play with a piece of software. It’s a concept so foreign to their training that they are suspicious, acting as if as soon as they eagerly got started, I’d immediately attack their knuckles with a metal ruler cackling like a Disney villain. Slowly and with a humorous amount of trepidation, students will dive in. And I’m lucky enough to help them rediscover the power to create.

I tell the kids on their first day that they’re computer programmers from here on out. Sure, their first bit of code is nothing more than a modified, “Hello World” program in MIT’s Scratch language, but it has always been a symbolic gesture. It’s a declaration of intent to bend the tool to meet the needs of the programmer. It’s a declaration of independence from a system where they don’t have the power to create something new and entirely their own. As the year progresses, this power grows and I see it in the faces of the boys and girls who leave my class with a tool belt filled with valuable skills as well as a collection of their creations.

“My classroom had become a sanctuary where, for seventy five minutes, the students could forget all of the reasons why they didn’t fit in, and just work together to create something fun.”

Something any middle level teacher can tell you is that learning at this level is a social process. And what can sometimes happen as kids go through school is that established social orders can permeate the learning. Popular kids tend to be listened to while more introverted students are relegated to the side-lines of a conversation. Vocal boys tend to overwhelm the voices of girls. Even cultural differences come into play as more boisterous and outgoing students tent to trump more restrained students from sheer volume. It’s something that I’ve witnessed across the subject areas in my years teaching, and it was very much a concern as I wrote the curriculum for the new programming class.

What I didn’t expect, and definitely didn’t plan for—though if you ask my administrator, I’ll claim every iota of responsibility—was for the established social orders to be obliterated. Because all of the students were in the classroom to create their own games, anyone who could offer help to meet that goal was now a very valuable commodity. In the first week of class, I witnessed in silent awe as one of my high fliers (teacher code for troublemaker) got up, walked over to a scrawny kid with glasses, pre-teen acne, and a box of Magic cards next to his computer, and politely asked him for help with his game. In what had to be a very surreal moment for both of them, the kid in glasses pulled out the chair next to him at the table, and they got to work fixing the jumbled code. My classroom had become a sanctuary where, for seventy five minutes, the students could forget all of the reasons why they didn’t fit in, and just work together to create something fun.

Computer programming, and playing with what results from their efforts, has empowered my students and reaffirmed my belief that video games are a powerful catalyst for the betterment of humanity. Blissful productive creation has created a classroom where boys and girls can feel safe to create and share those creations with others. When I hear about troublesome students who I have in my class, I’m usually dumbfounded by descriptions of poor decisions that I couldn’t even imagine them making while in my class. They’re much too busy creating to worry about getting into trouble.


“Some notable games journalists have gone on record saying that the industry is hopelessly corrupt, and attempts at reform are not only pointless but not even needed… Like a kid staring at a jumbled mess of code and saying, “I’m never going to fix this so why bother?””

In the next few years, the first of my programming students are going to graduate from high school and enter an uncertain world. Of those kids who showed particular promise in class and have a passion for creating programs, I expect to hear great things. What concerns me, however, is the industry in which they might enter. Unfortunately, there are many issues that plague the games industry, and no one seems to have a magic bullet solution. To that, I offer the same advice that I give to my students. Every big problem, when looked at in its entirety, seems insurmountable. The only way to tackle it is one piece at a time. And even then, we have to be prepared to stumble in our efforts.

Some notable games journalists have gone on record saying that the industry is hopelessly corrupt, and attempts at reform are not only pointless but not even needed since it’s just a bunch of nonsense about games and not a big picture issue like clean water or renewable energy. My response to that is that if you cannot tackle the seemingly small and inconsequential problems with any hope of success, how can you possibly take on the big picture issues? Like a kid staring at a jumbled mess of code and saying, “I’m never going to fix this so why bother?” I just look at the code, find something small, and ask, “Will fixing this make your code a little better?” More often than not, it’s the spark they need to dive back in.

Will reforming games journalism and the industry itself fix all the world’s problems? Of course not, but the reward of making this small change is the knowledge that we as a community can come together and tackle one issue. If we can fix one problem, we can fix all the others. Establishing clear ethical standards in games journalism and game development will create an environment where we can make progress on many other broken aspects of the industry. After all, it’s much more difficult to discriminate against someone if you have an ethical corporate culture behind you.

“Will reforming games journalism and the industry itself fix all the world’s problems? Of course not, but the reward of making this small change is the knowledge that we as a community can come together and tackle one issue. If we can fix one problem, we can fix all the others.”

All it takes is the common understanding that we as gamers have the power to save the world. As GamerGate continues to smolder and each side radicalizes in their entrenched positions, I’m concerned that the obvious middle ground is being lost. Establishing ethical boundaries for individuals in the industry helps everyone at the detriment of the corrupt. There is no reasonable argument against sitting down and creating the mechanisms required to make sure people act in an ethical and positive manner. Do this, and problems of sexism, cronyism, and corruption in the games industry will crumble like shoddy level design.

While it seems as though many are waiting for all of this to blow over so that they can go back to the way things were before, I don’t intend to go away. We are each part of an extremely powerful and positive community. With all our short-comings, we’re brothers and sisters fighting for something that we love and that is worth saving. I owe it to my students to try and do my part to fix this, because if I just shrug and throw up my hands, I’m no better than that teacher who said, “You’re just no good at math.”

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.