Imagination and Coding: The Key to Unlocking The Real Power Of Code In Schools

“No matter how much a grown-up cares for you, sometimes they can’t really change how you feel inside or you could be too afraid to tell them that you are being bullied. I wanted to create an app where kids could solve that problem immediately.”

          Melissa R, Grade 4 (View Melissa’s Video on Vimeo here.)

By Robin Ulster and James Denby (

Our Coding Story

We got into coding a couple of years ago because we felt that we had taken our students about as far as we could as creators with tech. We felt pretty good about the ways in which our students harnessed technology to amplify their voices, to collaborate, and to create original content. At the same time we realized that our students’ understanding of how the tech they were so immersed in worked was still something of a mystery to them. And, to be honest, this was true for us too.

We started our coding journey with online learning tools like Codecademy and we are still using it to learn and practice coding languages. But it was when we did the free audit of Harvard’s CS50 (their intro to computer science class) online that we really began to see how we could apply coding and computational thinking to our classroom practices.

We realized that for all the talk about every child learning to code, it was equally important (if not more so) that every child learn elements of computer science and computational thinking because no matter the coding language or the interface for programming, those two were constants. These new (to us) ways of thinking also helped us reframe our problems solving strategies as we explored humanities topics (like urbanization or immigration) with students.

The Power of Coding And Reading

Since coding is identified as an essential 21st century literacy, let’s compare the teaching of coding to reading.

We don’t teach reading just to have students read decontextualized passages of text. We don’t just have them practice the skills of reading over and over and over again in ever more complex variations (though standardized testing may try and make us do so). Instead, we ask our students to apply the skills of reading and writing to interesting tasks and projects that require creativity and imagination. We ask them to look at the world around them and to use their reading and writing skills to understand, interact with, and change the world they live in.

Coding tends to be taught with a focus on simply building more coding skills rather than a focus on the application of those skills outside of specific discipline-related tasks. Using coding skills to program a robot is great, but we can take a broader view of those skills. In doing so, we may reach and attract a much bigger and more diverse group of future coders whose interests tend towards social issues and the arts.

We need to combine the skills our students are starting to learn as coders to shape the world and the technology they use all the time. We have systemic issues to address to make coding more inclusive, but we also have instructional issues as well. When we address both, coding and tech will be more inclusive.

Designing Apps

At a workshop last year at the Zurich International School, (ZIS) we worked with elementary school students on a series of lateral and computational thinking exercises before introducing them to coding and design thinking. We asked students to think of the problems they saw in their community and they came up with an incredible array of issues including bullying, environmental issues, and animal welfare.

Students designed, through storyboarding, apps that addressed the problems they perceived in their communities. With only a short introduction to coding but a strong connection to imagination, students created some truly incredible concepts for apps. Their ability to see ways in which technology could be used to address the issues they faced exceeded every expectation we had going into the short session.

After just one session we learned, along with the students and teachers, what coding in schools has the potential to do. Rather than focusing on concepts of computer science and different coding languages as the goal of coding instruction, we can look at teaching students to code as additional ways to help build imagination and critical thinking into the curriculum.

As an approach to problem-solving, computational thinking relies on breaking down problems into smaller pieces, identifying patterns within the problem, understanding the ways in which elements of solutions can be applied in other settings, and experimenting with different algorithms or systematic methods for solving elements of the problem.

ZIS students clearly showed us how these strategies, when combined with imagination, can unlock the real potential of coding curricula. Each group of students:

  • Identified a problem within their community;
  • Looked for ways in which that problem manifested itself outside their communities;
  • Used their understanding of their peers; and
  • Connected their past experiences with other apps and games.

Most importantly, our students combined all of these to conceive of an app that would successfully address the problems they identified.

Melissa’s Stand Up Anti-Bullying App

As amazing as the students are, they didn’t have the coding skills (again, after just one session) to code the apps they conceived of. So we found some coders to help them. Today they are working collaboratively online to bring the apps to life.

Melissa’s Stand Up app (which is being beta-tested on Google Play right now) is her way of helping kids who are being teased and bullied to stand up for themselves and of helping those who are bystanders to stand up for others.

Imagination Transforms Process And Content

Coding and computer science curricula can engage students in establishing a clear connection to the world around them by engaging them in imaginative explorations of how they can make an impact. If we really want coding and computer science to be anything other than a skill, we must nurture its connection to creativity and imagination. To do that, we can encourage our students to look at their new skills not as the end goals but as tools for transformation.

Also by James & Robin:  A Better Way To Teach History



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