Coding in the Classroom | Unplugged Coding

Coding activities without a computer?
By: Lisa Anne Floyd and Barb Seaton

Unplugged activities are often used as an approach to learn computer science concepts, including coding, without the use of computers. There is research that supports the use of unplugged activities as a means to effectively introduce students to computational thinking and coding, especially when done in a familiar context (Repenning et al., 2015).

In his book, Computing without a Computer (2014), Dr. Paul Curzon quotes Hideki Yukawa, the first Japanese Nobel Prize winner in Physics:

Suppose there is something which a person cannot understand. He happens to notice the similarity of this something to some other thing which he understands quite well. By comparing them he may come to understand the thing which he could not understand up to that moment.

In addition to connecting new concepts to familiar contexts, unplugged activities are also beneficial when technology is not available or to limit the amount of time our students spend looking at screens. In Teaching Computational Thinking and Coding in Primary Schools (2017), Morris, Uppal and Wells suggest beginning with unplugged activities in K-1 classrooms as students often require a better understanding of their own spatial awareness and directional language before moving onto coding a physical device. Furthermore, unplugged experiences can be viewed as an effective means to introduce foundational concepts of computational thinking and coding before moving onto other pedagogical experiences, although, a teacher may opt to use unplugged at any stage in a learning continuum (Kotsopoulos et al., 2017).

An image of a coloured counter pieces for students to work with.

Not all experts agree that unplugged activities are the most effective way to ensure students are exposed to crucial computational thinking and coding experiences. It is sometimes argued that taking the time to learn computer science concepts through writing code on a computer can help educators gain a deeper understanding of computational thinking and coding. This may allow for educators to develop their own ideas for integrating coding into their everyday teaching practices and into other subject areas, including mathematics.

While these criticisms provide considerations for the development of computational thinking and coding activities as well as grounds for further research, classroom teachers should investigate for themselves the potential advantages and ease of incorporating unplugged activities into their practice for the benefit of their own students’ learning.

Unplugged ideas for incorporating computational thinking and coding into everyday practice

Some practical unplugged activities that might help to foster computational thinking and coding have been shared below. In many instances, computational thinking and coding can support logical ways to approach everyday problems and activities (Shute, Sun & Asbell-Clarke, 2017).

As each suggested activity is considered, it is important to remember the important role that teachers play in helping students learn through listening, questioning, provoking and recognizing contexts (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017). Effective pedagogy should be at the centre of all new ideas that we incorporate into our practice. To be a teacher is to be a lifelong learner and although we can do our best to apply our understanding of new best practices, we should always keep in mind our knowledge of our own students’ learning needs and experiences.

An image of building blocks.

As Grover and Pea (2018) mention in Computational Thinking: A Competency Whose Time Has Come, math and science are the “most intuitive contexts for CT learning”. There is promise; however, to develop computational thinking in all subject areas, especially when it comes to problem solving.

*As with all good teaching practice, any time the teacher is able to use a cross-curricular approach to ensure that students see connections between subject areas and to real-life, they should do so!

Let us know if you have additional ideas that we can include in this list!

Mathematics:
  • Playing barrier games with pattern blocks
  • Reviewing and practicing directional language
  • Using pattern blocks to create artwork (creating larger shapes, scale, symmetry)
  • Identifying and extending patterns
  • Working with grids transposed onto the floor, determining efficient routes for toys to navigate and writing the corresponding “code”
  • Sorting numbers, shapes, etc. and identifying the sorting “rule” that classmates are following
  • Using Venn Diagrams to sort objects
  • Modelling use of timelines, calendars
  • Writing out step-by-step algorithms to solve equations from simple adding or subtracting to more complex equations
The Arts:
Music analysis naturally encompasses a degree of concepts and skills that connect nicely to coding. In includes many opportunities for remixing, pattern analysis and makes use of algorithms. Teachers can set the stage in activities so students will
  • Identify patterns in rhythm, tunes in common songs, (check out this video showing a number of popular songs using the same chord progression)
  • Remix songs and suggest songs that may be played during different parts of stories.
  • Analyze patterns in dance steps – which ones are the core to many dances? How often are they repeated? By looking for these patterns, students are practicing decomposition.
  • Make connections between concrete and abstract forms of art. Study an artist like Piet Mondrian or Canadian, Jack Bush.
Language:
In the primary grades, storytelling and retelling in sequence is an integral part of classroom learning. Teachers may try the following activities that emphasize coding concepts and skills:
  • Encourage students to “remix” stories, consider alternative approaches – “What if the character did this instead?”
  • Have students decompose stories and recreate parts of stories with images, shapes – assign roles to students within the group to complete the various sections.
  • Encourage students to be efficient with procedural writing, putting steps (images) in order, indicating where steps are repeated.
An image of a music notes.

References

Barat, A., Malchiodi, D., & Barat, A. (2017). ScienceDirect Fostering Computational Computational Thinking in in Primary Primary School through a LEGO-based Music Notation. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2017.08.018

Curzon, P. (2014). Computing Without Computers, 0–197. Retrieved from: https://smartfuse.s3.amazonaws.com/d3a3ddb3f55b92cb348b18b85f43909a/uploads/2014/06/computing-without-a-computer.pdf

Grover, S., & Pea, R. (2018). Computational Thinking: A competency whose time has come. In S. Sentance, E. Barendsen, & S. Carsten (Eds.), Computer Science Education: Perspectives on Teaching and Learning in School. pp. 19–38. Bloomsbury.

Kotsopoulos, D., Floyd, L., Khan, S., Namukasa, I., Somanath, S., Weber, J., Yiu, C. (2017). A Pedagogical Framework for Computational Thinking. Digital Experience in Mathematics Education.

Morris, D., Uppal, G., & Wells, D. (2017). Teaching Computational Thinking and Coding in Primary Schools. SAGE Publications.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). Paying Attention to Spatial Reasoning, K-12 Support Document for Paying Attention to Mathematics Education, 1–28. Retrieved from papers3://publication/uuid/2E549EDC-042C-4F74-AA45-A859A3EDE041

Repenning, A., Webb, D. C., Koh, K., Nickerson, H., Miller, S. B., Brand, C., Her Many Horses, I., Basawapatna, F., Grover, R. (2015), Gutierrez, K., & Repenning, N. Scalable Game Design : A strategy to bring systemic Computer Science Education to schools through game design and simulation creation. ACM Transactions on Computing Education, 15(2), 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1145/2700517

Shute, V. J., Sun, C., & Asbell-Clarke, J. (2017). Demystifying computational thinking. Educational Research Review, 22, 142–158. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2017.09.003