Going Beyond the Code: Getting Kids to Think Like a Developer

Three elementary school teachers explain how they created an engaging and dynamic project that empowered students to build future-ready skills.

By Grayson McKinney, Zach Rondot, and Amanda Oliver

“Never again is someone going to pay you to give them answers they can look up online. They will only pay you to solve problems that don’t yet have answers.” Let this powerful reflection, courtesy of Seth Godin, sink in for a moment. The purpose of education is shifting. Rote memorization of facts and figures is a bygone necessity. In order to survive in the real world, fulfilling the requirements of jobs that may not even exist yet, we need problem solvers and problem finders… students who can recognize a problem and design a possible solution.

Giving students this kind of opportunity is not always an easy feat, but during this past school year at our school, we took this shift in pedagogy to heart. Our goal was to provide opportunities for ALL our students to connect to their learning in a meaningful and passionate way. To do this, we sought to leverage coding and computational thinking skills to empower our students to own and deepen their learning, giving them yet another avenue to become lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and productive contributors to our global society.

We turned our 4th and 5th-grade classrooms into deep-learning laboratories centered around coding and app design, thus creating the “Costello Developer Academy”. This program was established to give students the chance to experience the design-thinking process and get to know some basic coding principles. Their task was to recognize problems, take action, and share their learning experience with others.

This driving question was posted in our classrooms and referred back to often throughout the academy: “How can thinking like an app developer lead to solving problems and making a positive impact on the world?” By framing the question like this, and early on in the process, it gave context to all of the coding activities that our students would undertake. We challenged them to be content creators - not just consumers - who could add something of value to the world around them through their unique app development ideas.

Next, we took our students through four simplified stages of the App Design Cycle:

  1. Brainstorm
  2. Plan
  3. Prototype
  4. Evaluate

In the Brainstorming phase, students developed their sense of empathy and stepped inside the shoes of a person or group of people in the world who may be experiencing a problem. By answering three simple questions, “Who is your app for?” “What will your app help people do?” and “How will your app help them?”, our learners were able to develop their app definition statement. Having a clear goal for helping a discrete group of people helped to narrow the focus of their design efforts. Below is one example of a group’s definition statement:

In their planning, they began to plan how their app would solve their defined problem. Students thought about what information or content their app would need to be pre-loaded with. Designing an app to end world hunger? Developing an app to help predict severe weather and other natural disasters? They would need to have knowledge about these global issues in order to be able to solve them!

Students used the app Keynote on their iPads to create a prototype that looked and functioned like an actual app. By creating on-screen buttons and using the built-in hyperlinking features of Keynote, students could design their prototype so that different buttons would lead to different pages. Creating linear slideshows is one thing, a relatively low-level task on the SAMR spectrum, but by asking students to plan the flow of their app with multiple pathways of links to follow created a significant opportunity for students to think multi-dimensionally, with links functioning like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, sending their user to various screens or external sites. The students loved this and it definitely made their creation feel real.

In the evaluation phase, students passed their prototype creation to peers and let them work their way through the app. Many times, students found broken links or “bugs” to report back, which gave them all the chance to practice debugging like a real coder. We also reached out to the High School AP Computer Science teacher who had been working with his own highschoolers all year to create and code actual apps. He brought his students to walk around our classrooms and provide feedback to our young developers on what they created. This was another way to make it real for our students and provide more opportunity for connection and collaboration.

Showcasing to an Authentic Audience
Finally, the big day had arrived! Part of our classroom philosophy is that we firmly believe in giving our students as many opportunities as possible to present their learning to authentic audiences. We invited our Superintendent, Board of Education members, district technology leaders, as well as our district’s media department to take pictures and document the big day.

We started out by inviting a select number of students from our 4th- and 5th-grade classes to give an opening keynote address. We asked them to share the process we had gone through to get to that point, so that our outside guests would have some background knowledge of all the learning that had taken place up until that point. They shared the process, owned the learning, and started the expo off on a high note.

Next, developers headed off to their stations, where they had their iPads displayed for passersby to try out their apps while they explained the thoughts behind their creation. They also had created a poster version of an App Store “review”, in which they had classmates review their app, give a description of the purpose, and recommend an age for the user, based on the social media “features”, such as texting, that they included.

This project was completely worth the time it took in the end and we would do it again next year. The principles that were elevated through our developers' academy such as knowledge, skills, and agency will help our students become empowered and adaptive workers. We want them to be able to shape the world around them, and not just be shaped by it. Through our Developer Academy, we helped kids learn coding concepts, learn how to create prototypes through the design thinking process, and then discover that they can use all that to make a difference in the world. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Check out some of the students' final creations:
Goal Post
The Recycler

About the Authors:

Grayson McKinney is a 5th-Grade Teacher in Michigan, an innovative educator who uses new pedagogies to deepen learning, enhance creativity, and create opportunities for students that would not be possible without taking a few risks. He is a dynamic presenter who loves connecting with teachers to grow his Professional Learning Family. You can connect with Grayson at his blog, innovation4education.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @GMcKinney2.

Zach Rondot is a passionate 4th-Grade teacher in Michigan, a frequent blogger and conference presenter. Zach was recently named 2019 Elementary Teacher of the Year for Troy School District and Oakland County. He is a dynamic presenter who has been featured at various educational conferences, universities, and Edcamps over the last five years. He loves connecting with teachers around the world to grow his Professional Learning Network. Connect with Zach at his blog, ZachRondot.com, on Twitter: @MrRondot, or on Instagram: @ZachRondot.

Amanda Oliver is a 4th-Grade teacher in Troy, Michigan. She believes in creating a classroom environment where students are able to learn through creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking! Amanda attended Michigan State University as an undergraduate and earned her Masters in Elementary Education from Oakland University. Connect with Amanda on Twitter: @Mrs_AOliver.


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