Adventures in lawnmower assembly language

Today I put a lawnmower together (I know, go me!). It was a job I had been putting off all week because I dreaded something going wrong. But today, the sun was shining for once, and I couldn’t procrastinate any longer. As I was sitting there looking at bolts and washers and grass boxes, I got thinking about how this is how many teachers will be feeling at the thought of teaching coding as part of Computing PoS in the new National Curriculum.

Are there parallels between learning to put a lawnmower together and learning to teach coding? I think so! Here we go …..

1) Have a picture of what the end result should look like – I found it to be an enormous help to have a picture of an assembled lawnmower on the box. It gave me a goal to aim for, and a reference point of where each part might fit. In the same way, when you are first teaching coding, it helps to have a completed script to refer to. There’s no shame in having a finishing point to head towards – though unlike a lawnmower which only has one way to be constructed, you might find there’s another way to code your end result.

2) Start with something easy to boost your confidence – The first part of the lawnmower I assembled was attaching the handle to the grass box. it took me 20 seconds and was hardly rocket science. But I did the first step successfully and that gave me the confidence to move on. Likewise, when teaching coding, start simple, both in concept and in language. Get a sprite to move or to say something on screen. Play a sound. Make something grow or shrink. You’ll start to get the hang of it and feel like you can achieve more.

3) Focus on one step at a time – It’s all too easy to do something and at the same time be worrying about what’s coming next. It didn’t help me with the lawnmower one bit. I had to concentrate on the part I was assembling, and make sure I was doing that correctly. Similarly if you are whittling about a complicated bit of coding coming up, you are more likely to make mistakes on the section you are doing currently. One thing at a time and do it well is a good mantra to follow.

4) Be patient and be positive – I confess, first time around I attached the lawnmower handles the wrong way. When I make a mistake, I can choose how to react. I can get angry, downhearted and negative, or I can take a deep breath, work out where I went wrong and put it right. My code doesn’t always work first time either, but there is always a reason why. I will only find the reason if I react positively. If I can’t work out why the code doesn’t do what I expect, this might also include talking to another teacher, being part of a forum or having the patience to step away from the code and come back to it with a fresh perspective.

5) Adapt to the unexpected – Something went wrong outside my control. I was sitting outside and a breeze sprung up. My precious lawnmower instructions were about to be blown away just as I was in a fiddly moment of trying to screw a bolt together. A well-timed stamp of the foot caught the paper and saved me from a chase round the garden. Any coding which involves computers is also open to the unexpected – power cuts, websites being down, equipment not working, and I’m sure you can think of more! However, not all teaching coding involves the use of technology, so research “unplugged” lessons and have a couple up your sleeve just in case.

6) Don’t celebrate too soon! – Finally another confession: once I’d put the lawnmower together, I got up from a crouching position excitedly, banged my head on the lawnmower handle and the lens dropped out of my sunglasses. I was a bit premature in thinking that my task was done – of course I then had to test the lawnmower to make sure it worked. It’s just as easy to crack into a broad smile once you’ve completed the final line of code but of course, that also needs testing to make sure it works. If it does, you will be as satisfied as I was with my neat and tidy lawn!

For anyone about to teach coding for the first time, I’d just like to encourage you to go for it. Follow some of the tips here for a smoother experience and take a few chances. Don’t let the fear of what might go wrong be a barrier – together we can overcome the problems!



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