Decoding Coding in the PYP

Is coding the new literacy for 21st Century Schools? If so, how can it enhance a transdisciplinary program of inquiry?

This past December I initiated our school’s first ever Hour of Code, the global event that introduces coding through games and activities, both online and offline. The Early Years to Grade 5 classes who participated broke through the obscurity of ‘code’ and by the end of their hour, had accomplished the basics of coding and even created a few games themselves. Furthermore, it was clear to participating teachers that there are numerous math strands linked to computer programming, as well developing a growth mindset. As one author for Edutopia quipped:

Learning to code becomes learning to learn. (Dawson, Edutopia)

Coding continues to be widely discussed and researched in educational circles, and this concept appears frequently on reputable educational platforms like the Erikson Institute’s TEC CenterUniversity of Cambridge and Edutopia.

Despite the discussions, evidence, and resources made available, a larger question still lingers for our IB school:

Where does coding fit in the PYP?

The PYP promotes an inquiry-based, trandisciplinary approach to learning. From an EdTech perspective, learning to code is driven by inquiry and the process of learning code address multiple transdisciplinary skills. As EdTech Coach for Early Years (EY) to Grade 1, I decided to investigate this question further through informal action research and in-class support with teachers and students. I armed myself with a set of TTS Bluebots and the newly released resource Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years and began my journey exploring coding in the play-based classroom.

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Chapter 11 of Donohue’s Book explores a study of BeeBots and STEM in the early years and Kate Highfield writes:

These studies suggest that robotics can be engaging for young learners and promote collaboration and problem solving, with tangible interfaces and hybrid graphical-tangible tools enabling participationg by young learners. (Donohue, p. 151)

The first opportunity for coding took place in the EY1 classroom, with 3-year-olds. Since our school adopts a play-based approach to learning, the class teacher decided not to give the children instructions but instead observed them as the Bots were introduced into their construction space. As described in my previous post, initially they were not as interested in using the coding arrows to control the BlueBot movements. Instead they adopted an imaginary approach to making them move (flying, jumping, rolling them etc), incorporating the Bots into their regular play with blocks and other materials. Some children were trying to force the Bot to roll on its mechanical wheels, while others were just happy to leave the Bots alone and build ‘houses’ for it.

After some time, we began to ask students what the arrows were for. Some had figured out the arrow buttons made sounds. Others saw that at some point the Bots could move on their own using ‘code’, yet they had not made a connection to how to control the direction of the Bots. Very quickly, students began exploring ways to make the Bluebots move independently using the guiding arrow buttons.

One student in particular, started to count the number of spaces the Bot would move, and made a connection to the number of times he hit the arrow button. Using the accompanying wooden Bluebot maze, he found a way to count out the number of spaces the Bot needed to move ‘forward’ then calculated how to make it turn and go back the other direction.

After observing the EY1 children and listening to discussions with the teacher, I noted some clear guiding questions that link directly to the PYP Key Concepts. These questions could help frame the introduction of coding & robotics in all Early Years classrooms. For example:

  • How do the BlueBots work? (Function)
  • What happens if we push certain arrows? (Causation)
  • Where else do we use directions and arrows in our lives? (Connection)
  • Is there more than one path for the BlueBot to follow? (Perspective)

These questions were explored further in the EY2 classroom with 4-year-olds. After the initial tuning-in, Ms. Mellen sat her students down and had them tell her what the different buttons meant, and wrote them down on chart paper. Using this as a guide, students were able to refer back to the meaning of the buttons and applied their new knowledge as they gained control over their BlueBots movements.

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Colourful story floor mats and maps were introduced as a guide for building their logical thinking as well as pattern and sequencing skills. Several children decided to copy out their code on paper as a ‘key’ to remember. One child copied the map images to help him remember at which landmarks his Bot should turn or move forward. Children also used Unifix Cubes to measure out ‘one BlueBot step’ and coded their pathways according to the steps.

After exploring coding and robotics with the younger years, we became aware of some key PYP Trandisciplinary skills that were also addressed through this inquiry-process:

  • Thinking Skills: Students are encouraged to analyse the problem and evaluate how to create the code to make the BlueBots move. They acquire new knowledge of coding patterns and apply this knowledge to problem-solve and control the BlueBots.
  • Social Skills: Students work cooperatively together to solve problems with coding and make decisions together to direct the BlueBots through a maze or other path.
  • Communication Skills: Students learn a new language to communicate the movements of the bots both non-verbally (using symbols and arrows) and need to listen to directions and articulate ideas for the BlueBot path.
  • Research Skills: Students formulated questions such as “can the BlueBot get over the bump in the carpet?”; They observed, planned and recorded data through map making, and finally presented data by asking children to follow the directions recorded on the map.

Dawn Mellen, the EY2 classroom teacher writes:

I think the area that I’m most happy about the BlueBots supporting is Research Skills. It is often difficult to document and say specifically what researching looks like with very young children. I think the BlueBot lent itself very nicely from beginning to end with the researching skills we focus on in EY2. From the very beginning when the children set out to explore, form questions about what the BlueBots can do, they had to engage all of their researching skills to be successful at using the BlueBots, getting from one place to another, planning, building cities and tracks, drawing maps, giving oral and recorded directions. 

Furthermore, several PYP Learner Profile Attributes were also developed through these investigations. Below are excerpts from Making the PYP Happen and some examples of how early coding with simple robotics (like BlueBots) can help young children develop these attributes:

Inquirers: They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning.

Much of early learning revolves around finding out through play. Students learn about materials, spatial awareness, patterns and sequencing through investigations with BlueBots. “Interactions with technology may revolve around pressing buttons to see what happens, and exploring the immediate responsiveness of certain actions…Children need a chance to explore and experiment with technology tools before they can be expected to master them and use them effectively” (Donohue, p.72) Young children benefit from hands-on exploration of cause-effect toys like the BlueBots.

Knowledgeable: They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance.

Never have digital tools played such a significant role in children’s lives as they do today. Every day young children are exposed to tablets, smartphones or computers both at school and home. As children navigate the digital sphere, it’s important to provide them with some knowledge of how these tools work, and introducing the basics of coding (sequencing, logic and reasoning using Bluebots) is the first step in becoming knowledgeable about computer science.

Thinkers: They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognise and approach complex problems, and make reasoned decisions.

Through exploring BlueBots, young children have opportunities to make decisions, problem-solve and extend their understanding of number, shape and space. Whether they are measuring the length a BlueBot travels with Unifix Cubes, or creating bridges and ramps with wooden blocks, these children are engaging in complex problem-solving opportunities in addition to key mathematical concepts, all through play.

Communicators: They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively
in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication.

Coding has always been a part of the digital world, but now more than ever, it is shaping the way we think and learn. Young children have the opportunity to take part in this new language that is very current and relevant to them. Using BlueBots promotes collaboration and gives students opportunities to listen to information and express ideas confidently.

Risk-takers: They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies.

Children are faced with different challenges every day. Overcoming failure and developing a growth mindset is important to foster confidence and independence in children. Coding (both online and offline) provides children with repeated opportunities to practice and overcome failure. Each logical step involved when creating code and programming BlueBots provides its challenges and rewards and empowers children to take ownership of their decisions and learn from them.

Since the Hour of Code was first introduced in December there has been growing interest across all grade levels at our school, and it’s been through inquiry-based investigations that we’ve developed a deeper understanding of how best to integrate this new skill and concept into our existing Programme of Inquiry. Several other teachers in grades 1-4 have integrated coding and BlueBots into their classroom. Joe Blaney, the grade 2 teacher writes:

The students in my class have loved accessing the many aspects of our maths curriculum through coding and robotics. It gives the students so many opportunities to develop higher order thinking skills in such engaging ways.

While we do not yet have a coding curriculum for our school, the opportunity to explore coding has given students and teachers a glimpse into the cognitive benefits and transdisciplinary links with the PYP. How does your school address the growing need for coding and robotics in the Early Years and beyond?

Computer programming is not a standalone activity, but permeates about every aspect of society today. Whether that fact excites or scares you, teaching kids to program helps them to actually understand the world they live in. (Global Cognition)


Donohue, Chip. Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning: Tools for Teaching and Learning. N.p.: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Dawson, Gerard. Learning to Code becomes Learning to Learn. Edutopia. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2015.

Embracing the F Word: Using Failure to Build Motivation and Resilience at School.” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2015. <

“Making the PYP Happen.” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2015.

8 thoughts on “Decoding Coding in the PYP

  1. Hi Jocelyn

    This is an exciting view into your school and classroom over what is possible in Early Years education in the area of computer programming. Most people think programming is for older students and is tied to computer screens. Coding is possible for young children and gives them another way to manipulate and interact with their world and their toys. Thanks for sharing your ideas and all the resources.


    • Hi Vivian, Thanks so much for your feedback! We are still learning as we go, since this is the first year our school has even explored coding in the PYP.. and we continue to be inspired by what other schools are doing…like GEMS Etoy:) Next year we hope to have access to some MakeyMakeys so we can extend and provide more creation opportunities, blending coding and ‘making’. Looking forward to learning more together!

  2. Hi Jocelyn,

    This was a great activity, and I was really impressed at what the students are doing. I just wonder if a larger discussion on coding needs to happen. Coding is not the higher level thinking skill — it’s very operational. Do you think that this exercise is more about coding, or programming? The two are not the same, and it’s important to make the distinction, even if these two terms get confused on a regular basis.

    • Hi Pilar
      Thanks for your feedback. I think there definitely needs to be more discussion around coding, especially where in the curriculum it best fits and also what TD skills can be taught through coding-related activities. How does the PYP define and differentiate coding and programming? These plugged and unplugged learning engagements were on-going for several weeks as we explored how these programmable Bots could be used in a play-based environment. I agree that the actual ‘learning-to-code’ is operational (and connects well with several math strands), but with the wide range of online coding platforms (Tynker, Scratch, Hopscotch) and also new tools like BlueBots and MakeyMakeys, higher order thinking skills can be addressed through learning to code. Once students learn the basics of coding (whether through drag-and-drop coding blocks or using arrows on the BlueBot) they can create their own games which address Creation, Evaluation and Analysis. For example, my first to third graders (Hour of Code club) are creating games using the Hopscotch app (drag-and-drop ‘code blocks’) and while they are not learning specific javascript, they are learning that code is needed in all apps and programs and are able to explore and create within this coding app. In Early Years, after learning the basics for programming the Bots, students created their own pathways and designed and built ramps that the BlueBot could travel over. Are you familiar with the Hour of Code site ( This platform gives students agency to independently or collaboratively learn the basics of code while also designing and creating their own games to share with the world. Mark Shillitoe demonstrates the potential of blending coding with Makerspaces at his school in Etoy ( and hopefully one day our school will have the potential to create equally creative & innovative spaces in our school. There is so much to learn and understand about how schools could better integrate coding in the curriculum…I’m interested in learning more on how the PYP will support this growing movement!

      • Thanks for the reply. I realize you may not know I’m the curriculum manager responsible for teaching and learning with technology at the IB, so yeah, I’m pretty familiar with Hour of Code. 🙂 Mark Shillitoe I know personally.

        The reason why I asked the question about programming versus coding relates to specific work I do on differentiating between operational skills and conceptual understandings in technology literacy. “Code” is currently on the buzzword list, and the distinction between coding and programming is lost in part of because of coding has been taken up. Students do not automatically learn the conceptual understandings through operation — that requires guidance from teachers, some of whom balk at the idea of teaching “technology” because they lack operational skills.

        I would like to invite you to our Technology in the IB Basecamp. I really enjoy your thoughts and would like to know more about early years and technology — it’s a place where few practitioners have gone to the extent you have! You will hear from me soon — I hope we continue to have dialogue around these topics!

  3. Hi again Pilar, I’d be honoured to be a part of your Basecamp! We have mutual acquaintances I guess…I also know Mark from the Apple Distinguished Educator Global Institute. I also remember meeting you at the ECIS Tech Conference in March actually, and attended your presentation on the new Role of Tech in the IB Draft document. I will need to review that to see how the PYP defines these key buzzwords:) Look forward to continuing these conversations! You can reach me here:

  4. Hello Jocelyn and Pilar

    Too bad we didn’t have a chance to chat about this “face2face” at the ECIS Tech Conference and drag Mark Shillitoe along! 🙂

    If we want to split hairs, yes we can look at coding as the operational skills. As an illustrative example, we can say that the operational skills of writing would be letter formation, phonics, spelling, punctuation, S-V-O word order etc. But like the operational skills of coding, they don’t happen in a vacuum. The “spelling” is all going towards literacy one day. The “coding” is going towards “programming” one day, which is a subset of Design Thinking.

    I suppose computer scientists (Pilar) balk at our layman (Jocelyn and myself) interchangeable usage of “coding” and “programming” the way we might balk at the usage of “spelling” and “literacy” interchangeably.

    Yes there are differences but I am not too sure that pointing that out at the onset is going to make “newbies” more liable to investigate further. Is it going to make them feel even more intimidated about wading into this unknown territory?

    The two words are being used interchangeably in educational circles, because educators are not in the “know” about the differences, but I am happy that they are speaking about it, at all. I bet I make cringe-worthy mistakes all the time trying to teach coding in my coding club that I am not yet aware of. One day, when I get a classroom, I’ll be messing up teaching “Programming” in my Design Thinking projects.

    I don’t like the way that people talk about coding as a literacy, as if it is like any other foreign language. Coding is a set of instructions. It is far too different from human languages for me to accept that it is a “literacy”. I once tried to split hairs about this on #pypchat (Twitter) but then I changed my mind and accepted the definition of “Coding is a literacy” that the teachers wanted to use, as that was something that teachers have “hooks” for in their brains. If I went into some strange paradigm-talk that they had not ever heard of, they would shut down and decide that coding/computer programming/computer science is not something for them. This is the opposite of what I wanted to achieve. I want them to “get it” enough to venture into it. Eventually, they’ll be faced with the definition of what coding is when they try to define it for their students. They’ll figure it out eventually once they’ve spent some time working with it and being in the environment with it. Whether we’re talking coding or computer programming, the ones that are willing to take “it” on and explore what it means in the classroom will eventually get there.

    FYI: Scratch is great for giving children a place to apply their coding skills to create something. (Hour of Code) is better at targeting specific coding skills and teaching them the vocabulary and concepts that go with the skills. So, Scratch is better at teaching computer programming, whereas is better at teaching coding. Ideally, a classroom would mix the two approaches. It seems that teachers latch onto either Scratch or and don’t have time to look any further. They stick with what they are most comfortable with and that would be the first method they tried. I am always trying to nudge people to try the “other side” and ideally, to incorporate both in their pedagogy. Then…I also think they must try coding in robotics and maker education projects to really “get it”. I have to reign in my wants and expectations too.

    Anyways, I love blogposts like Jocelyn’s as they give newbie teachers a glimpse of what is possible. I am still a newbie myself. I am curious to see what it looks like in other teachers’ classroom and in the Early Years, where it is even more of a mystery to me. Other great blogposts: and


    P.S. Pilar, I haven’t forgotten about the “Agency” story. It might not be ready until summer as I want to write it when I have some time to be contemplative about it. There is a lot going on right now 😉

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