Ideas to engage pupils with coding


With coding a part of the new computing curriculum, we asked some young coders from the Young Rewired State initiative for their advice on how to engage students with code. First, Ruth Nicholls focuses on the challenges ahead.

Young Rewired State is a not-for-profit organisation which hosts events for young coders around the world. It is also a worldwide community which equips them with a powerful support system, helping to foster their skills and enabling them to learn from each other. We work with thousands of young coders each year – so we know there are huge numbers out there who are well-versed with all aspects of programming already.

However, there will inevitably be a significant proportion of students who will have never touched a piece data or written a command in their lives.

This poses a huge challenge for teachers delivering the new curriculum: how can they use the existing ability of the self-taught programmers in their classes (whose programming skills may well exceed their own) but keep all kids engaged in the classroom whether they are beginners or digital natives?

I am worried that the introduction of coding into the classroom could put off those who have already begun learning it themselves if they are offered no challenges and no freedom.

What enthuses many young coders to continue developing their skills is that programming is not just asking questions and discovering the answers, it can also be about defining the answers. With a shortage of digital skills, we want to make sure that the students who have already found their way to the bleeding edge stay there.

At our annual Festival of Code we introduce kids who code to peers who share their interests and task them with teaming up to build apps, websites or algorithms over the course of a week. The only rule is that their project must include one item of open data. 

Our experience of running this event is that all of the young coders, no matter what level they start at, are able to rapidly improve existing skills and learn new ones through engaging with peers, mentors and free resources – and crucially through learning by doing.

It is education from back to front: they start with an idea and then take responsibility for finding the tools they need to make it a reality. This light touch approach manages to keep even the most advanced engaged because they’re applying their skills at their own pace.

While we don’t profess to specifically teach code, we have spoken to a number of our young coders to get their views on the prospect of coding at school and how they would like to see the new curriculum implemented. Some of them have been part of our community for years and some are on the cusp of their digital journey with us.

Use our imaginations

James, 14, is currently in year 10 student studying the new computing curriculum. He has been part of the Young Rewired State community for a year and has attended the Festival of Code in 2013 and 2014.

“I’d like to see schools using their pupils’ imaginations in the teaching of computer science. I’d recommend letting students implement personal elements into their projects. For example, if they are being taught how to make websites then let them make a website about a topic that’s personal to them, or if they are being taught how to make a game then let them choose their own graphics.

Simple things like that are what make students more engaged in their computer science lessons, in my opinion. Something that I think really disengages pupils is having them sit in front of a computer and copy out each line of code one by one, without any thinking by themselves. I prefer it when students are given a hint and a point in the right direction and encouraged to solve the problem themselves.

My suggestions for teachers would be to keep students engaged by using different platforms to teach computing. There are lots of web-based services that can be used to teach computing, such as Codecademy. There are also lots of sites that teach program through methods that can also be fun for students, such as making characters move on the screen by programming different commands.

Finally, I’d recommend introducing students to a device like Raspberry Pi as they are really great for beginners to code on and there are lots of cool things students can do on them, like Scratch and PyCraft.

Something that I would have liked to have seen in the classroom up until now would be less of the traditional teaching of programming, such as teaching students how to build a calculator in a programming language or making programs that print out lyrics to nursery rhymes – both of which I have done at my school. Computer science teachers, in my opinion, should teach their students about modern computing ideas such as programming with APIs (application programming interfaces) and programming for the web, rather than just making desktop applications.”

Make it simple and relevant

Sailesh, 16, is a developer who has been part of Young Rewired State since 2012 and attended every Festival of Code since then. He uses Python for his back-end code and is proficient as a web designer.

“I got involved in coding when I realised that code could help me make my life easier by doing things like finding out common multiples of numbers and creating a countdown to my final days at school. I would say that the only way to engage younger students in coding is to make it relevant to their lives.

The whole idea of big, complicated algorithms will put-off younger students, so I would teach them how to make something which they will use each day – like a part of the school website or an app to help fellow students with school issues.

I would advise that you get your students into small teams and get them to work on a programming project of their choice after they have learnt how to code to a workable level (i.e, they shouldn’t need your help to create a variable or print a statement). 

This will cement their knowledge as well as improve other skills like teamwork and communication. It will also show them that coding requires a degree of self-learning and research.

For students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, I would recommend the use of Scratch because it is a colour-coordinated language and doesn’t require typing so there is no barrier to coding.

I would have liked to have seen a bigger emphasis on technology as a whole in all classrooms – not just in ICT/computing lessons because, as cliché as it sounds, technology is truly used everywhere and its presence will only increase, so it makes sense to teach children how to write programs as well as how to use them.

Let them follow their interests

Jonathan is a back-end developer who is in year 10, and has just started his GCSEs. He has been part of two Festival of Code events.

“My interest in coding started off by trying to understand how computers worked “under the hood” and it slowly progressed into wanting to create bigger and better ideas for the things we use every day.

Up until now, it would have been great to see more interest in the workings of IT and more teachers willing to help students to go the extra mile in following their interests. 

I think that showing exactly what you are capable of building using code is integral to getting young kids engaged with coding – showing off what they could do with a little time and effort goes a long way.

In terms of practical suggestions, never overcomplicate explanations. Keep it short and concise, but make sure you come across clearly and with a good grasp on the point in hand. Finally, too many students drop off IT because they think it conforms to the ‘nerd’ stereotype and that needs to change if we’re going to encourage the next generation into this industry.”

Focus on why it’s important

Joana joined us this year for her first Festival of Code. She is a 13-year-old web designer who has also set up a coder “dojo” in Oxford.

“I had the best time creating whatever sparked my interest, with unlimited help and guidance along the way. I felt so proud of myself when I saw the app working and that’s what started me off.

Nobody understands just how cool and necessary coding can be, that’s what I want to see schools put across. Once-a-week lessons where students are forced to create a basic webpage about school is not good enough. Students need fun, active lessons where they can try lots of different projects and see that coding is relevant for any job they choose. Ultimately, I think it is important that schools put across the message that coding is cool, creative, useful, and not that hard once you know the basics.

If I was teaching code to lower secondary school students, I would let them choose whatever topic they wanted, with one rule like ‘it has to use open data’ or ‘it should connect to school’. It is also important to let students work in groups so that they can get creative together and learn from each other. Give students information about websites where they can find (and give) help as well, and in lessons give them the time to be able to share what they have done.

Finally, I would have at least a double lesson a week, you can’t really keep stopping and starting a project. Bring on the new curriculum!”


It is interesting to see some of our young coders have had very recent experiences of learning coding at school, and it is true to say that we too have found that giving them this creative freedom has played a major part in their love of coding and, in turn, their success. 

This non-prescriptive approach has helped some of our coders to come up with the most outrageously brilliant designs, which are real solutions to the real-world problems they are facing every day, rather than pre-set solutions with pre-set outcomes. 

We really hope this will translate into the classroom in the years to come.

  • Ruth Nicholls is MD of Young Rewired State. 

Further information
Young Rewired State is an independent global network of kids aged 18 and under who have taught themselves to program computers. It hosts an annual Festival of Code. The next event is due to take place in August 2015. Visit
CAPTIONS: Scenes from the 2014 Festival of Code, which brings together young coders to learn from one another and develop their skills


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