Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft education series of blogs.

On Friday 5th July, was I fortunate to be at Microsoft’s Thames Valley Park HQ when the eleven teams of young finalists of the UK’s first KoduKup competition presented their games to the judges . It was an inspirational occasion that captured the respect and admiration of all the adults who were there. The event itself is well described in the various enthusiastic blogs recording the details -- the brilliant teams who came first, second and third, what they won (cool stuff!) who the judges were. There’s this Teachers’ Blog with some great images. Also on the Schools Blog and this personal and enthusiastic account by teacher Nicki Maddams (@GeekyNicki) who worked on the organisation of the competition and was a judge at the finals.

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Reflecting on Creativity

I’ve had a little more thinking time, than those early bloggers, which gives me the opportunity to reflect on some of the wider issues around Kodu in general, and the KoduKup in particular. So, for instance, having spotted Jan Webb, ICT Consultant with the ICT Association ‘NAACE’, at the event, I called her next day to collect her own take on what we’d seen and on Kodu itself. For her, yes, it was about programming, but she was at least as interested in the wider aspects – creativity, cross-curricular work, innovative ways of learning.

‘Kodu’s a really creative way of addressing some of the meat of the national curriculum. It helps self-directed learning, but in a supported way.’

Jan was particularly interested to see how the teams had explored possibilities, prepared both to tackle obstacles and go around them.

‘One of the most powerful things that one of those children said was that they weren’t afraid of getting things wrong. Now that’s an important message about creativity and computing -- that it’s OK not to get it right first time. That’s what computer programmers do’

That word ‘creativity’ constantly crops up in any educational discussion. To many teachers, though, it sounds off-puttingly vague. ‘OK, I have to be creative. But what do I actually have to do when I go into the classroom?’

What’s needed, of course, is a framework, a starting point. That’s what you get with Kodu, which begins with the creation of a world. That’s always going to be a winner for children. When I was at school, my headteacher told my mother that I was too often in a world of my own. But don’t all children yearn for other worlds? To be able build one with Kodu that’s your own, different from everyone else’s, is the start of a big adventure because your world then becomes the setting for your own story. It’ll be a great story, too, with tricks, traps, frustrations and bits that make you laugh. You can build it on your own, or you can work with your classmates. On the way you realise that no project proceeds calmly from start to finish. So you will argue about it, change it, chuck it out and start again if needs be, and then yell and high-five each other when it finally works just as you wanted. (Well, almost anyway)

Broadening the Reach

Think about that, and it becomes clear that Kodu can reach across the curriculum and to all children. Talking to ICT teachers at the KoduKup Final, I found some who are already in contact with other subject leaders, because it’s difficult to think of a curriculum area that couldn’t be enhanced by Kodu– geography, English, science, maths, history.

Importantly, too, Kodu is inclusive. At the KoduKup final we saw young people from early primary school to the top of secondary, girls and boys. Children with special needs were there, too, although the judges didn’t know that. Why should they?

The event was won by a team of girls – ‘Artemis’, from Afon Taf High School In fact the gender balance of the whole event was hugely encouraging for anyone keen to see computing and gaming demolishing the ‘male geek’ stereotype. ‘Artemis’, in fact, showed a wonderful ‘geek’ image to illustrate that point, and were able, without banging a drum, to get that message across by building into their presentation their wish to inspire more girls to enter the gaming industry. They made a point of asking the judges about this.

Engagement, passion and commitment

Whatever the results of the competition, there’s no doubt that Kodu is a winner with students and teachers. ‘There are no behaviour management issues,’ said Ingrid Noland, ICT teacher at Walthamstow Academy. ‘Except when you tell them it’s time to stop.’

And Stacey Freeman, teacher at Barlows Primary, says,

‘They love it to the point where they asked us how to get it at home, and a lot of the ones who have internet access have downloaded it.’

In fact the typical pattern for a KoduKup team is that they will have worked on Kodu in class, and then taken it forward out of school hours, either in a club or at home.

‘They’re often back in my room at lunchtime,’ says Ingrid Nolan.

So here’s a bona-fide, core curriculum resource that children want more and more of. Clearly the challenge is for teachers to catch that tide and make it work not just for computing but for learning as a whole. Stacey Freeman of Barlows Primary encourages children to run development diaries of what’s gone well in their games development.

‘They start to ask ‘what if?’ questions. We’re trying to develop them as problem solvers not just to learn to programme for computer science.’

It Really is about Coding

At heart, of course, Kodu is about programming – ‘coding’, using a highly accessible visual language. For many teachers that’s going to be the number one reason for looking at it, given the requirements of the revised National Curriculum. Stuart Ball, Microsoft’s Innovative Teachers Programme Manager, who displayed his teaching roots by hosting the KoduKup final in finely judged, learner-centred style, makes the point that Kodu isn’t in competition with other programming tools.

‘But there’s no cost involved, and it offers some features that perhaps others don’t. The learning curve for teachers isn’t very steep, and learners adapt quickly to it.’

The evidence is, though, that Kodu users really are learning, almost without realising it, some fundamental coding principles. Stuart finds that higher level students and programmers easily see that.

‘When I show it to graduates they’re blown away, and wish they’d had it when they started, and say that it will bring youngsters into the industry.’

I had first hand confirmation of that in the encounter I had during the event with Tom Morris, who’s just graduating in computer games technology from John Moores University. Tom, who has been working with children at Barlows Primary School in Liverpool, told me how impressed he was with Kodu, how he’d seen children becoming ‘code literate’, and reaping other benefits, in maths, physics and general problem solving and communication skills.

‘If I’d been able to use it when I was younger it would have improved my skills. I started programming at eighteen and it was difficult to grasp. It’s like learning a foreign language -- if you start young, it’s easier.’

That said, Kodu isn’t just for people who are going to go into professional coding. We live in a world where everyone comes into contact with computer software, and to have no inkling at all of what’s involved is to be at a disadvantage whether as a consumer, a customer, a participant in a meeting, a worker briefed on a new task.

‘It’s a broad church now,’ said judge Gary Carr, Creative Director at games studio ‘Lionhead’, when I interviewed him before the event, ‘Part of everyday life.’

That’s Kodu, then – potentially adding value across the whole curriculum, preparing young people for life, work and leisure.

The KoduKup journey, though, introduces an extra dimension, a set of new, very 21st Century skills and challenges, to do with teamwork and presentation. The task for the teams was to present their game, ‘Dragons Den’ style, to the judging panel as if to a potential publisher. When I spoke to Gary Carr he was looking forward to seeing how the children met what to him seemed a big challenge.

‘It’ll be interesting. Developers are not necessarily comfortable with presenting. They can be quiet, introverted, thinking about stories.’

But these developers, of course, were children, free from too many inhibitions, and though some of the younger ones had to find reserves of courage – which they did magnificently -- all of them stepped up and performed and were warmly congratulated. They used imaginative blends of video, live talk, mock-interview in a way that should have made some of the teachers and professional presenters in the audience feel a little uncomfortable.

Finding the right tune

I found myself frequently replaying the KoduKup Final in my mind over the following days, because I knew there was a familiar feel to it. Then I realised what it was.

For a number of years I was a regional and national adjudicator with the National Festival of Music for Youth (NFMY). So many of the messages from that superb event, I realise, were – are – similar to those that were in the air at the KoduKup final. There’s the finely judged combination of competitiveness, good-hearted mutual support, and celebration. Most striking of all, there’s the humbling realisation, in both cases of just how limitless are the capabilities of our children, given the right balance of guidance and freedom, and space to grow. Just as music provides a framework for sublime acts of creativity so a programming language opens up similarly boundless possibilities.

‘We Could Do That’.

I don’t want to push the analogy much further, but I will make one further point, which is that the NFMY, which began in quite a small way in 1971, has grown to the point where it involves 60,000 young people aged 4 to 21 across the UK each year. On the way, it’s created a mighty rolling ‘We could do that!’ effect across thousands of schools and teachers and millions of young people. There’s no doubt that the KoduKup competition will grow in the same way if it becomes annual. Currently, not enough people know enough about Kodu, or about the KoduKup. There’s no doubt, though, that as time goes on they certainly will. Any teacher or school leader – and, more to the point, any student -- who observes the work of the entrants, whether online or at an event, is going to say, ‘We could do that!’

And there are, of course, lots of reasons why they should.

You want to know how to ‘do’ creativity? Look no further.