What helps girls enjoy their first steps in coding?

05 August 2020

Katharine Childs takes a look at some gender differences in tinkering with software and hardware and how this influences beginner coding activities.

Imagine that an unknown piece of software has just been installed on your computer. How would you go about finding out how to use it? Would you look in a manual for instructions and guidance? Or would you play around with the features on screen and click on a few buttons to see what they do? The second approach is often described as tinkering and, in computing, this refers to the idea of exploring new hardware or software to find out more about how it works.  

Tinkering is often associated with the idea of developing a growth mindset in learning because it provides learners with the opportunity to try out different ideas, iterate and improve them, and persist until they find success. Many introductory programming environments such as Scratch and ScratchJr have been designed to encourage playful exploration and learning. It’s not surprising that many starter coding activities include time to tinker, but, significantly, not all learners will approach the idea of tinkering with the same set of values.

What is tinkering?

Tinkering is a type of independent learning which involves playful and curious experimentation with new hardware or software. Purposeful tinkering contains elements of prediction and logical reasoning, where learners can anticipate what something might do and then try it out to see if they were right. More than working towards a ‘correct’ answer though, tinkering also inspires creativity and invention by learning new ways of problem solving.

The Barefoot learning resources, which are used for unplugged computing lessons in primary schools, define tinkering as one of several key computational thinking approaches to learn during beginner coding lessons. Learners are asked to develop a mindset of trial and improvement and adopt a willingness to ‘have a go’. Similarly, other structured approaches for teaching computing such as Use > Modify > Create and PRIMM begin with an exploratory phase where learners complete tasks which investigate example code. The tinkering skills which are developed can then be used again when learners need to debug their code.  

Gender differences in tinkering

Research has found that there are significant gender differences in students’ tinkering behaviours. In general, girls are more likely to prefer to follow instructions, whereas boys display less conformity with rules and are more competitive as they explore new learning environments. Boys are also more likely to describe themselves as a ‘tinkerer’ and to relate this skill to computer hardware or mechanical objects than girls. On the other hand, girls’ tinkering is often more purposeful and exploratory, whereas boys demonstrate a tendency to overestimate the effects of their experimentation and may need to start again. The reasons for these differences are not yet well understood, but may be because of gender differences in perceptions of the reasons of tinkering; where girls see tinkering as an open-ended activity without a specific purpose, boys find that tinkering can improve or customise hardware/software.

Using Scratch as an example, I’ve observed gender differences in the way that learners tinker with the blocks of code. Girls tend to explore by examining blocks for their functionality and comparing one block with another. Whereas boys are more drawn to pushing the limits of the blocks, for example, changing a ‘Move’ block so that the sprite moves a million steps. Both these approaches are valid and have helped learners work out how to use blocks in Scratch to create code and make projects.

Gender equity in tinkering

Given the gender differences in tinkering behaviour, introducing a new piece of hardware or software with the instruction “Have a play around with it and see what it can do”, is unlikely to be effective for all learners. Here are some ideas of how tinkering can be embedded as an approach in computing lessons.

  1. Model tinkering skills in the classroom: Whether you are running a computing lesson or another activity using technology, phrases such as “I wonder what this button does?” or “I think this menu option might help me find the undo command — yes, it does” show students how to test their ideas and turn uncertainty into discovery.
  2. Provide a more structured approach to tinkering: In the same way that scientific experiments are conducted by making one change at a time, it can be useful to encourage learners to make simple changes to their code and observe the results. The Barefoot computing materials (registration required, but free to use) include specific lessons on tinkering with hardware such as Bee-Bots, and software such as ScratchJr and Kodu.
  3. Encourage collaborative tinkering skills: Sometimes students can lack the confidence to try new things in case they make a mistake or break something. Encouraging learners to work together with a carefully thought out plan of pairings can create an environment of mutual support and reassurance to explore code.

Learners are inevitably going to be introduced to new hardware and software as they move from primary to secondary school. Introducing positive tinkering behaviours in introductory coding activities can help both girls and boys develop their ability to playfully and purposefully explore when they encounter something new. This, in turn, can spark a mindset of innovation and creativity where students feel comfortable with change and can produce innovative, real-world solutions with computers.

Try it yourself

This is a 10-minute activity to explore your own personal preferences when tinkering.

  1. In a web browser, open Tinkersynth.
  2. Playfully experiment with the interface. Think about what you are drawn to, and how you are interacting with the new environment.
  3. Ask friends or family to try this out too. Ask them to explain out loud how they are tinkering. How does their approach compare with yours?
  4. How can you take what you have observed into the classroom to help your learners tinker?

Read more about it

Krieger, S., Allen, M., & Rawn, C. (2015). Are females disinclined to tinker in computer science?. In Proceedings of the 46th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. pp. 102–107.

Resnick, M., & Rosenbaum, E. (2013). Designing for tinkerability. In: Honey, M., & Kanter, D. (eds.) Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators. New York, Routledge, pp. 163-181.