I love open ended problem solving with my classes.

I once gave my year 5 class the integers 1,2,3,4 and set them the challenge of using each number once, with any operations they chose, to get the biggest total. I asked them to do this as a 10 minute filler before we went to assembly. It turned into a furious competition that raged on for the rest of the following week, to the point where it became the subject matter for the following assembly!

I watched in glee as my pupils (who had by now formed 5 opposing arithmetic armies) justifiy their answers on stage by unraveling toilet roll sized paper strips covered in numbers.

I thought I’d hit teaching and learning gold and so excitedly presented the same challenge to my new class the following year. ONLY this time, I had made a small unit of work out of it.

They spent 10 minutes having a go and then… looked up with complete disinterest and said

‘I have my best answer, what should I do now?’

‘What should I do now?’

This is basically child speak for ‘I have completed the task to simply pacify you, so what is the next learning punishment you have lined up for me?’

The search for the holy grail of teaching tasks continued…

This however does not detract from the fact that open ended problem solving in subjects, such as maths, give pupils a limitless possibility to take something as far as they want to go. I think it’s differentiation through outcome at its finest.

For me, coding, is one of the best vehicles I have seen for open ended problem solving in the classroom ever. The way the pupils can create a game, a simulation or even retell a story in as little or as much detail as they feel necessary is mind boggling!

How about instead of showing pupils the solar system, they create it? Once they have figured out how to make the moon orbit the Earth and then worked out the distance to the next planet and got that to orbit too, that knowledge will stick like glue.

They are also solving mathematical problems within the code they write to make sure there are no catastrophes such as the Earth hitting the sun; which nobody wants. Before you say anything by the way, I know the sun is too close on mine but I think it looks pretty.

How about them retelling the story of Rosa Parks and her struggle for equality in the form of a computer game, as displayed by one of our Discovery Education Ada Lovelace competition winners? (Jason, Age 11 – Horsell C of E Junior School, Woking)

How about them creating a water cycle simulation in geography? Tell a new version of Jack and the beanstalk? The list goes on and on.


Unfortunately, this brings me onto an observation from the thousands of school’s I regularly visit. Coding is becoming pigeon holed into discrete lessons and delivered by one ICT competent teacher. This means that the cross curricular approach can be just lightly touched upon or lost altogether.

I understand why. A lot of teachers are not feeling confident enough with coding to teach it and are not given the time to experiment. I have to say though, with the programs that are available now, it’s never been a better time to give it a go (the solar system example has only two lines of code).

So before we hand all the fun and pupil engagement over to one teacher, let’s make sure we understand the potential of how it can support topics across the curriculum and see what level we, as teachers, can access coding to support our topics.

Anything new like this takes professional development to fully exploit the learning opportunities and we shouldn’t let something with so much potential, take a back seat. After all code is everywhere and the fact is that it isn’t going away. You wouldn’t be reading this without it.

James Massey is an Educational Consultant for Discovery Education and an excitable teacher, global educational speaker, change instigator and hopeless optimist. James has a Masters degree in Educational Studies, and a passion for research based, modern-day learning that works.