Using the Coder as a Teaching Tool

The VEX 123 Coder and Coder cards are not only a screen-free means of coding the 123 Robot, they are also a powerful teaching tool in your classroom. Traditional coding methods placed screens between students and teachers, creating a physical barrier to offering immediate feedback. The Coder and Coder cards remove that barrier, bringing teachers and students together in the learning process.


Using the Coder as you would an “Unplugged” activity

“Unplugged” activities and lessons have become a big part of bringing computer science to young students, as they have the ability to “engage a variety of audiences with great ideas from computer science, without having to learn programming or even use a device.”1 There are a wide array of  Unplugged lessons and activities available, but there are some key principles that underlie the approach including:

  • Avoiding using computers or programming
  • A sense of play or challenge for the student to explore
  • Being highly kinesthetic
  • A constructivist approach
  • Short and simple explanations
  • A sense of story2

The 123 STEM Labs and Activities that use the Coder and Coder cards embrace many of these principles, as they introduce students to coding the 123 Robot through active, engaging, cross-curricular, fun learning experiences. Students and teachers together, are able to experience a high level of coding success, in a short period of time, by being able to manipulate Coder cards, and without the barrier of needing to understand a programming language.

The tangible nature of the Coder and Coder cards puts coding into the hands of students and teachers, where projects are able to be designed, edited, tested, and manipulated in a highly hands-on way. Introducing students to coding in this way, like other “Unplugged” activities, “is a promising pedagogical approach, as it gives students the opportunity to design their program away from the computer, rather than launching into writing code before thinking through the requirements of the whole task.”3 By engaging with the Coder and Coder cards in these exercises, students are gaining practice with the ideas and concepts of coding and program design, so that they better understand why projects are constructed the way they are. When they then move on to using a device to code, with VEXcode 123, the programming language is then simply a tool, not a barrier.

Taking Computer Science off the Screen with the Coder

Using the Coder with students, as with other “Unplugged” tools and activities, takes Computer Science off the screen and puts it into students’ hands. In doing so, the Coder and Coder cards give students a tangible tool to share their ideas, as well as a visible tool for teachers to offer immediate feedback. Students aren’t blocked by a screen, and teachers don’t need to navigate around devices to see what their students are working on. Students and teachers alike, can hold up their Coders with projects in them, and from across the room, see if they are on the right track. Phrases like, “Hold up your Coder projects,” or “Show me which Coder card you think you need,” invite students to use the Coder as a vehicle for making their thinking visible.

Strategies for Using the Coder as Teaching Tool

The Coder and Coder cards can be used to support teachers as they seek to offer feedback and monitor students’ progress while teaching with the 123 Robot.


Strategies for whole class instruction include:

  • Using the Coder as you would a whiteboard - Encourage students to load Coder cards as projects into the Coder, and hold it up to show the teacher, while teaching a synchronized lesson. Look to see if Coder cards are inserted in order, in the correct orientation, and following directions right away, and correct problems quickly and easily.
  • Using the Coder cards in call and response - Encourage students to hold up Coder cards, in or out of the Coder, in response to questions like “Which Coder card do you think we need first in our project?” or “Which Coder card will make our 123 Robot move 2 steps?” Use both the words and the icons on the Coder cards to see if students are following.
  • Using the numbered slots on the Coder for step by step directions - When giving students direction about building a project, use the numbers on the Coder slots to guide them. Saying things like “Put the Drive 1 card into slot 1” or “Put the next card into slot 3”, lets students follow along and identify Coder cards in their project by number, without the added pressure of reading the Coder card itself.

Strategies for facilitating group work:

  • Using the Coder and Coder cards for helping students plan projects - Encourage students to share their project plans using Coder cards, and ask them questions about the order of those Coder cards to carry out the desired 123 Robot behaviors.
  • Use the Coder to test projects frequently - Encourage students to test their projects using the Coder often as they are building them. Testing can occur after each individual Coder card is added, so students can see exactly what the Coder card makes the 123 Robot do.
  • Use the numbered slots on the Coder for clear feedback - When helping students build or edit projects, you can refer to Coder cards by their numbered slots. Saying things like “Try replacing the Coder card in slot 5 with this one”, or “Take a look at the Coder card you have in slot 7”, gives students a clear direction to focus their attention, setting them up to be successful, without just fixing the problem for them.

Strategies for differentiating instruction:

  • Use only the Coder cards that pertain to the project at hand - When distributing Coder cards to students, do not give them all fifty of the Coder cards at one time. Instead, give only the commands that are relevant to the project at hand. For instance, if coding the 123 Robot to follow a path on the Tile, only give students the 'Drive' or 'Turn' commands, and none of the Control, Looks, or Action commands.
  • Use Coder cards as part of your scaffolding while teaching - As students successfully complete a coding challenge, offer additional Coder cards to encourage them to iterate or add onto their projects. Distributing Sounds and Action cards can enable students to add robot reactions to their project, while giving out Coder cards like 'Drive until object' let students explore sensor feedback in an engaging way.
  • Use different Coder cards for different groups - To help keep all students engaged and appropriately challenged, distribute different Coder cards to different groups to best meet their needs and development. There are multiple ways to solve a coding challenge, so while some students use a sequence of 'Drive' and 'Turn' commands, those ready for an additional challenge can incorporate commands like 'Drive until object' or 'Turn random' into their projects to learn more. 

Note: Strategies for using the Coder in the classroom are also offered in the Background information section of each 123 STEM Lab Unit.

Coder cards are designed to support early and pre-readers

Each Coder card includes words and images to make them “readable” for young students, across a range of literacy levels. This is useful to ensure that all students can be successful with coding the 123 Robot using the Coder, and also lends itself well to differentiation in teaching. For younger students, teachers can call attention to the icons on the Coder cards during instruction, saying things like “The ‘When start 123’ Coder card, the red one with the green arrow, always goes first.” As students get older, or are more proficient readers, teachers can refer to Coder cards using only the words, to reinforce those literacy skills.

Using the Coder and Coder cards to support remote or distance learning

Just as you would use the Coder and Coder cards as a teaching tool for in person classes, many of the same strategies can be used to support remote or distance learning.

  • If students are 1:1 with VEX 123, and have their Coders and Coder cards at home - Have students send images of their Coder with the projects loaded to you to share their work, or ask students to hold their Coders up during streaming class time.
  • If students do not have materials at home, but the teacher does - Give students printable or digital Coder card images to use to create their projects, then share those projects. The teacher can then start the project and show the class during streaming class time, or take a video to share with the students.
  • Use 123 Activities for students as out of class assignments in a hybrid setting - Students can plan their projects at home, and test them upon returning to school.

1  Bell, Tim, and Jan Vahrenhold. “CS Unplugged ——How Is It Used, and Does It Work?.” Adventures between lower bounds and higher altitudes. Springer, Cham, 2018. 497-521.

2  Ibid.

3  Ibid.

For more information, help, and tips, check out the many resources at VEX Professional Development Plus

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