Republic of Mathematics blog

Codes for kids

Posted by: Gary Ernest Davis on: October 17, 2010

In my experience kids love writing, and trying to crack, secret codes. There’s a lot of mathematics behind codes. You can read more here.

Ben Case, a year 4 class teacher in Littlehampton, near Brighton, England, tweeted on October 13, 2010:

iteachyear4 Ben Case
Any ideas how to switch on a group of 8 year olds in maths who have no interest in the subject. Even adding 1 is a struggle! #mathchat
I responded that maybe teaching them something about writing secret codes and trying to crack them might work. I had worked with my colleague Nigel Smith who taught mathematics to grades 5 through 7 at Twyford School in Hampshire, UK. When Nigel and I planned a sequence of lessons on codes his students were very keen to form teams, writing secret messages and trying to crack those of the other teams.
Just before Christmas break we set the kids the task of writing a reasonably long coded message, long enough so that the other teams would have a chance of cracking them. I explained to the students that in practice, most coded messages were not cracked by intelligence, but rather bu a failure to observe protocol, or by coercion. One of the boys asked me about coercion, and when I explained, he asked Nigel with some enthusiasm: “Sir, can we torture the other teams?”
Maybe code writing and breaking will not work as well for Ben’s year 4 as it did for Nigel’s years 6 and 7. Yet the first steps in coding are simple and fun, and require little more than an ability to count, make educated guesses, and analyze data carefully. With that in mind, here is a first step in coding for kids.

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