Thursday, 23 March 2017

Curly Bracket and the Hidden Code - Computational Thinking for Kids

My kids have worked through Curly Bracket and the Hidden Code, a graphic novel for humans aged 8-13 with embedded puzzles that aim to teach computational thinking. My kids are 8 and 10, so just right for this book.

Computational thinking is the set of skills that you need in order to be able to describe problems in such as way that a computer can solve them. These skills are rather important in lots of aspects of modern data-filled, high-tech life.

I should mention that I have a Maths and Computing degree and a Computer Science PhD and I'm always looking for ways to introduce my kids to computational thinking.

Disclosure: A copy of this book was sent to use for review. As always our opinions are our own.

The Book

Curly Bracket and the Hidden Code is a very nice small format hardback book by Johan Wendt and  Tor Moström with illustrations by Peter Bergting.

Curly Bracket was originally launched in Sweden and a Kickstarter campaign got it translated into English.

The book is in two parts: the graphic novel followed by the problems and solutions for the puzzles that appear throughout the book.

The reading guide says that you can either read the story first and then tackle the puzzles or tackle the puzzles as you encounter them.

The Story

The book is set in a high-tech future where teenagers must pass a exam that determines their whole future. Those that succeed with become coders at CORPORATUS while the rest will be relegated to drudge work. The exam is set in CODOSEUM, a game that the students have spent a lot of time in. We follow the heroine Curly Bracket on the day she takes the final exam.

The Puzzles

The book doesn't actually seem to clearly suggest that children should attempt the puzzles themselves. But I thought that was really important. 

We decided that I would read the story to my kids so that they could both attempt the puzzles at the same time (and me too.) I stopped at each puzzle so they could attempt it.

I found that the story sometimes gave away a lot of hints so I stopped before the hints and got them to work through the problems.

The first problem, summing the numbers from 1 to 100, is actually quite hard without any hints. The solution suggests decomposing the problem but does this by summing the numbers on a dice. I'm not really sure this is decomposition, it's attempting a simpler version of the problem, and in the example one that the heroine has seen before.

My 10 year old struggled with this problem and really wanted to do it the long way.

My eight year old on the other hand made an instant intuitive leap that got him the answer quickly. Not quite a quickly as Curly, but he was slightly mislead by the text which suggested splitting the numbers into two groups. He did this and then solved the problem for each group and added them back together (now that is decomposition!) Each half was harder than solving the problem as a whole!

They both easily understood the solution when they saw it explained.

They sailed through the next three problems, but got a lot of value from understanding the optimal solutions.

The exception being my eight year old struggling with the robot navigation problem because he can't tell left from right. He uses the 'make an L with your left hand' trick but somehow had his hand upside down ... That's my genetics I'm afraid. He solved the problem but a bit more slowly than his older brother.

Aside: I just want to say here that if you struggle to program robots around mazes it doesn't necessarily mean you're bad at programming. It may mean you have poor spatial awareness. (I'm so glad I wasn't exposed to LOGO as a child, it might have put me off computing completely!)

We found that some of the problems weren't actually very well defined. There's a variant of the classic farmer/fox/grain problem which doesn't give you all the rules. My kids have seen this problem so many times that they both wrote down the correct answer instantly but I can imagine that kids who hadn't seen the problem before would struggle to understand what was being asked of Curly Bracket.

My 8 year old was very unhappy with the solution given to this problem. The solution took one more step than he was expecting. It turned out that swapping the contents of the boat is counted as a step in one place but it isn't elsewhere. He wouldn't leave the problem until he had understood the discrepancy.

The puzzles in the second half of the book were quite quick to solve. We were confused by one code-breaking puzzle (though the kids solved it) and it turns out that the image in the problem section is not the same as the one in the story which does make sense.

May be the lack of clear problem definitions is because the authors aren't expecting children to solve the problems, but that seems like a missed opportunity. For some of the puzzles the problem is explained at the back but the solution is on the facing page so kids would see it immediately (I covered it with a sheet of paper!)

Is this Computational Thinking?

The book includes a glossary of computational thinking terms, but they aren't very easy to access for children in comparison to the story and the problems.

My children didn't have the science domain knowledge to access the definition of abstraction so we got side-tracked with science.

The book also gives four steps to computational thinking: decompose, pattern recognition, design algorithm, abstraction. This implies that they are done in that order which they're not.

However, if the question is "does the book get kids thinking in similar ways to those required to get computers to solve problems?" then I think the answer is yes.


This book has a lot of typos and I wasn't always comfortable with the way the vocabulary of computational thinking was used (but it is tricky to get right and I'm not convinced that the vocabulary itself is that important for kids.) Those are minor quibbles though in the context of a fantastic resource to get kids brains working. 

"They need to write books 2, 3, 4, 500 and of course everything in between."

My kids got so much from the book. They had the feeling of exhilaration that I remember from solving Raymond Smullyan's logic puzzles at a similar age. 

They enjoyed the story and illustrations and the setup of having the puzzles embedded in a story. 

When working through the first half of the book my 8 year old said "This is 300 times harder than anything we do in maths at school." (he meant that as a positive thing.) It's a fair point, maths can seem a bit dull if you're good at maths and not exposed to things you find difficult. You can make the depth argument up to a certain point, but I think all kids should be working just as hard as each other. There's so much value in that feeling of working at the edge of your ability. 

My son also said "They need to write books 2, 3, 4, 500 and of course everything in between." A second book 'Corporatus Secret' is coming soon. 

For both of my kids some of the Curly Bracket puzzles actually felt hard (but approachable) which is refreshing for something targetted at their age range. It was also fun. 

I'd recommend that you use the book in the way we did for kids who are confident to tackle the problems. It will be a missed opportunity if kids just read the solutions.

We'd like to see more books like this. 

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