Coding for All – Really?

For a numberSkerries News September 2016 of years, “coding” has been touted as the next big thing, the skill that our children will need in order to be part of the “smart economy” of the future; the skill that will make our youngsters rich and their parents proud, once they have created that million-dollar app. Coding clubs, so-called CoderDojos, for kids have sprung up all over the world; a number of countries have introduced programming into their curriculum, and in June of this year, the Minster for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, has asked the Irish National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to consider approaches to introducing the teaching of coding in primary schools. But is that really necessary? Is it even desirable?

As a former primary teacher (between 2010 and 2013, I worked in a number of North Dublin primary schools, both as resource and class teacher) and current “digital educator” (a term I may have made up myself, I’m not entirely sure), I can see both advantages and disadvantages of introducing every single child to programming.

When I asked parents and teachers for their opinion, the responses were very varied. Some teachers said it was a great idea, others were highly sceptical. There were parents who most definitely wanted their children to be introduced to programming, and others (including a couple of IT professionals) who were of the view that it is yet one more area in which some children will experience frustration and bewilderment.
One thing that’s for sure is that digital literacy is important for everybody – and now, not just in the future. It is still possible to do things without access to the internet, but we’re increasingly expected to have email addresses, to be able to book flights online, to fill in forms, to find and share information, to use online banking, shopping…. Being able to deal with computers is one skillset that everybody should have, and in my experience it’s wrong to assume that anybody born in this century automatically possesses it. While many youngsters are highly comfortable with keyboards and touchscreens, there are children who find it more difficult to interact with them. And if schools do not offer opportunities to all their students to use computers, then the digital divide will grow.

All-round computer skills (including keyboard skills), understanding user interfaces like online forms, and a basic understanding of what’s safe online and what’s not – those things are central to being able to play an active part in the digital society.

But does everybody need to be able to code? (For me, being able to code means: Being able to create a short program, which could be an animation, a mini game, or a simulation, in a programming language or on a coding platform.) No. Definitely not. But should everybody have a taste of what it is like? Just as definitely: Yes! In the same way that everybody should have a taste of what it is like to make music, including playing instruments and composing. This is part of the primary curriculum – and I hope that coding will be part of it, too.

However, it will put yet another burden on the shoulders of primary teachers. Irish, maths, arts, music, drama, P.E. – is there no end to what they are supposed to be able to master and teach? That is my main worry. When things go well, children will experience coding as a creative outlet for their imagination, an engaging way of using logic and a confidence-instilling pursuit. Let’s hope that the educators who are involved in the curriculum review find a constructive, engaging, and enabling way to do so.

My advice? While we are waiting for the NCCA to come up with a response to the Minister’s request, check out Scratch with your son or daughter. Have a look at some of the tutorials, and have a go yourself. Coding, like many fun things, should not be the left to the young! Why not consider taking it a step further and joining our local monthly coding club for kids aged 7 to 17, Skerries CoderDojo? The next session will be on the second Sunday in October, and we are also looking for new mentors – send an email to coderdojo@skerriesca.com  for details!

Background: Scratch (see Scratch.mit.edu) is a great platform for introducing kids to programming. It was created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Working Group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and integrates a graphics editor with a drag-and-drop coding environment, which can be learned by children from about 7 years up. There are millions of shared Scratch projects by hundreds of thousands of “Scratchers” worldwide, mainly aged 9 to 16. Join them!

This article appeared in the 9 September 2016 edition of Skerries News.

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