We must follow UK's lead and give children crucial coding skills
Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30
When England introduced the subject of computer science to all of its primary and post-primary schools last year, its policy makers employed a kind of long-term vision that is pretty rare in government circles.
Their stated aim is to equip their children with "computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world".
In employing this kind of vision England joins Israel, Estonia, Germany and Denmark, among others, in formally adopting computer science as a schools subject.
England has gone further by committing to giving every post-primary first-year student a tiny programmable computer so that they can develop the skills needed to create their own technology.
This campaign by teachers, parents and ICT professionals has been a passionate and concerted one that perhaps found its touchstone in the words of Google chairman Eric Schmidt, when in 2011 he accused education leaders in the UK of failing to sustain a centuries-long tradition of British innovation.
In particular, he was scathing in his criticism of an IT curriculum that focused on teaching children how to use software, but gave no insight whatsoever into how it's made. However, just three years later, an education system serving a population of 57 million people responded to the challenge thrown down by Mr Schmidt and began gifting its children with a critical future skill.
Ireland has yet to take such a courageous but necessary step, yet all around us every aspect of our lives is quickly evolving through technology.
Ten years ago, Facebook didn't exist, now it has more than 2 million users in Ireland with Twitter coming close to 1 million, and by 2020 there will be 25 billion devices connected to the internet worldwide.
Ireland's internet economy alone is forecast to grow from its current level of €8.4bn to €21bn by 2020, so is it acceptable that our children end up being passive, uninformed users of technology without having a deeper understanding of how it works?
Millions of lines of code are no different to the DNA or the laws of physics that form the building blocks of our physical world.
Every day, new empires rise up using technology, yet, up to now, we in Ireland have considered it acceptable not to teach our children about this powerful new force for change.
I'm not for a moment suggesting we need to churn out a nation of programmers. But we teach our children other subjects, such as English, maths, science, geography, history and music, so that they understand every facet of mankind's incredible discoveries and in doing so maximise their potential to make their own mark on humanity's history.
Leaving computer science out of that list is no longer acceptable.
It is a subject that can empower our children to gain an even deeper understanding of our modern world and in that process acquire many other complimentary skills that will serve them well through life.
If anyone doubts for a moment whether our children are ready for this evolutionary shift in education I would advise them to visit their local CoderDojo, a free computer science club which forms part of a global network of such clubs organised by committed volunteers. You will see the wonder on a child's face when they write their first computer program and suddenly realise that they are in control of the machine.
You will see children creating their own games in a new digital landscape that they designed.
In CoderDojos across Ireland and in some Irish classrooms with visionary teachers at their helm, our young people have simply begun teaching one another the skills that excite and inspire them.
This December, we can all play our part in passing on these skills to our children by taking part in the Hour of Code, a global voluntary initiative seeking to introduce 100 million students to computer science.
Last year, Ireland staged the second most Hour of Code events per capita in the world.
This year we can be first.
There are superb teaching and learning resources available online at www.code.org.
Here in Ireland, all of our children most certainly have the capacity to master "computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world" if we just give them a chance.
We cannot let them down.
Ciarán Cannon TD is a former Minister of State at the Department of Education and the founder of Excited - The Digital Learning Movement, which partners with Code.org in delivering the Hour of Code in Ireland. The Hour of Code takes place from December 7-13