Business Irish

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Invention is the mother of success and it begins in the schools

When it comes to children's education, we don't just need coders - we need inventive thinkers, writes Joe Hogan of Openet

Joe Hogan of Openet
Joe Hogan of Openet

Over the last few years there has been a persistent call across Irish society - particularly from parents - for children to be taught coding.

These calls converge on a request for formal technology training from late primary school all the way through secondary school. Parents, and many in the technology industry, are concerned at what they believe is a lethargic or underfunded Department of Education, disconnected from a vision of the technological skills needed by our children for their future.

These parents' concerns are justified. The technology training in secondary schools is wholly inadequate to equip children for their futures - and slow progress is being made to address the situation.

Ireland needs an urgent and sustained effort to change our approach to science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), with particular effort required in relation to technology. Great technologists combine a pragmatic and methodical approach with creative flair and inventiveness.

Our children need to learn how to analyse technology problems and formulate a solution involving both the right software and hardware.

Given the failings of our school system, it is no surprise that parents are taking their own steps to look out for the children's interests. The popularity of the work of coderdojo.org and internet websites such as 'Hour of Code' is growing exponentially, as they fill in part the gaping hole in the national curriculum.

The efforts of CoderDojo should make the nation proud. We should all acknowledge those activist technologists who give up their time to make CoderDojo work. Their results have been spectacular, in terms of the impact on children and have highlighted the clear latent creativity and ingenuity that exists in our children in a way that our formal education has yet to achieve.

Recreational coding is certainly very worthwhile, but having a structured understanding of a problem and experience in problem solving through inventive thinking is difficult to learn on a recreational basis alone. It takes time, focus, discipline - and, in my view, needs to be taught formally, due to the continuous practice that is required.

Technology in classrooms should involve students engaging in project-based problem solving. Projects should involve a scientific or technical problem. This problem would be first discussed by the class to brainstorm a list of possible solutions, then a deeper discussion on a particular approach should lead to a design and prototype of an appropriate solution.

Project complexity should expand as the knowledge pool in the class grows, but the key is that the students are continuously applying and building on their technical knowledge base.

When each project is complete, the students' verbal presentation skills can also be developed, as there is little value in finding a solution if you are unable to properly explain the original problem. Success lies in being able to explain your chosen approach based on your analysis while also outlining the solution's benefits.

I believe that repeated practice of this approach would lead to a massive shift in the capabilities of students emerging from our education system.

We can't continue just to teach children how to 'use' software and only rudimentary coding skills. We already know from our own experiences that technology has invaded every aspect of our lives, so much so that our understanding of what is 'normal' behaviour today in terms of our daily habits is very different from where it was five years ago.

Remember, it's only five years since the iPad, only seven years since Twitter, and 10 years since Facebook became available. The rate at which society adapts new technology from this point forward will get faster and faster - resulting in a much more profound feeling of continuous change for our children. Within this future society, our children still need to be able to be comfortable with the technology they use, but also to create new technologies, which will help them shape the society they live in. That will only happen if we can equip them from an early age to understand a rapidly-changing environment.

When rebooting technology education, we must not make the mistake of making it entirely mandatory all the way through the education system. Technology should be optional at the senior cycle in secondary school, so students who are not interested don't have technology beaten into them in much the same way that Irish, while mandatory, turned off many students.

Above all, children should be taught - through practice - to use their imaginations, reframe problems, challenge assumptions, connect ideas and think laterally.

We should also be very conscious that there is serious competition from the UK, which last year launched full courses in technology at GCSE and A-levels. They will be our competitors over the next generation - unless we surpass them in educating inventive thinkers. Ireland needs to move up the ranks, not only as a country with an educated population, but also as a country with a deep-rooted national mission to create a technologically inventive pool of talent.

The good news is that things may be about to change, as there are now some very capable people from Irish universities and industry focused on helping put some shape on what should be done, and hopefully they will be listened to. The energy of the CoderDojo movement can be harnessed to ensure that Ireland is able to compete effectively with our nearest neighbour.

The direction we must take is clear - and it must be embraced with evangelical zeal. Ireland's new technology education needs to create a new class of graduate who can identify a technological challenge and come up with creative solutions without being intimidated by the complexity of the task.

If they understand 'how stuff works' when stuff is getting more complex, then we will have created a population of inventive thinkers ready to actively shape tomorrow's world.

Joe Hogan is founder and chief technology officer for Openet, Ireland's largest indigenous software company

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