Saturday 17 March 2018

Ready, steady... will coding take off in primary schools?

Retired teacher pushes for computer programming to be built into maths lessons

Teacher Ciara Brennan with 6th class students Stephen Mooney, Hannah Cowap, Hannah O’Brien, Jack Barsoum, Alana Murphy Porter, Amy Doonan, Jack Jin and Alex Coffey at St Peter’s Primary School, Bray, with their Makey Makey Board, which turns them into a ­human piano. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Teacher Ciara Brennan with 6th class students Stephen Mooney, Hannah Cowap, Hannah O’Brien, Jack Barsoum, Alana Murphy Porter, Amy Doonan, Jack Jin and Alex Coffey at St Peter’s Primary School, Bray, with their Makey Makey Board, which turns them into a ­human piano. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

In his first public interview since taking office, new Education Minister Richard Bruton mentioned, in passing, his desire to see computer coding taught in primary schools.

It was no great surprise from a minister with a background in enterprise, who is expected to put a focus on ways to ensure that graduates are equipped with the skills that employers want.

The Irish education system has been slow to use the school curriculum as a way of introducing teens, and younger, to the basics of coding - writing programs for computers - a skill in much demand in today's digital world.

A short course in coding for junior cycle students will be an option in a limited number of schools from September, as part of the wider reforms taking place in junior cycle.

Meanwhile, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) only recently got the go-ahead to begin preliminary work on a new Leaving Certificate subject, Computer Science. In the nature of the work and stages involved in developing a new subject for the curriculum, it will take some years for Computer Science to be offered to Leaving Cert students.

Whether because of, or in spite of, the absence of computer programming on the curriculum for primary and post-primary schools, it was Ireland that gave birth to the global CoderDojo phenomenon.

The movement, which is run by volunteers, started in Cork in 2010 to show young people how to code and develop software in a collaborative setting. It has proved a magnet for 7 to 17-year-olds exploring their aptitude for coding while having a lot fun creating games, apps and websites and, all the time, developing their thinking and imaginative skills.

CoderDojo has gone on to become a worldwide network of coding clubs. At last count, in January of this year, there were more than 877 verified Dojos in 63 countries.

When retired primary teacher Seamus O'Neill heard the minister utter his support for coding at primary level, it was music to his ears. O'Neill has been battling for years to introduce it to primary classrooms.

Now 70, he has been a big fan of computers in schools since he bought his first one for a classroom in 1984, at St Paul's, Navan, Co Meath, where he was teaching at the time

In more recent years, he was quick to see the gap being filled by, and potential of, CoderdDojo and, in 2012, founded a club in Navan.

O'Neill says that in today's world there is a need not only to use a computer, but to be able to exploit it to its full advantage: "It is only a small step forward for children to learn how to write a computer program," he says.

He believes coding is best learned early and explains that it is like learning another language.

He says learning to program supports learning in other areas such as maths, reading and science, and inspires creativity.

For O'Neill, coding should be accepted as part of normal activity in primary schools.

Already an author of a primary school maths book, Mathemagic, he has also written a teaching resource called Ready Steady Code , for use in primary schools.

Ready Steady Code relies heavily on Scratch, a free educational programming language designed at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology to introduce young people to the world of writing computer programs.

Scratch is the most widely taught coding language in CoderDojos. Scratch is not only a programming language, but also an online community where children can share their work

There is a version of Scratch as Gaeilge, and Ready Steady Code can be offered through Irish.

According to O'Neill, Ready Steady Code offers a way of using Scratch to do maths and coding at the same time.

He says: "Teachers don't need to be coding experts to teach it.

"Ready Steady Code makes it easy for teachers to learn basic coding skills and it makes maths more interesting and exciting for children."

O'Neill piloted his concept in a school in England, where coding is on the primary curriculum. The results were positive and he has been unwavering in seeking pick-up in schools in Ireland.

The most recent step in his coding crusade was the launch of a tutor training course at Navan Education Centre in March of this year. Navan is one of 21 such Department of Education funded centres around the country, supporting teachers and schools.

The idea is that tutors trained in Ready Steady Code would, in turn, train teachers who were interested in using it in the classroom.

Many of those who turned up at the tutors' course are former teachers, or people with good IT skills - in some cases people who are already volunteering with CoderDojo. Tutors who successfully completed the course were presented with certificates, and were scheduled for follow-up instruction and support.

After the success of the Navan course, O'Neill says other education centres are following suit.

Even if teachers elect to be trained with a view to supporting their pupils in acquiring basic coding skills, the loaded primary curriculum is likely to provoke questions about how to fit coding into busy class timetables.

Already, Irish primary pupils spend a lot less time on important subjects of science and physical education than their counterparts, internationally, and none on modern foreign languages.

But O'Neill says coding does not have to be treated as a stand-alone subject that would require sacrifices in other areas of the curriculum.

He sees it being integrated into maths lessons and is firmly of the view that using coding as a tool enhances maths teaching and learning.

For the purposes of Ready Steady Code, O'Neill used his own expertise in maths to map Scratch with 80pc of the existing primary maths curriculum.

He is committed to keep "pushing" his project, but says it "needs some pull also", and he is hoping that Richard Bruton has a hand on the other end of the rope.

Pupils tinkle with tech to turn themselves into a human piano

At St Peter's primary  School, Little Bray, Co Wicklow, pupils can use computer programming skills, learned from Scratch, to turn themselves into a human piano.

It is all thanks to a computerised invention kit called Makey Makey, which allows them to use everyday objects - even bananas - as a replacement for the laptop touchpad or mouse.

In the case of the human piano, pupils themselves take on the role of touchpad - and the music begins.

6th class teacher Ciara Brennan is passionate about technology and the school has integrated it into every aspect of school life, earning itself a raft of techie awards over the years, including Digital School of Distinction.

In her experience, most children who develop coding skills do similar processes and activities at home, and she would like to see it in all schools.

Irish Independent

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