Tuesday 17 September 2019

In code we trust: The benefits of giving your children a head start in coding

Many parents are trying to give their little ones a head-start in tech by sending them to coding classes, with waiting lists of hundreds in some parts of the country. But is it too much too young - and should the Government heed calls for it to be included in school curriculums?

Tech savvy: Ciara Brennan shows her fifth class students at St Peter's primary School in Bray, Co Wicklow - from left, Kayden Clucas (10), Dominik Bessler (10), Dylan Fitzpatrick (11), and Shannon Hopewell (10) - how to code
Tech savvy: Ciara Brennan shows her fifth class students at St Peter's primary School in Bray, Co Wicklow - from left, Kayden Clucas (10), Dominik Bessler (10), Dylan Fitzpatrick (11), and Shannon Hopewell (10) - how to code
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It has become an everyday activity for kids, like going to swimming classes, football practice or ballet lessons. Every week thousands of children go off to computer coding classes.

Their parents may hope that the programming clubs, often facilitated by the voluntary group CoderDojo, will give them a headstart in life, propelling them to a highly-paid job with a dotcom - even if the mothers and fathers are not quite sure themselves what coding actually is.

"Everyone should learn how to programme a computer, because it teaches you how to think," Apple tycoon Steve Jobs insisted 20 years ago.

And it seems parents have taken the message to heart since CoderDojo was set up as a charity five years ago. The multi-national movement, which was set up in Cork, has provided free classes in coding for more than 70,000 people, both in Ireland and abroad.

Kids aged seven to 17 sign up to a Dojo, where they can learn to code, build a website, and create their own apps and games. Often they teach themselves or each other, and the adult volunteers simply act as facilitators.

In some areas, such as Dun Laoghaire in South County Dublin, there are long waiting lists of up to 300 kids for coding classes.

Now, there is a clamour for coding to be taught in schools from primary level upwards, and there are calls for a fully-fledged computer science subject at second level.

Big computer companies such as Google, Intel and Microsoft want Ireland to copy the example of Britain and turn computer coding into a significant part of the school curriculum.

"The US and the UK are quite advanced in introducing computing and coding in schools. It is seen as giving them a competitive advantage. Computing and coding in schools are an attribute that companies will be looking at when they are making long-term investment decisions," says Paul Sweetman, who represents the tech industry as director of ICT Ireland.

"Other countries are stealing a march on us and companies are noticing this."

In schools in England and Wales, kids are now taught to code from the age of five, and computer science is part of the curriculum for students aged five to 16.

Education Minister Richard Bruton has asked Ireland's curriculum planners to consider coding classes for all primary schools.

Coding is seen as the key to a brave new world, but some sceptics wonder whether forcing it onto the curriculum is just a faddish nod in the direction of the tech economy with little educational value.

Should our schools be led by the needs of tech giants in terms of what they teach?

Teachers wonder whether it should be added to an already crowded curriculum in primary schools, where maths and English have to compete for time with religion, Irish, science, and creative arts, and other subjects can be squeezed out.

Publisher Norah Casey, who used to be an ambassador for CoderDojo, has no doubt that coding should be taught in schools.

She first brought her son Dara to CoderDojo classes at the Science Gallery in Dublin when he was 10, and believes he grew enormously in confidence as a result.

"When you look at what kids are being taught about computers in schools, it is light years away from what the CoderDojo kids themselves are doing - it's almost like they're in a different century."

So what is coding all about? Coding, in simple terms, involves telling a computer what to do through a string of typed instructions. It could be anything from the instruction "print 'hello world'", to developing the code used for logging on to Facebook, withdrawing money from an ATM, or even blasting a rocket into space. All rely on instructions developed by a coder or programmer.

Smartphones, laptops and tablets are everywhere, but how many of us actually know how their apps and websites work?

"For my son Dara, learning to code took the mystery out of how things work, but it also helped him to be more creative," says Casey. "Because he knew how to code, Dara could do animation and develop his own games. He ended up building his own computer."

The point made by the publisher, that schools sometimes seem as though they are working in a different century, seems like a valid one.

The current primary curriculum in schools was launched in 1999 in an era before Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, iPhones and iPads. Google had only just been launched the previous year.

While the technological world is in a constant state of revolution, the education authorities move at snail's pace in devising what should be taught in schools. By the time they have planned their curriculum, it may already be obsolete.

However, some Irish teachers have not waited around to introduce the subject in their classes, and have moved ahead themselves in teaching kids to build computer programmes.

They often use a simple coding programme called Scratch.

Using Scratch, children may move a cat called Felix across the screen, using simple commands. Children customise the background and the cat's appearance, and select its activity by putting blocks in sequence.

At St Peter's primary school in Little Bray, Co Wicklow, teacher Ciara Brennan gives lessons in coding. In a typical experiment on a Wednesday, pupils are using computer programming skills, learned from Scratch, to turn themselves into a human piano.

Brennan does not believe that coding should be introduced as a separate subject at primary level, partly because of the enormous time demands on teachers," she says.

"I am more interested in taking the principles of coding and applying them to other subjects.

"We have done it here with music and maths. It can be a very useful way of teaching problem-solving.

"Many schools are passionate about bringing this into other subjects, because the children are already doing this in their spare time - it could be at CoderDojo classes, or informally themselves at home."

At Lacken National School, Co Cavan, pupils learn coding and are able to use these skills to fly mini-drones around the room.

"They have to use code to make it work. The kids jump right into it, because of course they want to fly a drone," says resource teacher Tony Riley.

"We are helping children understand how the world around them works. Coding is part of that, it prepares them for when they leave school. There are going to be numerous jobs in the future where they are going to need to have coding skills or design skills, or other creative skills."

One problem for teachers, particularly at primary level, is that they are preparing their pupils for a world that it is impossible to envisage, given the pace of changing technology.

"We don't know what is going to happen beyond a certain time. We need a populace that is as broadly educated as possible, so that they cope with the issues that confront them," says Shane Bergin, professor of science education at UCD.

Professor Bergin believes the education system only rewards a narrow range of skills.

"Giving kids the opportunity to do things like coding is as important as giving them the opportunity to play on a sports team, play in an orchestra or do art."

However, he has mixed feelings about industry getting involved in what should be taught in schools.

"I would be cautious about letting industry dictate too much the curriculum that should be used in schools. Our current Government has a view of education that is driven too much by the market."

While he has reservations about tailoring the curriculum to the needs of industry, Prof Bergin gives credit to companies such as Intel and Google for pressing for reform in education.

Minister Bruton may hope to introduce coding into the curriculum, but school principals could face a tough job trying to implement it.

Multinational tech companies frequently complain that they cannot find staff with the right programming skills. If schools try to teach computer and coding curriculum, they are likely to face the same problem in trying to find qualified staff.

"Schools will also have to have the resources and equipment to be able to do it, and in many areas the lack of good broadband is a huge issue," warns Professor Bergin.

Coding may be the word on the lips of ministers as they try to keep up with the cool kids on Silicon Docks, but, in many ways, the cultivation of the creative arts in schools is just as important.

A study published last month by the Economic and Social Research Institute found that Irish children who participate in artistic and cultural activities at the age of nine perform better academically by the age of 13. These activities could include painting or attending classes in drama, dance or music.

"The findings clearly show the positive emotional and educational effects of taking part in artistic and cultural pursuits," says Dr Emer Smyth, who carried out the study.

Dr Smyth believes children should not only be delving into the digital world, but also engaging in the physical activities of painting and drawing.

Professor Bergin says: "The creative arts should be a crucial part of our education system, but usually they are the first thing to be cut."

It now seems likely that coding will be part of the curriculum in the future, but the Education Minister will have to ensure that enough teachers are properly trained and classrooms suitably equipped to make it successful.

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