Coding in Schools?

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Let’s take a deep breathe, close eyes and think about a day without your phone, desktop, laptop and all the digital gadgets that make your life easy, help you to communicate better, help you to present yourself better, entertain you, and what not. Seems hard, doesn’t it?

We live in a digital world where computer programs are the basis of everything from business, marketing, aviation, science and medicine. An article in Irish Independent by Ciaran Cannon states that by 2020 there will be 25 billion devices connected to the internet, three for every single one of us on earth.

The prosperity of every country, including India, will depend upon delivering advanced services and digital technology, computer programs and software are known to be a strong driver of productivity improvements in many fields. According to code.org, an initiative in US, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million jobs in computer science and there is no doubt that these will be one of the highest paying jobs in world.

In a talk, Jeannette Wing, Corporate vice-president, Microsoft Research, said that the technology of strong emerging market, which focuses on using technology to help society and address local rural and urban regions, is one of the reasons for MSR Lab in India. Later, she expresses her positive thoughts about the future of computer science in India with people who will go on to companies, academia, research and produce great technology and do wonderful things for the economy and society.

Considering such digital era, it becomes utterly important for our kids to learn about the computer science and digital technology as much as it is to learn about biology, chemistry, physics or math. Teaching them merely word processing, presentations and the like is not enough as the pupil leaves school without adequate knowledge of how computers work.

This is why England’s ICT curriculum has been criticized. It “focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made,” said Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman (and a director of The Economist’s parent company), in a lecture in 2011, “That is just throwing away [England’s] great computing heritage.”

Let’s ask ourselves that how, in India, are we different? Is it acceptable that our children end up being passive, uninformed users of that technology without having a deeper understanding of how it works? Moreover, in some schools the students are not even made to use the technology, and just have to glance the books to understand the beauty of the subject.

Computer science can empower our children to gain an even deeper understanding of our world and acquire many other complimentary skills. Woven into computer science we also find literacy, numeracy, logic, critical and analytical thinking and deep creative expression.

Algorithm is the abstract way of asking computer how to do a task. The algorithmic thinking helps students to divide a task into different sub-tasks and to understand the concept, considering minute details attached to it, to form instructions and predict what will happen on execution, so that the computer can perform the task effectively and efficiently. It’s one of the ways to develop a problem solving approach in our kids.

President of the Australian Computing Society, Brenda Aynsley, says it’s time schools took the skill more seriously. “It’s the fourth ‘r’ if you like, three ‘r’s’ plus coding, or computational thinking. Coding’s the best example of computational thinking – it’s the easiest one.”

“Learning to write programs stretches your mind, and helps you think better, creates a way of thinking about things that I think is helpful in all domains.” – Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft  

How different countries are pursuing coding?

Considering the importance of coding, many countries are introducing coding in schooling in as low as primary level. A study conducted in October 2014 among 20 European Ministries of Education, found that computer programming and coding is already part of the curriculum in 12 countries: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal and the UK (England). Seven more countries also plan to integrate the topic into their curricula in the future reports School Education Gateway.

In an attempt to get kids to code, UK has made changes to national curriculum, by dumping the ICT curriculum and introducing computing curriculum for kids as young as five. The curriculum was published in September 2013 and will be mandatorily implemented from September 2014.

Michael Gove, outlined the political rationale for the changes in a speech January 2014:

“ICT used to focus purely on computer literacy – teaching pupils, over and over again, how to word-process, how to work a spreadsheet, how to use programs already creaking into obsolescence; about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin.

Our new curriculum teaches children computer science, information technology and digital literacy: teaching them how to code, and how to create their own programs; not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you.”

Estonia introduced coding in primary schools in 2012. In US, initiatives such as Code.org and the “Hour of Code”, supported by organizations such as Google and Microsoft, advocate that every school student should have the opportunity to learn computer coding. Israel has trained one thousand computer science teaching specialists. Tasmania will be the first state to introduce a coding curriculum to the primary school classroom as part of a new partnership between Code Club Australia and the Tasmanian government reports the TechRepublic. Finland is set to introduce a course of study in computer programming to its comprehensive school core curriculum beginning in 2016, including primary curriculum.

“In the last 30 years, computers have changed the course of humanity. Learning basic computer programming skills can help 21st century students regardless of their future career.” – Richard Barth, CEO, KIPP Foundation. 

Computer Science in our context

Considering the evolving pedagogy in computer science, the textbook offered in some schools currently is more focused on topics related to the hardware and the operating system interface of the computer. Chapters like “Hardware supporting the computer”, “Operating System” and “More about Desktop” dictate the present curriculum. There are also chapters like “History of the Computer” and “Common Abbreviations” which though increases the student knowledge about the computer itself, they do not invariably shed light on what the computer can do and how do they work. Moreover, the curriculum cannot even build the student’s critical thinking ability at all as it relies on rote learning.

To add to that, the curriculum discusses aspects like cd and floppy disks, elements that seem distant from today’s computer use. The knowledge provided is thus obsolete and ends up directing the student’s wrongly about the updated use of a computer.

Moreover, there is disinvestment in teaching coding to kids as we don’t want them to become coders. Art is taught in schools with no expectation that the students should become artists. Similarly, not everyone taught coding will become a coder or have a career in information technology. However, being introduced to coding gives students an appreciation of what can be built with technology pushing their thinking and imagination to a higher level.

Irfan

Irfan Lalani is a Program Manager with Teach for India, Ahmedabad. He has previously taught students in Grade 3 and 4 in a low income private school. He has studied Mechanical Engineering before he joined the Teach for India fellowship.  He is extremely passionate about teaching coding to students.

Here are a couple of videos from his class where he used coding and also taught his students how to code: Teaching alphabets, Student made family tree using coding.

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