Why we should teach kids to code

What’s coding, and why is it such a big deal? Mike Hansen explains.

Coding has become a hot topic in education over the last few years, with the announcements and commitments by the Ministry of Education to strengthen technology learning in all schools across New Zealand by 2020. The purpose of this change and emphasis is to ensure that all students can develop into digitally capable individuals. There will be a greater focus on schools on students building skills, so they can be “innovative creators of digital solutions, moving beyond solely being users and consumers of digital technologies.”

 

Why is coding being taught?

Coding encompasses computational thinking, systematic reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills. The teaching of these skills to children will encourage them to become more innovative, creative, and adaptable to new developments and technologies as they emerge. Once coding has been mastered, students can construct, explore, experiment, evaluate, and draw conclusions with technology. The Ministry of Education believes that “Coding helps to create our digital world and as our world becomes more digital, coding is becoming more of an in-demand and employable skill.” Just as typewriting and the use of calculators were introduced to schools previously, coding is taught to prepare students for their future.

 

How is it being taught?

There are multiple platforms and languages that can be used to teach coding. These are considered by schools and educators and chosen based on the school’s context, expertise, and resourcing. In the end, however, coding, or computer programming, is simply giving a computer step-by-step commands to tell it what to do. This can include making websites, games, and apps, or controlling robots and drones.

As with learning anything new, real-life learning is a practical way to begin to understand the world of code. A learning experience often used with young children or those new to code is to code without any technology. This simply means creating a list of step by step commands that somebody can follow. For example, making a piece of toast requires the maker to follow a specific set of instructions or commands. If you follow the commands correctly, you will be successful in creating a piece of toast that is cooked well with spread of your choice. However, if the steps are not in the correct order or not specific, you may find that your bread has been buttered before it has been placed in the toaster, which will not end well. Key learning from this will be to look back at the code and “debug” it, and correct the steps through experimenting.

Unplugged coding or coding without devices can include coding a classmate or family member through a maze or through a task giving specific commands like left, right, forward. This allows learning to occur without any barrier to resourcing or distractions that devices can bring. csunplugged.org is a great resource for a range of coding challenges that do not require any software. These are great for preschoolers as well as any learner new to coding. There are an abundant range of basic coding apps and websites available that cater to different age ranges and provide instant feedback to the user. Some tried and tested apps and websites include: Box Island, HOPSCOTCH, Daisy the Dinosaur, Scratch, Tynker, Khan Academy, Code.org, and CS Unplugged.

 

Advice for parents

Ideas and concepts that we do not understand can be intimidating. Coding and technology fall into that category for most parents, as you were not taught it at school and it's foreign to you. An open-minded approach, however, is the most effective. Your children were born into a world with instant access to information, media, and resources from the internet; they understand how to navigate devices and phones as they are freely accessible to them and somehow natural to use. The best advice is to embrace coding and computational thinking with your children. Encourage your child to problem-solve, create, innovate and begin to understand step-by-step commands. At home, set out a maze around the house or on grid paper and have your child write down the steps or “inputs” needed to navigate it. Begin using games on websites and apps that are fun but indirectly teach coding concepts. Coding is a method of thinking that is used to teach a range of crucial skills which can be applied and adapted in a range of situations in the future. Coding is moving students away from only being users and consumers of technology to the creators and innovators of our future.

 

Mike Hansen is Prep School Principal at Scots College in Wellington.
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