Should we or shouldn’t we teach computer coding in schools? The curriculum is cramped as it is. But there is a growing belief that the 3Rs need to be supplemented with a C for coding. Protagonists say we need to teach more about digital technologies, not just with them.

Universities and industries are screaming out for more school leavers with computational skills. But if you don’t grab those young minds before they hit the age of 12, Professor Tim Bell, director of software engineering at Canterbury University told Radio New Zealand, you may well lose them to other subjects.

Yet the teaching of digital technologies is ad hoc in our primary schools. Not surprisingly, Microsoft NZ’s education sector director Evan Blackman, for one, says that digitech needs to be a core subject alongside literacy and numeracy, given that digitech lessons can open career pathways for young people and benefit other subjects.

The government and the Ministry of Education have also warmed to the idea that we need to at least investigate the “C” and have launched a major review of how digital and computer technology is taught in schools.

Both Blackman and Bell are working with the review, which will also look at the position and content of digital technologies within the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa.

Lesley Hoskin, associate deputy secretary, student achievement, at the ministry, says that it is really important students become digitally literate so they are able to make the most of the opportunities technology can offer.

But it’s a thorny issue exactly what digital education should look like and how it could be built into the already crowded curriculum.

As a result, the review will look at whether the inclusion of digital technologies in the curriculum is explicit, whether it should remain as part of the technology learning area or become a separate learning area, at what level students should begin learning in digital technologies, what learning objectives and content should form part of the curriculum and how we can best support teachers and students – not just now but with a future-focused approach, says Hoskin.

Compulsory coding?

Photo by Annie Mcdougall

Photo by Annie Mcdougall

In particular, she adds, the question of whether coding should be made compulsory is being discussed. Coding gives students the skill of solving real world problems, says Microsoft’s Blackman. “They are the skills employers are looking for: critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. These are all 21st century competencies (needed) to be effective in the modern world.”

Coding is already mandatory in all primary and secondary schools in the UK. But NZEI president Louise Green says: “We don’t support coding being made mandatory. The important issues for us are access and equity, so all students in all schools have equal opportunities to engage in digital learning.” Learning the basics of coding isn’t difficult, even if it might seem like a dark art to the uninitiated.

Fortunately, says Canterbury University’s Bell, teachers don’t need to be software developers to teach the basics of computational thinking. They will, however, need professional development to understand the pedagogy. There are many, many ways to get started. The very first port of call for teachers may be to check out the resources on Pond and “buckets” of information about coding that exist in Pond (www.pond.co.nz). Teachers interested in finding out more can also visit the Code.org website. The non-profit organisation works to make computer science available in more schools world-wide. It has resources for educators.

Hoskin says that the Ministry expects to complete an options paper for ministerial consideration later this year.

There is a global network of free coding clubs for young people. Go to coderdojo.com

Code cracker

Auckland’s Marina View School has been teaching coding for five years. “Children are using the technology, so why not show them how it works,” says ICT teacher Colin Gover.

“It has resulted in a vast improvement in problem solving skills (and) at the end of the day they have learnt skills that could potentially mean a job later on,” says Gover.

The school has found that children who have learning difficulties in other subjects excel at coding. It is a hook for boys who don’t do well in “normal subjects”.

It’s not necessary to be an expert, says Gover. One boy in his class knows more than he does and teaches the teachers. “I am probably a five out of 10 but my job is to get them introduced to it and get them motivated to learn.”

He adds that coding isn’t a boys’ only domain. Some of the girls excel, especially when using programmes associated with 3D printing, robotics and animation.