If the Year of Code has got it wrong, how should we teach kids to code?

Experts share their views on the Year of Code campaign and the best way to teach children to code

The government’s Year of Code campaign has been in the line of fire since its launch in early February, with one of its advisors quitting less than a week in only adding petrol to the flame.

The campaign to get young people excited about computer science has drawn much criticism, with its plans to inject £500,000 into computing teacher training to ensure schools are prepared for software coding when the new ICT curriculum starts in September 2014.

Advisor Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Young Rewired State, exited the campaign after she referred to the government’s teacher training plans as a "BS strategy".

With such scepticism surrounding the campaign, Computer Weekly asks those who work in the education sector their opinions on the Year of Code. If the government’s campaign has got it completely wrong, then what is the answer to teaching children to code?

Experimental approach to teaching computing

Pat Nice, chief executive of open source and cloud provider Reconnix, says the criticism surrounding the government’s Year of Code campaign has a lot to do with a generation gap misunderstanding of what coding is today.

“My suspicion is that the bulk of the sceptics are older and see ICT education as little more than rebadged office acumen, like how to use a word processor for example," she says.

“Children today are born digitally native and interact with technology and tablets before they can even talk. We need to get behind such campaigns and stop the negative, cynical sentiments. The perception of coders being bearded men wearing sandals is simply a thing of the past.”

We need to get behind such campaigns and stop the negative, cynical sentiments

Pat Nice, Reconnix

Nice cites the phenomenal success of young Vietnamese coder Dong Nguyen’s Flappy Bird as an example of how someone can code in their bedroom and upload their game to the App Store.: “This liberating ‘do it yourself’ approach shows young people that you can make money from it and a career.

“In the classroom we need to start talking in a new language to get children excited. Children need to see the immediate effect to picture the immediate benefit and, as such, coding programmes like Scratch and Blocker use a graphical coding language that encourages children by enabling them to visualise code.”

Nice says it is almost a sense of re-educating the educators and encouraging a different and experimental approach through the idea of coding as art: “By combining formal and informal methods the curriculum ought to approach coding, and ICT, more like an art class."

“Positioning coders as artists, and programming as painting, students can be taught the skills and given the encouragement to produce individual work, enabling them to see the personal benefit and reward. We must encourage Britain’s young people to innovate and aspire to coding careers, with the same aspiration that people pursue the dream of becoming a footballer.”

Alex Hudson, chief technology officer at Qinec, says: "Year of Code has come in for something of a battering. But it's important to remember that the curriculum surrounding it is a big improvement and encourages kids to think about computing outside of traditional office skills and instead look more at the engineering side.

Year of Code has come in for a battering, but the curriculum surrounding it is a big improvement and encourages kids to think more about the engineering side of computing

Alex Hudson, Qinec

“It's difficult to relate computing to a subject such as maths, for example, where you can say a certain teaching approach works, because unlike maths computer science is at the centre of a whole galaxy of different related disciplines. And that, for me, is what the Year of Code programme overlooks. The curriculum appears to advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, and in my experience that simply isn't the case."

In Hudson's view, the best way to teach kids coding is to activate their motivation. 

“Some children enjoy the logical step-by-step procedural process of just writing code, but others need to be shown how you create things with code to get excited. There is no wrong or right way to teach coding, but there does need to be flexibility and a balance between different learning styles to ensure that all children – not just some – are engaged," he says.

"Children are driven by their own motivations – understand that and you're on the right track to teaching the next generation.”  

Hudson says many organisations have been successfully teaching coding to kids for years in lots of different ways, yet their expertise and experience seem to have been completely bypassed. "That is a real shame as it means the initiative is missing out on a whole range of proven approaches to educating children in coding," he adds.

Gary Calcott, technical marketing manager at Progress, says if the government is serious about making 2014 the Year of Code, it needs to understand that the best way to teach these skills is to give children of all ages hands-on access to programming technology that focuses primarily on ease of use.

“While it’s great to see computer coding being added to the curriculum from this September, it’s important that students aren’t scared off by having to sift through long, complex lines of code in the early stages of their education. The government must ensure that resources are in place to make tools available for children to experiment and make the fundamentals of their computing education a fun, informal and enjoyable experience,” adds Calcott.  

The government must ensure tools are available for children to experiment and make the fundamentals of their computing education a fun, informal and enjoyable experience

Gary Calcott, Progress

Formal versus informal learning

Google has injected £120,000 into Code Club Pro, a programme designed to train 20,000 primary school teachers for the national computing curriculum by 2016.

Launched by non-for-profit organisation Code Club, the programme has teamed up with Google and Computing at School (CAS). Code Club offers informal learning running over 1,875 after-school clubs organised by its network of volunteers.

Stefanie Tinder, software consultant at ThoughtWorks in Manchester, says she supports Code Club because she loves her job as a software developer and wants to inspire young people to “find the little geek that might be hidden inside them”.

“IT can be very intimidating for people who have never had the chance to discover their technical skills and I'm convinced that most people underestimate their abilities in this area. By supporting Code Club, I hope that I can contribute to the children's natural way of overcoming any restraints, should they exist. I can help them to develop their skills without even mentioning scary words like 'future' or 'career'," she says.

“Of course I don't expect that every single one of the children will decide to study programming. I am certain, though, that they will all have got to know their inner geek a bit better!”

Coding versus programing versus computer science 

DJ Adams is an enterprise architect and open source programmer who teaches children to code. He is a consultant for Bluefin Solutions and primarily hacks on SAP systems.

Adams highlights the current hysteria about coding versus programming versus computer science, saying the key skill, or set of skills, we should not lose sight of is computational thinking.

He says computational thinking includes programming, but to him it represents something that is both wider, deeper and less transient than a particular app, programming language/environment/technique or development tool.

“Computational thinking encompasses logical thinking, precision, rigour and creativity. Those last two terms are not what some people might put together, but there is a lot of creativity in what some folk class as a science, and others, like me, class as a craft," he says. 

“With computational thinking skills a person can better get to grips with problems, find solutions, be creative and find expression – all at the same time. And it gives them a fighting chance of not just surviving, but blossoming in the data tsunami that is brewing under the covers of the everyday world.”

Adams, who is a Code Club volunteer and runs his club at Woodhouses Primary School, suggests the Year of Code programme should find a representative who is a coder, programmer and understands computational thinking.

Teaching the teachers to teach

Microsoft recently launched its Switched On Computing programme, which provides teachers with computing teaching materials.

Simon Peyton Jones, principle researcher at Microsoft Research, on behalf of Computing at School, says the best way to teach computing is to support, equip and encourage the computing teachers.

“They are powerfully motivated, and most of them welcome the changes, but we are asking them to do something entirely new and they deserve our unstinting support as they step up to that challenge," he says.

“Organisations such as Raspberry Pi, Code Club, Computing at School, Apps for Good, Hour of Code, Nextgen Skills and many others are drawing on the goodwill and expertise of the tech sector to mount major programmes of support, both formal and informal. This is something that every software professional can and should contribute to. The iron is hot, and we must strike it.”

Support from business

John Pomeroy, vice-president for Northern Europe at open source firm Alfresco, says the government has taken a lot of criticism recently over its new technology curriculum, but points out that when you consider the origins of most technology innovation it is hard to imagine any new curriculum being successful without involvement from businesses.

Businesses should make their senior developers available to visit the education environment to share their personal experiences and explain the rationale behind the recent evolution

Jon Pomeroy, Alfresco

“Rather than finding areas for criticism, progressive companies should start getting involved. They need to act as mentors to the programme, provide a landing pad for students and help schools to identify and nurture talent,” he says.

Pomeroy says the teachers for the new technology curriculum have to undertake vast amounts of training, but he believes there should be a two-way system in place. “Along with the training they are receiving from the government and the BCS, teachers should also have the opportunity to come into businesses to experience first-hand the new programming paradigms and see the new technology development in action.

“Equally, businesses should make their senior developers available to visit the education environment to share their personal experiences and explain the rationale behind the recent evolution.”

Pomeroy suggests students also need the opportunity to experiment with real-world products.

“Open source can play a significant role in this within the new curriculum. Access to real-world products designed for production environments with a significant installed base will enable students to experience a system and coding structure which is already being used by millions of businesses and gives them something real to review, critique and experiment on in terms of enhancement and integration,” says Pomeroy.

Howard Simms, co-founder and operations director at Apadmi, says this year offers a great opportunity for the UK to boost the skills of its future workforce, but that this must be done in partnership with specialist companies instead of relying on teachers to play catch-up with what is happening in the sector.

Apadmi is an app developer, which has designed apps for the X-Factor, the British Museum and the BBC. The company is now involved in the education space by offering coding/app developer courses both in the classroom and to teach the teacher.

Andrew Middleton, director of ICT at Knutsford Academy, a school that has benefited from the Apadmi App in a Day course, says teachers cannot keep up with the pace of technology and this is where companies operating in the sector can bring the latest skills, experiences and technologies to help teachers offer meaningful and up-to-date lessons.

Not everyone is going to be a software developer, but understanding how to write software really helps general problem solving and analytical skills. These are useful to everyone, every day

Jamie Turner, Postcode Anywhere

“Schools have a duty to offer training to bring staff up to date with the latest technologies and trends. This kind of collaboration will give teachers confidence in their own knowledge and enable them to deliver effective learning experiences,” he says.

George Thiruvathukal, member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, says a taste of coding and computer science opens doors to many, especially those who have not traditionally had access to opportunities.

“We should be excited about adding this and other technology literacy into the mix, which presently focuses only on reading, writing, and arithmetic (and some science)," he says.

“Most of the teacher training schools are not yet aligned with computer science education. Many computer science students/graduates would make great teachers, but the path has not been created yet. We mustn’t forget that an entire generation – or two – has not been exposed to computer science, despite gaining the other digital skills (e-mail, word processing, etc) that the sceptics argue for increasing. Without substantial investment in educating the educators – something that goes beyond mere training – there will be challenges in rolling out a computer science curriculum in the UK in the short term.

Building a foundation for the future

Jamie Turner, chief technology officer and co-founder of software company Postcode Anywhere, believes knowledge of a computer language is just as important as a foreign language. 

“I learnt French at school and use it a few times a year, but I use a PC every day." he says. “Not everyone is going to be a software developer, but understanding how to write software (in its simplest form) really helps general problem solving and analytical skills. These are useful to everyone, every day.”

Turner says the best developers start early, with most starting around the age of eight. “It can be taught later in life, but those people always struggle against the early adopters which is why I strongly believe it needs to be taught early at school. It should be fun too – nothing too formal.

The best developers start early, with most starting around the age of eight

“We need to be teaching in the right languages and in the right tools. When I started, computers were simple, but that’s great to learn on and steadily introduce the complexity that we have today. BASIC is a great start – don’t get the kids C++ too fast otherwise you’ll lose them,” he adds.

Robin Ball, head of content at e-learning resources firm EducationCity.com, says he welcomes the new computing curriculum as it will help young people prepare for the 21st century.

EducationCity.com is helping teachers prepare by creating resources that are presented in a clear, transparent way to make learning fun and enjoyable. Through its Code Crunch programming tool children can learn how code is structured before learning how to write their own simple lines of code.

“Coding is like a recipe – it is a set of instructions which, if carried out in the right order, will deliver the desired outcome," says Ball.

“Even though computing is a new subject and some of the terminology is different, many teachers will have taught aspects of the subject before so I think what is expected is reasonable for a non-core subject.”

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