Equipping children with the technology skills to succeed
In many European countries, the technology industry is the fastest growing sector of the economy, creating a huge numbers of exciting jobs and opportunities for young people. Unfortunately the European industry continues to lose ground globally, particularly against the US and Asia, due to the lack of proper investment in the skills and development needed to keep up. According to the US National Science Board, only 17% of EU students take engineering, mathematics and computer science courses, compared with 31% in China and Taiwan. Despite a huge drive by the European Commission to enhance the industry’s prospects, considerably less is invested in research and development than in countries such as Japan and the US. In this context, there is a huge need to equip the next generation to fare better against their peers across the world. At a more grassroots level, teaching computing skills, in particular coding and programming, is hugely enriching for children and can teach a better understanding of the things they are doing in everyday life, and the world around them.
We regularly hear our children described as ‘digital natives’ when it comes to interacting with technology, but their abilities often do not extend to the process of creating or understanding the fundamentals of it. They are lucky that they are natural consumers of digital products, but we need to teach them the systems behind them, otherwise they automatically miss out on the chance to become the next innovators and creators. In one generation, computers have become 100,000 times faster with almost 10,000,000 times the memory than their first prototypes. If we do not teach children the principles that form the basis of all of these fast-paced developments, how can they hope to understand and help shape future innovations?
So what is coding?
Coding is just the first step to understanding the world of computers. Arguably the most important element to grasp is programming, which is essentially creating the structure, process and logic of how we use code (‘instructions’) to build a service or product. Even if our children are not destined to be superstar coders or software engineers (who, by the way, can earn six-figure salaries), teaching programming is vital in fostering the computational thinking that underlies how the world now works.
Because the world is increasingly dependent on all of these processes, understanding coding and programming means understanding the fundamentals that drive most of the devices we are using on a daily basis, for example, playing games on iPads, watching videos on YouTube, reading the news on the internet, playing computer games, or using any of Google or Amazon’s services. What is more, we will only become more connected in the future. We have seen the rise of the ‘Internet of Things’, connecting things in our homes (such as fridges, toasters, and central heating) and in the wider world (including farm crops and medical devices) to the internet through sensors, so that they can be controlled remotely. Technology continues to drive huge advances in professional fields as diverse as engineering, music, physics, archaeology, biology, medicine art and design. In this context, being able to speak (or at least understand) the language of software is becoming as important as basic literacy and numeracy.
Aside from teaching children about the technology they are using and setting them up for a wide variety of career paths, there are other educational benefits to teaching coding. Because the fundamentals of the processes are based on a mix of logic and creativity, learning them inadvertently develops a whole host of other related areas of the brain, such as mathematics, creativity, the imagination and science. Programming and coding at any level of sophistication show children how to break down large problems and devise specific solutions to solve them, and despite how it sounds, can be very artistic. As is the case with learning languages, these skills and ways of thinking are best developed as early as possible, when children’s brains still have a sponge-like quality and they have a natural curiosity for everything.
Although many parents and teachers are increasingly tech-savvy, the generational gap means that many adults today are still forgiven for not completely understanding coding, programming, and may even struggle with using a computer. For most of our lives, many of us have also viewed spending time on computers, playing video games and so on, as activities be rationed, a bit like TV. Nobody can deny that it is right that children should turn of their machines and go and run around outside. However, we need to bear in mind that although the idea of encouraging children to spend more time on their electronic devices may seem a little counter-intuitive, if we can focus their attention in the right direction from an early age, it can be an important part of their education, just like riding a bike or learning to read.
In many schools, coding has become part of the curriculum, which is a very positive step. Many of the previously archaic exams in the subject, such as the A-Level in Computing, have been overhauled and modernised, with teachers improving their skills and encouraging more students to take up after school clubs in coding. Parents groups and non-profit organisations are also mobilising to put pressure on schools to do more to build these skills into mainstream education. There has also been a notable surge in the teaching of robotics, a branch of technology and engineering that deals with the design, construction, operation, and application of robots, which has captured the imaginations of students of all ages. These are all necessary developments to help prepare the next generation to make sense of and have real influence in their professional and personal lives.
Alongside school initiatives, there are a whole host of resources to engage children in coding and programming. Here are some of our favourites:
Scratch – https://scratch.mit.edu – An MIT project designed for kids aged 8 to 16. Used by educators and parents around the world to help kids develop animations, interactive stories, and games through drag-and-drop code blocks.
Codecademy – http://www.codecademy.com – For older children and adults, 24 million users are learning to code interactively, for free.
Kano – http://www.kano.me – Child friendly computers enable children to build a computer and understand the components, without even realising they are learning.
Hopscotch– https://www.gethopscotch.com – An iPad app that lets kids drag and drop blocks of code to create a program.
NCCR Robotics, Switzerland – http://www.nccr-robotics.ch/education_plan – This centre runs a wide variety of robotics workshops for kids of all ages both during the academic year and in the holidays, for ages 4 to 18.
If you need more reasons to get your kids into tech, have a watch of Mitch Resnick’s TED talk on the subject, entitled Let’s Teach Kids to Code, which has over 1 million views. You can find it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/mitch_resnick_let_s_teach_kids_to_code