Computing our future…

SchoolNet_programming To code or not to code – that is the question that has been debated hotly for more than two decades now in many countries around the world – including New Zealand. 

Like many other countries, New Zealand put all of its eggs into the 'ICT and digital literacy for all" basket from 1990, when the first MoE-funded professional devleopment programmes began. That philosophy has underpinned all of the ICT-PD strategies and spending to the current day – the argument being that ICTs (or digital technologies as they're now being referred to) are a part of everyone's experience, not simply those who are programmers.

This strategy has been reasonably successful in gaining a system-wide acceptance of ICTs within the educaiton sector (although I still come across teachers and schools who see ICTs as one of those 'optional' things for them to focus on!)

As we are now in the fourth decade of having computers in our schools, there's a growing awareness that, as the tide of digital literacy has risen, and we're seeing ICTs used routinely by students in schools across a wide range of contexts to support their learning, simply teaching learners to be users (or consumers) of the technology, without teaching them fundamental skils of creating or constructing with these tools is tantamount to teaching kids to read, but not to write, to listen but not to speak, or teaching them to appreciate art, but not to draw etc.

The simple truth is that while we all marvel at what these new tecnologies can do – someone has had to design, create, build, program and test them. So it makes sense that somewhere in our system we're creating opportunities for our young people to learn skills that are foundational to an ever growing need in our future workforce. 

The UK Department of Education has been working on this for awhile, since deciding to scrap its traditional ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) curriculum almost two years ago. Earlier this year  they announced the coding requirement for schools, and in September they introduced the new national curriculum for computing for all children from five upwards. This is being given a boost with a half million pound initiative known as the “Year of Code.”

Of course, skills for employment are only one part of the reason for introducing such an initiative. This recent report from European SchoolNet emphasises the wider significance of teaching coding and computer science within our curriculum. The report states..

Coding is becoming increasingly a key competence which will have to be acquired by all young students and increasingly by workers in a wide range of industries and professions. Coding is part of logical reasoning and represents one of the key skills which are part of what is now called "21st Century Skills". 

The report outlines responses from 20 countries to a survey where their Ministries of Education gave an overview of their current initiatives and plans. Across this sample of countries it is evident that they see a wider range of benefits accruing from including coding and computer science programmes in schools, including fostering logical thinking skills, coding and programing skills, problem-solving skills, skills for employment, as well as fostering other key competencies.

Papert quoteI was a part of the generation who grew up introducing computers into my classroom under the influence of Seymour Papert, being fascinated with what could be achieved using Logo, and later with Scratch, as well as learning the fundamentals of Basic and later HTML. Finding out what made the computer work the way it did intrigued me, and so discovering that I could create instructions that would get the response I desired seemed a natural thing to do. 

Of course, that's fine for someone like me who has a natural interest in such things. But introducing a curriculum requirement for all schools to include coding in their curriculum begs a simple question, "who will teach it?". In an already crowded curriculum, and with change being naturally resisted by many, this is an extraordinarily big challenge. I noted with interest that even England's 'year of code' initiative has attracted cynical responses when the director of the programme herself revealed that she doesn't know how to code.

I see these issues becoming a big challenge for New Zealand into the future. We are a small country, 10,000 km from our markets, with an economy reliant on the export of primary produce products. Into the future we'll need to put more emphasis on the development of knowledge economy skills, because (a) of the impact of much of our primary produce production on our local environment, and (b) the fact that our traditional export markets are now establishing their own means of supply negating the expense of long distance exports. If we're to heed the challenges of the late Sir Paul Callaghan and others, we need to find ways of appropriately incorporating more coding opportunities within our school curriculum across all age groups. 

As a parent and as a grandparent, I am increasingly concerned that we act now to ensure my kids and grandkids are equipped with the skills, competencies and dispositions they will require to enable them to function effectively in an increasingly digital world – and exposure to the delights of coding and computer science must certainly be considered here. 

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