Coding in the Classroom

UK launches enormous pilot project at all levels

EDITOR’S NOTE: Coding in the classroom has leapt to the forefront of global discussions of curriculum for the 21st century as schools in the United Kingdom have incorporated the language behind computers into classroom instruction through all grades. This first segment of a multi-part series explores what is happening in the United Kingdom, while the second segment will relate an early local success story on coding in the classroom and the final part will focus on current coding inclusions in Ontario, the Rainbow District School Board and Island schools.

UNITED KINGDOM—Coding in the classroom is all the rage in the United Kingdom these days, with that nation’s educational system incorporating the language of machines (computers and their numerous mobile offspring, tablets, smartphones and even watches, and now even microwaves, refrigerators and other appliances, as computers have infiltrated literally every machine we use today) into the day-to-day instruction in the classroom.

For the uninitiated, ‘code’ is that set of instructions that tell computers how to do the things we want them to do, much like a recipe explains how to create a cake or crème brûlé.

The people who code have many names. They may be called coders, programmers, developers, computer scientists and software engineers. Even bloggers and other online content providers are known to use coding in their work.

Computers, taken in their simplest form, are nothing more than a complex arrangement of switches that are set either on or off. So in order to tell computers how to do what we want them to accomplish, we have to tell them how the switches are to be set. The native language of computers is called binary code, just a series of ones and zeroes. Very few people can work in raw binary code beyond a most basic level—thus enter programming languages.

These languages (like Python, C, C++, Perl, Visual Basic, Java, Javascript, to name just a few) translate our instructions between the language that humans can more easily grasp into the binary code of the computer mind.

There are both low-level and high-level coding languages, with low-level languages almost resembling binary code, while higher-level languages are closer to human languages. Thus learning to ‘code’ is essentially learning a new language, including syntax and other ‘grammatical’ rules that follow efficient paths for computers to understand.

Understandably, the most popular programming languages in use by programmers today are high-level languages.

C is a low-level programming language is popular for graphics-heavy applications, like games, while Javascript is widely used to create programs for the web and Perl, the Swiss-Army knife of programming languages, has a wide functionality. But whichever language is in use, most coding languages have very similar basic features.

A text file written in a particular programming language is called a program (think a set of instructions).

A coding-literate workforce is considered vital to an information/technology-based economy.

The Canadian government has predicted that jobs in the what are known as the STEM fields (that is science, technology engineering and maths) will grow by 12 percent between 2013 and 2022 and that 35 percent of new jobs in the marketplace will be computer science-related.

So encouraging more kids to code has been a cause célèbre for the global technology industry long before it hit the mainstream consciousness. Teaching programming skills to children is touted as a long-term solution to the skills gap that exists between the number of technology jobs coming on-stream and the workforce qualified to fill the those jobs.

The United Kingdom’s educational system has become, as the Guardian newspaper has called it, “the guinea pig for the most ambitious attempt yet to get kids coding,” through recent changes to the national curriculum in that nation. The new coding curriculum being introduced in British schools will now include coding lessons for children as young as five.

This revolution has not come about overnight, as the new UK curriculum was first published in September 2013, where it was lauded throughout that nation’s technology industry. But like the ‘new math’ experiment in Ontario during the 1960s, most parents will be taken aback sitting down to homework that includes algorithms, debugging and Boolean logic. In the 1960s, Ontario parents were baffled (and outraged) when their children tried to explain to them that 1 plus 1 equalled 10 (in binary). It was more than a little too much too soon, and New Math was quickly withdrawn, but remained a handy excuse for parents struggling with their children’s math homework a generation afterward.

The majority of parents of students in the UK have little to no understanding of what the new curriculum entails or why. An unfortunate lapse that hopefully will not prove a repeat of Ontario’s history in New Math.

The shakeup of computer studies in UK schools followed criticism from ministers and technology companies of the existing information and technology curriculum. The education secretary of the day (2014), Michael Gove, outlined the political rationale for the changes in a speech this January when he said “ICT (Information Communication Technology) used to focus purely on computer literacy, teaching pupils, over and over again, how to word-process, how to work a spreadsheet, how to use programs already creaking into obsolescence; about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin.”

“Our new curriculum teaches children computer science, information technology (IT) and digital literacy: teaching them how to code, and how to create their own programs; not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you,” he continued.

Companies such as Microsoft and Google, along with BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) and its Computing at School working group, along with the Royal Academy of Engineering all had a hand in designing the new curriculum.

But the argument for incorporating coding throughout the school curriculum goes far beyond enhancing immediate and future employment prospects. Proponents of the change assert that students will gain important skills in learning to code.

There is more to this than jobs, though. Campaigners argue that learning programming skills benefit in ways far beyond programming jobs, as the basic underpinnings of coding will impact their reasoning much as does learning to play a musical instrument or to speak a foreign language.

“We’re not just trying to encourage people to become developers. We’re trying to encourage children to become creative,” Sophie Deen, head of Code Club Pro, which has been running training sessions for teachers this year, was quoted in the Guardian. “At primary level, it helps children to be articulate and think logically: when they start breaking down what’s happening, they can start predicting what’s going to happen. It’s about looking around you almost like an engineer at how things are constructed.”

“If you teach computing and do it right, you can help children develop their learning in literacy and numeracy,” agreed Bill Mitchell, director of education at BCS, in the same Guardian article, as he cited the example of children using the Scratch programming language to make animations for their creative writing and suggesting that studying algorithms can help their understanding of sentence structure.

“To me, the basic idea of computing is you have to get a computer to solve a problem: you have to come up with an algorithm, a set of instructions,” he said. “If you can do that, it’s a hugely valuable skill whenever you’re working as a team for any kind of project. Also, think about other subjects. When you learn physics, you think about physics. But when you learn computing, you are thinking about thinking. About how thinking works. You have to try to imagine how this computer is going to do something for you. There are lots of transferable skills.”

There are three distinct stages for the new computing curriculum, including the Key Stage 1 (five-to six-year-olds). In the Key Stage 1, children will be learning just what algorithms are, and that does not necessarily need to involve a computer. By learning about the creation of recipes or sets of instructions, students will also be creating and debugging simple programs of their own, developing logical reasoning skills and taking their first steps in using devices to create, organize, store, manipulate and retrieve digital content.

Key Stage 2 (seven-to 11-year-olds) will involve the creation and debugging of more complicated programs, with the specific goal of grasping concepts such as variables and sequence, selection and repetition in programs. Students will still be developing their logical reasoning skills will learn to use websites and other Internet services. At this stage more practice in using devices for collecting, analysing and presenting back data and information will be involved.

By Key Stage 3 (11-to 14-year-olds), as children enter senior school, they will be using two or more programming languages, at least one of will be “textual,” to create their own programs. The curriculum will be flexible enough to allow schools and teachers to choose the specific languages and coding tools that their students will be using. Students will be acquiring facility with simple Boolean logic (the AND, OR and NOT operators, common to programming languages, for example), working with binary numbers (that whole one-plus-one-equals-10 thing) and studying how computer hardware and software combine to get the job done.

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Incorporated at all stages will be the concepts central to computer and internet safety, including how to report concerns about content or contact online.

All this is coming with a hefty price tag—even before the first Boolean is logicked, as the trainers had to be trained. The UK government announced £1.1m of funding for BCS in December 2013 to develop a programme for primary school teachers and another £500,000 fund in February 2014 to help attract businesses to train teachers.

Private enterprise has stepped up to the effort as well, with the Guardian reporting that Code Club secured £100,000 in funding from Google to introduce its own training program in February of 2015 and Microsoft is reported to have invested £334,000 in a partnership with Computing at School to run Back to School training sessions for teachers.

The entertainment industry has also been enlisted in the effort, with coding being incorporated into popular children’s programming.

In the next segment of this series on coding in the classroom, we will explore a local success story involving the ad hoc incorporation of coding and how one man’s love affair with programming was nurtured by a local teacher. That student now makes his living in the industry.