For more than four decades, the subject of computing has only managed to inspire a small percentage of students. In September 2014, following the realisation that technology now plays a key role in everyday life at home, work and school, the national curriculum changed and required all schools to teach computing to children aged five to16. The intention was to teach children how to problem solve and empower them to become creators of technology, rather than consumers, in preparation for life beyond school.
So, the curriculum was transformed to become more relevant to 21st century students, which was a very positive step. However, the perception of engineering and coding amongst most children - and adults for that matter - hasn’t really changed. Learning to code and create on the web is still generally perceived as being ‘difficult’ and ‘dull’, and is considered to be more appealing to students who are better at maths and science, and not those with an interest in languages and the arts.
I believe the first challenge in addressing this problem is tackling the misconception. Contrary to what most people think, coding isn’t really a subject like maths or science - it’s a tool, which is the by-product of creativity, so it is in fact very well suited to the more creative types!
What students really think
We recently carried out some research with hundreds of students and discovered that the following two things are putting them off wanting to learn computing:
1. They feel that it isn’t creative
2. They believe it’s still being taught in a very similar way to before it was part of the curriculum
So, whilst we’ve made a good start with transforming computing in schools, there is still evidently a long way to go. We also discovered that many of the students learning to code outside of school have chosen to do so, the majority of them are boys, and the biggest drop-off in interest for students is after the age of twelve.
The question is, how do we maintain their interest, and engage more of them? Creating engaging tools and lesson plans, which are specifically designed to harness new skillsets effectively for life beyond school, would be a good start!
Current teaching methods
Let’s look at what is currently being taught in more detail. Most coding tools that are available use Blockly, which is a visual-based programming language designed specifically for children. It uses visual blocks that students drag and drop to write programs and undoubtedly provides a great platform for introducing young children to coding. Should it be the only way though; does this suit every child’s learning style? Absolutely not.
One reason for the sudden drop-off in students continuing with code education could be the huge jump between learning visual-based programming languages (which are designed for children) and learning real, text-based programming languages (which allow people to create on the web). There’s a significant difference between the two: with text-based programming languages, students are required to remember what the instructions are called and be very precise in what they type, such as where to put a semicolon or remembering to include an exclamation mark; visual-based programming isn’t like this at all - it’s extremely simple by comparison.
The bigger picture
Another challenge is the fact that most of the tools that are currently available for teaching coding only adhere to the curriculum, they don’t take into account other needs, such as the influx of digital technology and globalisation, which will have an enormous impact on children.
I firmly believe we shouldn’t just be teaching students how to code - as this on its own isn’t effective - we should be putting it into context and teaching them how to think, collaborate, and become lifelong learners. Ultimately, teaching coding with personal learning and thinking skills is what will offer children a real advantage in our hyper-competitive and increasingly digital world.
We could treat coding less like a standalone subject too, which would eventually result in people thinking of it more like a literacy that spans the entire curriculum – in the same way as reading and writing. A more creative and practical approach won’t just engage more students, it will help to prepare them for their future, and for jobs that don’t even necessarily exist yet.
Solving the problem with kittens!
If we want children to be engaged, it’s important that we focus more on understanding what it is that engages them when creating and selecting educational software and learning resources. In trying to come up with a solution, my team and I created Erase All Kittens (E.A.K.) - a web-based platform game that teaches students, aged eight to 14 to code, whilst leveraging their creativity and critical thinking skills at the same time.
In E.A.K., players can edit the source code that governs the game’s environment, enabling them to build and fix real levels as they play, using HTML and CSS; it encourages students to become researchers, teachers, problem solvers, team builders, writers and designers (and coders!) It’s a tool that aims to inspire and equip students to build their own simple creations on the web, and provides teachers with the opportunity to become the facilitators of independent, autonomous learning.
As a subject, computing has great potential, it’s an opportunity to provide children with an understanding of the world around them, and give them the confidence to think about changing it, in their earliest years. In order to engage young children though, programming needs to be meaningful, which is impossible if too great a focus is placed on just learning the procedural building blocks method.
Perhaps we’re missing a trick, because it’s a proven fact that children learn languages more quickly and easily when they are very young. Why don’t we try introducing children to the real languages of technology when they are younger, in a way that would be challenging and engaging?
To summarise, if we want to inspire children to become creators of technology, rather than consumers of it, it’s vital that we shake up code education and deliver it in a number of different, and more creative ways!
Author is Dee Saigal, CEO, Erase All Kittens (E.A.K.) To find out more about E.A.K., visit www.eraseallkittens.com.