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Why are we teaching our kids for yesterday, not tomorrow?

Tim van Dijk Co-Founder YOU++


Just 15 years ago when I was in elementary school, we had 5 dusty old computers for the entire school, and they only worked half the time. Today, more and more policy makers, industry leaders, and educators are advocating to teach computer programming as early as compulsory school.

That was the past, and times are changing. Today, in order to remain competitive and spur future economic growth and innovation, it is essential for a knowledge economy like Sweden that the new generation grows up to be digital literates, and the best way to achieve this is by using coding as a tool to teach existing subjects more effectively in compulsory schools.

Vacancies in ICT Sector

The most frequently used argument in support of digital literacy is related to the (future) demands of the labour market, quoting numbers like the European Commission's projection of a shortage of 900.000 ICT practitioners by 2020. Sweden is no exception. Despite its rich history of technological innovation, Swedish technology corporations are forced to look beyond the borders to find the right candidates for their open positions, while at the same time the youth unemployment rate in Sweden is reported at 19.6%, more than three times the overall unemployment rate.

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow - John Dewey

This misfit between supply and demand suggests that today’s students are not adequately prepared for the demands of the labour market, let alone tomorrow’s labour market. Regularly, this problem alone is seen as sufficient reason to stimulate digital literacy among the next generation. However, we should keep in mind that such numbers are inherently volatile, tend to be cyclically sensitive, and hence should be met with a degree of skepticism. As such, my point is that these number tell only a minor part of the story, and the merits of using coding to raise a digitally literate population go far beyond filling vacancies in the ICT sector.

Children Technology

Learn the Rules to Break the Rules

These days, children are born with smartphones instead of dolls. According to a report by the Swedish Internet Infrastructure Foundation, nine out of every ten 6-year-olds are internet users, and at age 15, Swedish children spend an average of 19 hours per week behind a computer screen. But while they interact very naturally with computers, they have no understanding of what happens behind the curtain.

Now a skeptic would argue that they are perfectly able to drive their car to work in the morning without knowing the first thing about engines or transmission systems, and to an extent that skeptic would make a fair point. However, this argument only holds when we limit ourselves to very basic usage of technology, and forever confine ourselves and our children to the digital boundaries set by other people. Our dependence on ICT already far exceeds that of transmission systems; in today’s world, information and communication technologies are just as essential as electricity and water. In order to allow the new generation to actively contribute to such a world, we need them to transform from passive technology consumers into active technology creators. By teaching them the rules, they get to break the rules, escape the boundaries set by others, and shape the world as they imagine it.

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist - Pablo Picasso

Synchronous to bringing creative freedom at an individual level, digital literacy brings technological innovation and economic development at a societal level. As indicated by the EU Horizon 2020 programme, ICT plays an essential role in enhancing economic competitiveness, enabling technological innovation, modernising industries, and improving the quality of life. The more people have an understanding of the intricacies and constraints of current practice, the more people are able to break through the technology frontier and redefine the limits of what is possible.

Digital Literacy versus Coding

Oftentimes, digital literacy and coding are used interchangeably, but it is important to realise that being digitally literate is not the same as knowing how to code. For the next generation to grow up to be digital literates, not every child needs to be a programmer, a hacker, or the lead developer in the next high-tech startup. Digital literacy means to have a fundamental understanding of how computers operate, how technology can be created and controlled, and ultimately how to participate in - and contribute to - our digitised society. Knowing how to code is merely one, rather advanced, aspect of digital literacy.

Coding is to digital literacy what practicals are for science. In biology we have students perform frog dissections, and in chemistry we make them construct erupting volcanoes; not because we want them all to become brain surgeons or build the new Etna in their back yard, but because it helps form a deeper understanding of the anatomy of organisms or the workings of chemical compounds. Similarly, coding is a way to get below the surface level of the computer screen, and form a deeper understanding of how technology works. Digital literacy is the goal; coding is the means. It just so happens that coding is the most accessible, effective, and powerful means.

Technology in the Classroom

Coding as the Catalyst for Developing Transferable Skills

Besides its contribution to digital literacy, learning how to code is the means to a number of skills that are useful in a wide variety of roles or occupations - so-called transferable or soft skills. The essence of coding is computational thinking, the thought process of breaking down large complex problems into smaller digestible parts, and formulating repeatable solutions.

Through computational thinking, coding requires analytical skills, creative problem-solving abilities, logical thinking, pattern recognition, endurance, and precision - all major transferable skills that are invaluable in any career path.

Coding as the Tool for Teaching Existing Subjects

At this point in the discussion, a common notion among the proponents of teaching digital literacy is that computer programming should be introduced as a new mandatory subject, replacing the likes of crafts and languages. However, as much I would have personally liked to trade in German and French for JavaScript and C++ back in school, teaching programming languages as separate subjects should not be the intention. Programming languages evolve and become obsolete, and the exact vocabulary of a specific language is ultimately unimportant.

Instead, we should teach digital literacy as the interdisciplinary matter that it is, and leverage coding as the ultimate tool to teach existing subjects more effectively. Coding enables a type of personalised, formative learning that is unthinkable without technology in the classroom. Imagine Eva, a 6th grader, painstakingly working through her pen-and-paper math exercises. The subject at hand is the coordinate system, and the task is to give the two coordinates that draw a certain point in the figure. Eva thinks for a while, writes down her answer, and… that’s it. It’s not until the next day, when her assignment is corrected by her teacher and Eva has already forgotten all about the question, that it turns out that she actually had it slightly wrong. Now imagine that same Eva, using coding to learn the coordinate system. The task is to give the command in a graphical programming language that draws a triangular hat for the clown’s face on the screen. Eva thinks for a while, types in her answer, and… sees that the hat actually appears slightly wrong on the screen - and not just wrong, but slightly too far to the left. Eva reexamines her code, spots her mistake, corrects it, and tries again.

Children at Compulsory School

It seems trivial, but that little example shows exactly why coding is such a powerful learning tool. Coding provides a constant immediate and formative feedback loop - two aspects that are shown to greatly benefit learning - that is impossible to achieve with traditional pen and paper. Moreover, the limitless possibilities of coding stimulate creativity and curiosity, the trial-and-error nature of programming sparks confidence and self-efficacy, and because the subject matter is directly applied to a visible problem, using coding as a learning tool gives students insight into why students need to learn what they learn.

The Essential Role of Compulsory Schools

So when should we start to use coding as a learning tool? Given its countless advantages, the question really should be when we can start. And the answer is as early as compulsory school. As early as at the age of 7, children reach a critical juncture when they are learning the core life skills, and the low entry level of programming certainly allows some form of coding to be taught at these early ages.

Moreover, the great thing about compulsory schools is that they are compulsory. Any efforts at higher levels of education or outside of school inevitably only reach a particular subset of children, which means we miss out on talent and sacrifice the diversity among the next generation’s digital creators. Compulsory schools gather all children, regardless of social-economic background, gender, or ethnicity, in one classroom, which gives them the unique position to reach the new generation in its entirety.

Technology is Everywhere

The Road Ahead

The road ahead requires a shift towards a modernised compulsory school that fully leverages the power of coding to teach core subjects more effectively while raising the next generation to become the digital creators we need them to be. This shift will not happen overnight, and we cannot put all the responsibility on the teachers. It requires coordinated efforts of policy makers, researchers, and the industry to provide the right regulations and funds, pedagogical content, and resources to assist the educators.

The good news is that in most of Europe the required ICT infrastructure in education is already largely there, with a study carried out for the European Commission reporting that 96% of Swedish students have access to a computer with internet connection in school. The next step is put all that hardware to good use. Countries like The United Kingdom and Estonia are paving the way when it comes to coding in their elementary schools. If we want to keep Sweden the competitive economy it is today, we better follow their example soon…