Coding allows students to develop an understanding of being able to use, and create with, digital technologies

If you have been involved with the education sector for the last 12 months or more you would have heard the call to have all children learn coding. The publicity has stretched far and wide and coding education has even become a part of the political sphere and things are only just getting started.

Why coding? We know that today’s students live in a technology-saturated world. Emerging technologies are changing education and the world as we know it but while many students (and, in fact, adults) often know how to use technology, rarely do they understand how it works. Think for a minute about the things around you, how was it built? How did it transform from an idea to reality? How did it get to you? Somewhere along that chain, computer science was involved. Did you know that Ikea’s “Billy” bookcase does not come into contact with human hands in manufacturing? The entire factory operation runs 24/7 and is facilitated by machines and robots with employees there to simply feed materials into the machine and then take out the packed boxes. With over 25,000 bookcases being built a day, this operation could not happen without coding.

Digital disruption is transforming both the manufacturing and service industries, and in order to future proof our economy and workforce changes need to begin now. The skills students develop when learning to code will enable them to participate in this future workforce, where flexibility, agility and entrepreneurial thinking will be at the forefront of many careers. It is indeed possible that the jobs today’s primary school students will have in the future, do not even exist yet.

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So What Exactly Is Coding?

Coding, or computer programming, is the way people command and communicate with computers and machines. It can be described as the process that people take to design, write, test and debug computer programs. Coding in education is about understanding the process of how a computer works.

But what about coding and learning? When we discuss the thinking involved in learning to code it is imperative that teachers are familiar with the work of Seymour Papert. Papert was one of the designers and inventors of Logo, an educational programming language that was built in the 1960s. Logo is based on the work of Piaget (with whom Papert worked) to allow students to think and solve problems in a play-based environment. Papert likened these environments to ‘microworlds’ describing them as a place where strategic thinking and powerful ideas can be developed.

Papert’s work on coding and learning also identifies that while students are developing their programs they are constructing mental processes and patterns of thought used to make sense of information. This process, Papert coined as Constructionism. Constructionism is similar to what we know as the Constructivist learning theory in that learners construct knowledge and make meaning through experiences, however, in Constructionism the key difference is on knowledge being built by the learner making something tangible and sharable.

When Papert said, “I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge…” it is easy to assume that the logical thinking, problem solving skills and meaning being developed when students are creating through code is a step in the right direction for education and students in today’s world.

There is more to learning to code than just recalling a set of symbols and commands. More than 20 years ago, Steve Jobs famously said, “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” With that in mind, it is fitting that any new digital technologies curriculum should be designed for students to develop a deep understanding of systems thinking, design thinking and computational thinking. In fact, coding should just be one part of a new curriculum that endeavors to allow students to develop an understanding of being able to use, and create with, digital technologies.

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For coding education to be a success it is important that teachers are developed, empowered and trusted to teach it with confidence. Top tips for developing this in staff include:

• Purposeful and specific professional learning;

• Workshops and learning experiences built around play;

• Breaking down and unpacking the language in the new curriculum; and,

• Developing an understanding of Papert and Constructionism.

Teaching our students to code does not mean that we expect all students to become professional computer programmers. We teach students how to write music, but we don’t expect all students to become professional composers or recording artists. We teach students physical education and how to play sport, but we don’t expect all students to become elite athletes. We teach the basics of science and history, but we don’t expect all students to become scientists or historians. What we do expect, however, is that all students, in all schools are given the opportunity to learn about the world they live in, how it works and how they can be successful. In the continuously changing digital landscape we now live, learning about digital systems and being able to create through code should be an essential component of a balanced education for every child.