The importance of digital literacy for children
Coding skills are increasingly sought after in this digitalized world. Parents are increasingly aware about the benefits of coding for their children and are sending their kids to learn how to code. In this Q&A, Christo Hughes, founder of TechTrain (www.techtrain.edu.vn), explains how digital literacy can stimulate inquiry based learning, logical thinking and creative problem solving.
For those who are coming into TechTrain totally blind, what is it? Who does it aim to serve?
Let’s flip that question because I need to explain the problem scenario first; this will help clarify the ‘why’ then I’ll explain the ‘whom,’ and finally the ‘what.’
We have this increasingly apparent problem of students coming through the system without the skill-set needed to thrive, even survive, in the workplace. Students here are fed relentless amounts of factual information, which they need to memorize to pass exams, all leading to the ultimate goal of getting into a respected university, which supposedly will guarantee a good job on the other end. But this far too often leads to graduates who simply don’t think outside the box, are therefore of limited value to their employer, and that means to the nation of Vietnam on the macro scale. Coupled with the fact we are living through massive technological disruption in industries, globally; we simply don’t need people who can memorize loads of facts, or just follow rote processes these days. Mr Google can do that, and much, much more. So, whom do we aim to serve? We aim to serve the youth of Vietnam so that they enter the working world with the necessary thinking skills to thrive. We start as young as 5 years old to lay the groundwork to foster these higher order thinking skills, skills where humans can outperform computers. We teach mainly in English and we use coding and various technological problem based exercises as a vehicle with which to introduce and train students in these thinking skills. It’s a powerful combination.
Tell us about your professional background? What led you to the kids coding school industry?
I’ve worked in several countries over the years, but my main career path centered around product design and development for export from Asia manufacturing hubs to US and EU markets. That often involved taking on a trainer role and also leveraged (very badly in many cases) technological solutions to do the job.
I made a career switch in 2016 and went back to school, going through a ‘coding bootcamp’ in the US, an experience which opened my eyes to the transformative power of learning tech skills, the job opportunities available, but also the thought and problem solving nature of the skill intrigued me. I invested into the business, then in its early stages, convinced by the need for coding skills in the US workforce.
After graduating the bootcamp, I negotiated to bring their curriculum to Vietnam and offer it as a training course for young employees in tech companies here. While the curriculum was well received the one common request was to also train staff how to problem solve, how to communicate, how to cooperate, how to challenge authority in a constructive manner, how to learn autonomously. I must have met with 25 tech businesses, and every time the same refrain. It was at this point, and with a commission to develop a curriculum for one of Vietnam’s largest after-hour learning brands, I made the switch to kids coding and tech, that was in early 2018.
Why is it so important for kids to learn how to code?
Many people get confused at this point: “So Christo, you’re talking about developing soft skills but you are teaching hard tech skills at your school, I don’t get it?” The answer is simple, these are very difficult skills to teach, any educator will tell you that.
At TechTrain we see learning to code (i.e. to build tech tools and solve technological problems) as the perfect vehicle with which we can train students in these higher order thinking skills. Coding teaches you a very logical rational way of thinking, and as the learning and levels become more sophisticated, the exercise of getting a computer to do what you want becomes ever more complex and challenging; this require computational thinking, problem decomposition, perseverance, teamwork, communication and all that great stuff that kids must grapple with as they learn.
What are the advantages of learning how to code at a young age versus as an adult?
It’s never too late to start. We’ve had career changers in their 50s learn coding from Scratch at www.techelevator.com and successfully land software developer positions. That said, like almost anything, the young brain learns fast and we encourage learners to start early at TechTrain. Like any skill, the more you practice the better you will become. But I reiterate, our mission is not to create expert software developers per se, our mission is to shape the thinking mind of our students to handle complex, abstract, and unfamiliar scenarios, employing soft skills and tech tools to help solve them, all in the English language.
What courses do you offer?
We currently offer courses for girls and boys aged 5-15. For our youngest students we teach logical concepts, problem solving and computational thinking, all without the use of a computer. Thereafter, we have 3 foundational courses in coding, depending on age and prior ability, which lead into a variety of further courses in robotics, augmented and virtual reality, 3D technologies, web dev and more.
What do kids actually learn when they learn programming? Do they just learn how to use a tool? Or create a game or two?
Crafting your own creations is a huge part of TechTrain. All of our courses are intended to have a project element to them, which allows each student to feel accomplishment at having created something of their own design. With our first courses this will often be a game (of varying complexity), but as our students become more knowledgeable in their coding this will take the form of apps, websites, and even their own virtual reality environments.
How do you find quality instructors?
We look for individuals who share our vision of transitioning Vietnamese students from tech users into tech creators. We have found that the most important qualities for a TechTrain teacher are a passion for technology, a critical mindset and a strong foundation in pedagogy. We have also been lucky to work on our team with very senior technology professionals for whom education is now a more rewarding career choice than high pay high pressure business.
Does learning to program help with a child’s other learning? We all know ‘integrated’ education instead of learning subjects in silos makes for deeper and more fundamental understanding among kids.
Absolutely. Learning to program helps students with a variety of skills and subjects. When students learn to program, they develop a problem-solving mindset and way of looking at the world that may surprise you. Have you ever noticed that your (successful) software developer friends are often incredibly skilled at analyzing and resolving problems.
What is unique about TechTrain’s courses, compared to coding courses that are already offered in international schools in Saigon?
I can’t say for certain as I’ve not sat through many coding classes at internationals schools! I think a couple things here. There’s always going to be a more passionate committed vibe in a smaller organization; we built it around a mission and a problem statement that we feel strongly about, it’s therefore part of our identity and we care very much about what we deliver since it represents us as a team. Furthermore, for us it’s all about the tech, it’s not just one of a dozen subjects, it’s what we eat, sleep and breathe at TechTrain.
How does TechTrain measure success?
We purposefully don’t put heavy emphasis on the grading process, we see the most progress happens as students progress through experiential learning and teamworking, not when feeling the pressure of studying for tests. We rely on class by class ‘formative’ approach which takes the pressure off, uses the concept checking of students as an opportunity to reinforce learning. We look not only at the student’s grasp of the tech concepts, but also English language (where non-native), soft skills and, of course, problem solving approaches.
Images Provided by TechTrain