Wicked Ideas

Bringing Back Coding into Schools

This is an opinion editorial I wrote that originally was published in the Telegraph Journal on September 21, 2013.

Cracking the Code to Prosperity

By David Alston

Anyone watching the economic statistics in New Brunswick could be forgiven for feeling a bit grim. Our unemployment rate is one of the highest in Canada and our debt and deficit figures are troubling. Everyone agrees that we need to take action to create new jobs in the short-term.

We also need to take a long view, something that starts with our education system. This past spring I had a chance to visit a grade 6 class in Oromocto. As an experiment, this class had been working with a programming language called “Scratch” for a few weeks. The teacher had invited me to the class speak about technology related careers followed by an opportunity for the students to showcase their work.

What I saw astounded me. With only a few weeks of class work, mostly exploring on their own, the students had learned how to use Scratch to create new programs. Several students went further – I saw complex displays of logic and creativity. I saw complete remastering of classic arcade games that used to be popular when I was a kid.

I was blown away.

In that Oromocto classroom, I saw future programmers, user interface designers, engineers and startup entrepreneurs. I saw the potential for a bright future ahead for our region.

But this was one class in one school with one teacher, in a province with thousands of teachers. Apart from this classroom and a handful of others, few students have an opportunity to study coding in New Brunswick’s schools.

Coders are the people that build the apps, programs and operating systems that have become the foundation of our economy. It is the essential skill of the digital economy. That presents an incredible opportunity for constructive change in New Brunswick’s education system and economy.

Coding skills are a hot commodity in today’s job market, one that is only getting hotter. In fact a recent study from the Information and Communication Technology Council says there will be 106,000 unfilled tech jobs in Canada by 2016 and over a million in the US. Here in the Maritimes we are seeing startup companies popping up like dandelions in spring and the demand for coders has never been higher.

So there is clearly a disconnect between the jobs available today and tomorrow and what is being taught in New Brunswick’s education system. Today New Brunswick’s teachers and students learn about technology from two mandatory courses taught in Middle School and early High School. The curriculum is a decade out of date. So not only are students not learning relevant information, the outdated and irrelevant content means many actually end up with negative perceptions of working in the tech sector.

Educators recognize that we have opportunities to do things differently. Just look at what is happening in the United Kingdom. Recently the Minister of Education in the UK announced that the entire K-12 curriculum will be overhauled by next year to include coding as a central part of the learning experience.

In North America, volunteer groups are working to ingrain coding in the ways we work and think, led by the code.org movement and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made learning to code his New Year’s resolution.

Here at home, there is also work being done to promote coding skills. Not-for-profit groups like Ladies Learning Code, CompCamp and Science East are offering, or looking into, educational opportunities outside the classroom for coding instruction.

Don’t get me wrong, not everyone needs to be a coder. But learning to code opens up a whole new way of thinking for kids. It helps them learn logic and analytical skills and gives them a whole new way to express their creativity. It gets them thinking about what drives so many of the things we use today. What isn’t driven by a computer chip packed with programming in today’s world? In fact nearly every career is affected, enhanced or influenced by technology, and that technology is driven by code.

Clearly we need to do more to give our children the skills they need to succeed. For a regional economy that sees its students graduate, struggle to find work in their fields and then leave to for career in the oil patch its seems hard to imagine why more don’t look at the tech sector as a viable and exciting career.

The good news is that teachers and education administrators are starting to move forward. Teachers are promoting the use of Scratch to each other at conferences and education officials are recognizing the need to update the technology curriculums. A dozen teachers have decided to move ahead and include Scratch in their coursework this year, supported by volunteers from our local tech industry. Industry mentors have stepped forward, with the encouragement of the New Brunswick Information Technology Council (NBITC), to go into schools and share their passion for their careers in hopes of changing perceptions and inspiring youth.

It’s a start but we need to instill a sense of urgency in the process. It’s no exaggeration to say our future depends on it. Until every child in the Maritimes is given mandatory exposure to coding at least once in their school career, and preferably earlier rather than later, it simply won’t be enough. We need to update the technology curriculum in New Brunswick’s schools by 2014. If the U.K. can do it on a national basis, surely a small province like New Brunswick can be nimble enough to do it here.

Every child deserves a shot at one of those 100,000 unfilled, high paying jobs. Every child deserves that extra competitive advantage of knowing what goes on underneath the covers of technology so they can decide to innovate and improve upon it. Every child deserves the opportunity to unlock her or his creativity in both the traditional and modern sense.

This journey ahead will be recorded in history, literally. A documentary is being filmed right now in the Maritimes following the coding movement, capturing the key decisions, highlighting the milestones, examining the results of pilots, and hopefully celebrating a successful conclusion.

We have the ability to write a happy ending and to give our students a fair shot at leading tomorrow’s economy. What role will you play to ensure this happens?

David Alston (@DavidAlston) is an advisor to technology companies in Atlantic Canada and throughout North America.

David Alston

Senior-level, Marketing Strategy and Communications Leader with a unique blend of marketing and technology experience and expertise. Ranked 6th most followed CMO on Twitter by Social Media Marketing Magazine. Ability to think outside the box. Track record in leading Marketing and Product Management groups to successfully introduce products to the market through market research, product innovation, creative communications, strategic planning, and the development of new business ventures.

Specialties: Social Media, Relationship Capital, Community Building, WOM (Word of Mouth) Marketing, Public Relations, Online Marketing, Branding and Identity, Marketing Strategy, B2B Technology Marketing, Advertising Creative, Creative Copywriting, Business Strategy, Technology Product Planning and Management, Consultative Selling, New Business Development, Strategic partnerships, Internet Marketing and Technology, TVoverIP

17 comments

  • Agree 100% with this – we need to do a lot more to keep our educations system up to date. The economic situation in the province is dire today but it will be worse tomorrow if we don’t give students the skills they need to compete in the digital economy.

    I hope the Government of NB listens to this argument and responds. Quickly.

  • As someone who stumbled down a career path involving coding, I only wish I had been introduced at an earlier age. I like to think of how much further ahead I would be now!

    Coding has its intrinsic benefits for those of us who like to build things, but it is also a language in itself, an interface amongst a team of people who are building something. We can see that good software projects come from a well-rounded team of individuals and skill sets, not just coders. We need designers, marketers, managers, etc. If an entire team has a fundamental understanding of coding and can speak to it, they can move together in an coordinated way, responding quickly to change as needed. The lowest common denominator is raised, they can focus on frontier issues, the “what if” and not the “why not”. This makes for a truly exciting, satisfying, fast-paced project.

    Today’s school-aged children indeed take technology for granted. How many kids in a grade 6 class have smartphones, mp3 players, computers at home? How many do not might be easier to answer. The technology is transparent to them. They get it. They understand the purpose, and they use technology to accomplish tasks – it’s not just a toy to them, and they don’t do it just because they feel they have to! Combine this outlook with a educational foundation in coding, and we open a new array of possibilities. End to the Migration, maybe?

  • Great story, David! I think it is a terrific idea. The type of thinking that is required to code is a valuable thing to teach. I’d love for my kid to understand what is going on behind all those devices she uses. As someone who used to code for a living, I have devolved into just a “user.” We can’t have a society of just users, though, because more and more things in our lives rely on code.

  • Thanks guys. Yes, launching a new curriculum for both the Middle School Tech and Broad Based Tech courses is a must for September 2014. I believe the momentum is building to see this happen. Exposing kids to the creativity and logic skills associated with learning to code not only gives them a leg up but it also may inspire them to pursue careers in tech and the sciences. The seeds of a new crop of entrepreneurs are sewn in the early years.

  • Yep. My 12 year old son is into anything computer related, retro gaming, programming.
    So far he has built a PC from parts his uncle gave him, earned $10 for rescuing someone’s computer from the blue screen of death, attempted to fix his teacher’s Nintendo Entertainment System, ripped apart my old mac, helps out the teacher at school troubleshoot the smart board, working on an iOS game using Construct, and is currently using a book on programming visual basic…
    so needless to say he would be super keen on this.

    Noel

  • Yes Noel he’s sounds like the perfect candidate. And he could check out the hummingbird robotics kits that can work with a version of Scratch called Snap as well if he gets into it. He may also want to look into Lego Mindstorm.

  • Interesting stuff. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend an article in the current issue of Wired on this very subject: http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/09/ap_code/.

    There are elements of the piece with which I disagree. I find it a touch on the polemical side, and feel pretty strongly about the place of “actual” languages and music–but I agree with the essence. Code, music, math…they’re all forms of language–systems within which to describe and communicate with other humans about the world around us. The earlier kids are exposed to all of them, the better.

  • Thanks for sharing that article Michael. Yes while it’s title was a bit sensational the content was quite interesting. Many kids today start using computers at the age of two and I suspect tablets even sooner. They are very creative in their early years and haven’t learned about a lot of life’s imposed “rules and norms” yet. A great time to use coding to expand their approaches to problem solving and creativity.

  • Hi everyone, I’m learning a lot about kids and coding, thanks. You’ve got me pumped about teaching my seven-year-old scratch. Here’s my question: How do we punch through the tech bubble and get parents and kids who are not tuned into tech already to see this as something cool to do. What do we need to get us to a tipping point with the general population?

  • Reading all of this has made for a great Friday morning. I can’t help but think of my doctoral research investigating the role of screen-media in the early years. While I specifically am looking at the implications of various technological devices on children’s emergent and early literacy, I am interested in how technology impacts children on a wider scale, as well. What is interesting is that I have thought only about the implications of technology use on young children as users or consumers– thinking now about how they can be developers truly is fascinating and has my head spinning with ideas for how I might investigate the link between coding and literacy. I applaud the call for changes in the provincial curricula, but I fear there is little, if any, sense of urgency among those who can ‘make the changes’ necessary. This must change and I am willing to help!

  • Thanks Erin for your offer to help. If you think of some research ideas or find some research along the way feel free to share it/them.

    Lisa, you bring up a great point. This is actually part of the reason I want to see it as mandatory in school. All kids start on a level playing field this way. I just got home from seeing what some kids have been producing after only one class and a week of coding in their own time. Blown away. Beyond expectations. And progress is happening across socio-economic and gender lines. We are now talking about having all kids show their parents the projects they’ve coded during parent teacher days in November. It will be a great way for them to see the talents their children possess and perhaps they will find ways to encourage them.

  • I’ve begun teaching my son to code using Tynker, which is based on Scratch but with a bit more polish and an existing curriculum (also told through a story). The interface is HTML5 (instead of Flash) as well. Bought him a cheap ($200) chromebook and he’s about a 1/4 of the way through the chapters. Oh, and he’s in grade 3 🙂 Can never start them too young

  • Have we considered doing a provincial awards gala similar to Anglo North’s Creative Uses of Technology (CUTE) awards? If we show we value this education on a provincial stage (almost unheard of so far) it will really amplify passion and efforts in the classrooms as seen in the North. Changing curriculum is first but after that how do we spotlight and encourage student success and above all else finally start intra- and inter-district sharing?

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