Bringing computer science to the classroom is giving our children the skills essential for their digital future, says Georgina Blaskey
Over 20 years ago, Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Apple Inc, said, “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” About three years ago the British government caught up (well before some other countries, it’s worth noting) and decided to become the first G7 country to introduce compulsory computer science for all children aged five to 16. Now, when a child leaves primary school aged 11, they should be able to design, write and debug programs that accomplish specific goals, use sequence, selection and repetition in programs, and use logical reasoning to explain how some simple algorithms work and to detect and correct errors in algorithms and programs.
It’s not just the government who are getting excited about coding for kids. Leading female entrepreneurs in this country are encouraging their own children to learn the language of code. Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and mother of four, advises parents to get their kids coding. Her three sons can code, but Mendelsohn is disappointed her eldest, Gabi, 19, missed out, admitting: “I didn’t realise how important it would be.”
Georgie Coleridge Cole, founder of lifestyle website Sheerluxe.com and mother of three, told me: “The first question I asked when I went to look at my daughter’s current school was ‘when do they learn to code?’. It’s the language of the future. I’ve done a short course myself and only skimmed the surface but even that basic knowledge has been a real asset – for my children I hope their knowledge is like a second language.”
Your children may well have been set as homework ‘An Hour of Code’, from a global campaign that has engaged more than 10% of the world’s student population, to spend one hour doing a tutorial to learn the basics of coding – or improve their abilities if they already have some knowledge (code.org/learn). Using characters such as Luke Skywalker or Minecraft, children can tell them to complete a mission through a series of instructions (that would be the coding bit then), which gradually gets more complicated as they advance. My children have enjoyed learning through this website – not withstanding some minor frustrations along the way – and it’s opened my eyes as to why coding is so important. Whereas my generation were taught how to use computers, our children are learning how to build them. At the time of introducing this new curriculum, then Education Secretary Michael Gove said, “ICT used to focus purely on computer literacy – teaching pupils how to word-process, how to work a spreadsheet, how to use programs already creaking into obsolescence. Our new curriculum teaches children computer science, information technology and digital literacy: teaching them how to code and how to create their own programs; not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you.”
Beyond the computing room, Faye Ellis, director of digital technology at leading London prep school Thomas’s Clapham, adds, “There are so many computational thinking skills that children learn in computing that can be applied in other areas. For example, decomposition (breaking a problem down into parts) and debugging (looking for and fixing errors) are skills that we use all the time. These skills don’t need to be taught at a computer, either. Barefoot Computing has some good resources for teaching computational thinking skills through games and outdoor activities.”
To truly thrive in an entrepreneurial and innovation-led world, children need to know how computers work. Many jobs that will be around in 2025 haven’t even been created yet but they’re likely to be challenging and digital — as well as well-paid – so learning the language of code is crucial. If all that feels too far in the future to persuade a reluctant coder, try this. If you learn code you can make your own apps, games and websites; you can become successful at a young age; you’ll learn how to solve problems; and you’ll have some great fun along the way.
Code breakers – tools to help you learn the new global language
• Sonic Pi is a free tool to create electronic music using code.
• The Ohbot is a robot you can build and code using Scratch.
• The V&A Museum often runs Digital Kids workshops.
• The Science Museum has installations and exhibitions linked to computer science.
• The Institute of Imagination runs Mini Maker Faires which have workshops and demonstrations to get children excited about digital making. Visit ioi.london/imagination-lab/makerfaire.
• Learn the principles of coding with Lift-The-Flap Computers and Coding (£9.99, Usborn Children’s Books).