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The importance of being a computer coder

gamefroot-newLearning to read and write gives students a language to use and interact with the world around them. Code isn’t much different, writes Dan Milward.

Code is the language of computers. If we want students who are digitally competent and who can make things that work on a computer, say a webpage, an app or a game, we need to help them learn to code. More than that, it’s a way of thinking that students can use to explain and make sense of the new digital world we are building.

Let’s face it, coding is here to stay. Computer programmers are required by industry today just as much as we need doctors, police, lawyers, cleaners, and tradies. And even as technologies change and new jobs are formed, those that understand the architecture upon which our digital world is built will have greater power and access.

If you still don’t get what the big deal is, or if you’re convinced it something you need to do but have no idea where to start, keep reading. Let’s unpack what it means to code, and what learning to code means for you and for your students.

Beneath the code

gamefroot-screenshotFirst of all, coding is engaging. It’s fun and the learning goes deeper than you might think! More than 11 million students learned to code last year.

Coding spans a range of learning areas and competencies. In the hands of a capable teacher with the right resources, we can begin to expose students to what happens under the hood. Imagine them making a digital simulation game about micro-organisms or writing a program that simulates planets orbiting the sun. Well, these ideas aren’t just theoretical – they exist now!

What your students create with code matters to them and maybe even to the world.

Games exist to be played by others! If your student can make a game and it’s played by somebody else, and through that playing the player learns something, is there actually a better way to show evidence of learning?

Coding is a foundation for kids to think differently and solve problems – looking at other people’s code and learning the art of critique.

Challenges for coding

Of course, there are challenges. Where will teachers and students find the time? The school day is already chock-a-block, and teachers have their hands full meeting an increasing administrative load.

How will teachers develop the necessary skills? If coding is to work its magic across the curriculum, then the job of training and equipping educators with the necessary skills and resources could become crippling.

Who delivers the training? School budgets are already stretched. How can they afford to purchase the training, let alone release teachers from the classroom and pay relief teachers to take their place?

How does teacher training have to change to include this new requirement? Quite apart from ensuring the right skills are taught, and the potential for new ways of thinking realised, this is going to be a slow burn. There’s the time required to complete the training, then the inevitable time required to turn teaching graduates into confident, competent classroom teachers.

Finding a solution

One way forward might be to add a year onto the standard teacher training course for self-selected digital specialists. These specialists would then go into schools tasked with delivering digital thinking outcomes across the curriculum. Sounds radical? It would be. New Zealand tried it once, in the 1950s and 60s, with art specialists in schools. Unfortunately, the movement crumbled as part of the change to a policy- and compliance-oriented Ministry of Education. The lesson is that such a change needs to be more than just a policy decision. Properly resourced and supported, an initiative designed to instill digital thinking and capability in a generation of students could be truly revolutionary. But do we have the courage to do it?

There’s an old saying “The world is your oyster”, from William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. The full quotation is “The world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.” In other words, you only get the pearl if you’re prepared to put the effort into extracting it.

Dan Milward is founder of GameLab and developed Gamefroot (gamefroot.com), a program that promotes learning code through game development and helping teachers put it into practice.

 

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