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Next Generation of Language

In an increasingly global environment, the command of language remains front and centre as a priority for us as adults, and as an education ‘must have’ for our children. As an Englishman, I assume the position that everybody else in the world defaults to English as the language of choice and engagement. Perhaps a throwback to my parents’ influence, and the school generation I attended.

The study of language for children remains crucial. Language is something that builds bridges between people and cultures, educates and informs, and evolves through time with the people who use it. In years past, every child learned a new foreign language at school. Times are a-changing, and although foreign language skills are still important to a child’s education, cultural awareness and world knowledge, programming languages have swiftly taken over in terms of economic need and business development. We are all now well aware of the importance technology plays in our everyday lives, whether we work in the industry or not.  Technology has infiltrated every sphere of our lives and careers from the sciences to the arts, from business to retail. Although many of us are now familiar with using technology, most of us would not know how to build and maintain the websites and Apps we have become so reliant upon.  As the global economy calls out for tech skills, we need to start putting pressure on policy makers to instigate learning programming languages in every school and from a young age if we are to keep up with the growing expansion and development of technologies. Without these skills our economies will suffer, as technology out paces the tech skills of the generation of talented, educated young people leaving our schools and universities without the required experience or training in coding.

Children are learning to read, but not write

Education for the current generation of preschoolers is largely unchanged from that of their parents’ generation. What they are learning on may well be different – schools in the West are largely well-equipped with laptops and tablets for their students – but the crux of what those children are learning, compared to what their parents’ learnt at their age, is to all intents and purposes the same. The world they will be entering upon graduation, however, will be a very different one. If technology continues to evolve at the rate it currently is and recruiters and firms continue to demand more and more tech skills from students that are coming forward looking for jobs then our children – who seem so tech-savvy now – will struggle to find work. In terms of their technological understanding, if education continues in the same vein as it is currently going, those students – however talented or bright – are going to be behind in terms of the tech skills they need to gain employment. The irony is that children are learning to use the technology, to read it, but not how to write code, an essential skill for the world they are entering into.

As Caitlin Sharpe wrote in a recent article on children learning to code:

“It may be an eBook, but it’s still To Kill a Mockingbird. Today’s kindergarten students will learn algebra and about Abraham Lincoln, perhaps online or through a game, but not yet how to code or create that game. It’s as if we’re teaching a generation to read but not to write.”

What children are learning now in schools and universities won’t guarantee them a job in 2014 and beyond, we have seen this with the huge tech skills gap that has emerged worldwide. If what children are learning now isn’t enough to get them a job in the current climate, how will this generation fare when they actually leave university and are looking for work?

Professor Stephen Heppell, of heppell.net shared:

“I am old enough to remember children learning to code, and to solder(!) in the earliest days of personal computing. I meet them still today, grown up, and running their video game companies or building astonishing data algorithms in our Banks. Today’s new generation need the empowerment of that same technological literacy and tech skills. Everyone is entitled to make and create rather than simply to read and consume. Shout it clear, and shout it loud – digital literacy matters.”

Who’s teaching teachers?

Telling us we need to teach our children how to code may seem simple enough. Add it to the curriculum, teach children to code alongside maths and English. Problem solved. The thing is, it’s not. Our children are being taught by teachers who grew up not only without the technology that pervades the classroom now, they also grew up without the knowledge of how to program these technologies themselves. A degree in English literature and a year’s teacher training doesn’t currently incorporate learning how to code or learning how to teach children how to code. If we want to teach our children how to program in order to open their horizons as employable members of society in 20 years’ time, we’ve first got to train their teachers.

“As well as being useful in its own right, learning to code deserves its place on the school curriculum, and in teacher training, as a particularly effective way to develop ‘computational thinking’ – the cluster of processes, such as logical reasoning, algorithms, decomposition, abstraction and generalisation, that are necessary if we’re to use computers to help us solve problems, and which have wide applications across, and beyond, the curriculum.”

Miles Berry, Principal Lecturer Computing Education University of Roehampton

Hobby-status rather than education

A major roadblock in the learning to code debate is that programming or learning to code has the status of ‘hobby’ in many people’s minds; seen largely as an extracurricular activity that has no impact on, or involvement in a student’s actual, accredited education. So-called ‘techies’ are thought to be people who have learnt to code purely because they were interested in computers at a very young age and chose to pursue it into adulthood. This attitude is one that is unfortunately not often questioned by teachers or academics, which surely has to change as we move toward a future dictated by the very technologies that rely upon these skills. The fact that many careers are now built around these specific tech skills seems to have been overlooked and we are taking for granted the number of people who have educated themselves. So much so that there is now a huge tech skills gap. This stereotype of the sort of people who work in technology needs to be drastically altered. It’s crucial that the message is sent out that you do not have to have been tinkering on a computer since you were three years old in order to be a successful web developer. These are tech skills anybody can learn and at any stage in their lives. The exclusivity and mystery of the industry needs to be eradicated. Women need to be included and made to feel welcome in an almost exclusively male-dominated arena.  Sexism in the industry – a very real problem – needs to be directly addressed, and those responsible shamed out of their jobs. Young girls need to be taught this is not just a boys’ thing. Ethnic minorities need to know this isn’t just a job for white people.

How adults are learning to code now

If people aren’t learning to code at school or university, what other options are there for them? There are a number of online and offline, paid and free options teaching people to code in their spare time; courses that can fit around jobs, studies and families. The beauty of all these online learning options is their flexibility.  If school teachers – the very people we are relying upon to educate our next generation in programming – were given access to these personalised, flexible, online learning options, that they could fit around their classes or studies, they could get trained up in the basics of learning to code to pass on to their classes almost from the get-go.

If their courses were online, teachers could dip in and out of the resources as and when they need them, rather than be restricted by a regular evening class or part-time university course, which I am confident that many teachers will assure us they simply do not have time for. It would also mean that the resources would be available to them while they are interacting with their classes, to fact check or read up on something at the last minute. Online learning could also be something teachers do during teacher training, an add-on for universities (an alternative revenue option, in fact) or when they’re already in schools.

I am putting myself firmly behind the adoption of a blended online learning approach, whereby teachers learn from online resources that are taught and mentored by an expert in the field of programming and web development. By adopting a blended learning approach engagement and productivity would be increased and high levels of motivation would be maintained (a crucial element as levels of motivation often suffer when learning isn’t mentored, as we have seen with the high student drop-off rates of MOOCs). Personalised, blended learning encourages and promotes a supportive relationship between the mentor and their student (the school teacher). To compliment the blended learning approach I would also advocate a subscription model for learning as this would escalate the learning process, allowing teachers to dip in and out of the course as and when they see fit. This would give teachers the option to ‘top-up’ their tech skills weeks into the course or move along to the next stage in their learning as and when they need to.

In addition to the blended learning approach, using expert mentors to guide, motivate and instruct teachers, I would also like to see support for project-based learning in schools. With teachers gaining the rudimentary knowledge of coding this will enable and support peer-to-peer engagement between students. With a subscription learning model – that allows teachers to dip in and out of the curriculum as they see fit over an extended learning period – teachers are also able to focus on their own Continued Professional Development, revise things forgotten, or accelerate their learning to the next level in an interactive, online – yet fully mentored – environment. The personalised nature of this kind of learning allows teachers to not only study in their own time, but also to make demands on the course that meet their own individual requirements – whether that be speed, style or difficulty of what they are learning.  This type of education encourages more of a ‘life-long learning’ approach; rather than immersing teachers in an intensive, one-size-fits-all class for a few months, it encourages learning that meets each teacher’s own individual educational requirements for as long a time as they may need or want.

There are benefits for schools from a financial perspective as well. When schools are seen in a similar light to businesses, the higher value of teachers with upgraded skill-sets will be quickly recognised. A teacher with programming tech skills is in a better position to manage other online projects, hire tech staff or provide support for an online website or project. All of these things are invaluable to any business, and something that any school would hugely benefit from, from financial, technological and business perspectives.

I am not advocating we should all become developers, but I would argue that at some point, or at many points, we will all need to work with, engage, manage and deliver against disciplines that demand at the very least a rudimentary knowledge and comfort with code. Most people worldwide speak English at some level, most people everywhere require a command of code. And we need teachers to teach us.