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Instructional code

The term coding will be unknown to some. To others, it may conjure up images of pubescent teens hunched over a keyboard until the early hours of the morning.

Indeed, when I first learnt to code, that’s exactly what it was: me diligently typing lines upon lines of code, one at a time, for hours on end. I returned to coding and computer science some years later and, like most things, it has moved with the times. And so should we.

All software – including websites, apps, video games and social media platforms – is assembled entirely from lines of code. Each line is an integral part that makes up the instructions defining what a program does. On a technical level, then, the term coding could refer to the manual task of writing each line of code.

In general, however, and in this article, coding is intended to mean the higher-level process that encompasses the planning, design and implementation of all the sets of instructions that enable a computer or machine to perform a certain task, solve problems and provide human interactivity.

Simply put, it is the language of computers and how humans interact with technology.

The evolution of coding

Today, you can create programs in seconds. Using resources such as Scratch, an MIT Media Lab creation. A simple drag-and-drop lets a user see how the computer code fits together. This allows quick, visual learning of the fundamentals of how the computer program thinks, iterates an algorithm, executes a command or performs a function. Before long, you’ll be creating games, puzzles, cards or interactive stories. Such tools substantially lower the barrier to coding for everyone and this trend will continue as new technology is developed. This unlocks the potential for education.

Coding in schools

Leaders such as Bills Gates and Steve Jobs have advocated for everyone to learn to code because it teaches you to think. Coding requires you to think in logical sequences, a skill learnt by breaking down a complex program into its most basic elements. This type of computational thinking is already being incorporated throughout European school curriculums and it is expected to be a boon for their future workforce.

In Australia, primary schools are introducing coding into the curriculum and regular lessons, as seen at Mount Kuring-gai Public School in New South Wales.

Mount Kuring-gai is one of the first schools to adopt a new strategy for teaching ICT. Students are starting to learn the fundamentals behind coding, starting with the segmented problem-solving methodology. Over several terms, they will progress to writing actual code and can be encouraged to use these skills on other school projects.

The value for students is in how schools can reinforce their coding skills by integrating them into other subjects and classroom activities. Computer languages will inevitably change but students should leave school able to use reason and logic to break down a complex problem into its smaller parts. They should know how to solve problems using algorithms and by working in teams.

In the classroom

The first piece of the puzzle of incorporating coding in the classroom involves securing engagement from teachers. Although some students may outpace the knowledge of their teachers, this does not necessarily pose a problem. One would not deem coaches failures if their players could outplay them on the football field. Where teachers’ expertise can be implemented immediately is in ensuring the students are learning the core skills of problem solving, reasoning and teamwork. Learning to code will inevitably involve logical-thinking challenges, so encouraging children to research solutions and work together develops important skills that complement learning outcomes.

The great thing about working with children is their imagination. When teaching them to code, we emphasise that the computer is a tool and what you can create with it is limited only by your imagination. There are many lessons in which they can imagine a solution to a logical computer problem or a means to a richer end using technology. A project could be completed by creating an interactive story. A student who’s learning multiplication could express that in a game or puzzle. Coding algorithms could be used as maths problems. These are engaging exercises that create with technology whilst integrating it into existing curriculums.

Skills for the future

There are many reasons advocates are promoting coding in schools. The technology industry is promoting it largely because it’s good for business. Facebook, Google and other high-profile IT companies have been quite vocal about their desire to seek out and hire the most talented computer engineers. They claim that demand far outstrips supply.

More than that though, coding is about problem solving and computational thinking. It promotes and nurtures imagination and creativity. It requires clear definitions of problems and uses absolute logic to formulate and reach the solution. Process-based, algorithmic thinking like this is a supremely beneficial skill for all students, allowing them to carefully plan and strategise solutions for any subject or, indeed, any obstacle in life. By breaking down problems, step by step, or line by line, as with code, students are encouraged to see problems not as an insurmountable whole, but as a series of segmented, achievable tasks.

To best understand this, I encourage you to give it a go. Challenge yourself to learn something new and introduce this exciting and vital skill inside your classrooms. It might seem like an insurmountable challenge but with the vast resource base around this subject now available to the education industry, it’s time to appreciate where coding and computational thinking are today and the benefits they provide for our students, and ourselves, for tomorrow.

Frank Lucisano was recently a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, in the US, and is founder and chief executive of ScopeIT Education.

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