Teaching kids to code - the English experience

Originally published at: http://www.sitepoint.com/teaching-kids-to-code/
First in a series of three posts that I wanted to put together on coding and logical thinking education for children and why I think that it is so important for kids to become code-literate at as early an age as possible.

In the not too distant future, England will be the first of many countries to begin introducing computer programming and coding classes to primary and secondary schools.

In this new system, students will be taught basic coding as soon as they enter school (at around 5 years old) and will continue to learn until their GCSEs are completed, when they can choose whether or not to pursue it further.

Breaking down the English experience

The English curriculum will be split into a number of key stages.

By the end of key stage one, students will be able to create and debug a variety of simple programs. Also, by this stage, they will know how to “safely and respectfully” make use of technology. They will also be encouraged to grow their ability to think logically and to use logical approaches to solving problems, notably a key area that many western curriculums don’t really cover at this stage of children’s learning experiences.

By key stage two, students will have learned the basics of designing and writing software and code geared towards unambiguous goals. This would include the control and simulation of physical systems (read they’re learning how to manipulate the internet of things). In this stage, pupils will also be taught the understanding of computer networks and to use their own logic and reasoning to spot and correct any errors that may present themselves in various algorithms.

Key stage three will see the students, now in secondary school, learning Boolean logic and understanding algorithms that mirror computational thinking. Additionally, they will learn how the various different hardware and software systems in computers work and communicate with one another and with other systems.

In key stage four, students, teachers and exam boards will have freedom over what they choose to learn/teach/examine and what they don’t. Opening up in this way and building on a solid shared base will allow experimentation and innovation to be rolled into individual curriculums and help focus on getting the most out of each student’s desired career.

The new English system represents a necessary (r)evolution in how children study and understand coding and logical thinking. It broadens the understanding that particularly primary-school age children have of what they can do with code and programming and opens up huge opportunities to shape their thinking early. My hope would also be that done the right way it provides primary school age girls with opportunities at the right time to interest and excite them in STEM subjects.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said that “children learning how to code and program will raise the standard of learning to a whole new and exciting level. The future is bright for the first wave of children to come out of this education system”.

The teachers are not too far behind either. Not too long after Michael Gove made the announcement, the Department for Education, the Computing at School (CAS) Working Group and a variety of other organisations (Codecademy, for example) have began offering free coding classes in a number of programming languages (Ruby, Python, JavaScript and PHP). These classes are mostly focused on teachers given the need for teachers to get a real basis in understanding to be able to effectively run the new curriculum.

The Department for Education will give the vital goals for this whole course. From these objectives, the teachers will then select their preferred curriculum and resources they will employ in order to achieve the goals. This means that there will be no single approach to teaching the classes.

Outlining the ultimate objectives and letting schools and teachers decide their own curriculum and methodology will mean the ability to tailor to individual students and class needs – given the diversity of outcomes from a core understanding of code and logic-based thinking, the need for flexibility is high.

The future

In the UK, there are schools that are already running pilots in their classrooms. They are testing the new curriculum and providing feedback to allow for honing of the pilot programs. On the other side there will be many schools that will not be overly comfortable with the new curriculum. Not only will teachers have to undergo a lot of training to support it, many schools will not be able to offer the necessary resources to teach the classes, meaning roll-out will be difficult.

Even with the many difficulties of opening up this new curriculum, this evolution and revolution is worth taking the time to make. This new system will ensure than the next generation will not only be able to make the most of digital content, they will also be able to create it, something that will become a primary need for the growth economies of the future. Recognition by Britain of this need is laudable and past due.

I’d end this piece in asking what Australia is doing to mirror Britain’s move here – will we be at the forefront of the digital economy or will we fall behind? Without real change in government policy now I’d be assuming the latter rather than the former. I won’t be waiting for the government to make changes here, I’ll certainly be encouraging my own children to learn coding and logical thinking.
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It does seem like a good idea to introduce kids early to code, as it dominates the world they will grow up in.

As a former primary teacher, I have two reservations:

  • I heard a really interesting discussion, many years ago, about whether there should be more computer education to young children. (This was before they each had a laptop and a digital device stuck up each nostril, mind you.) One argument that moved me quite a bit was that it’s important for kids to learn to think—after which they can pretty easily pick up anything later in life, including computers. So I doubt whether it’s really necessary to wean them on code out of the cradle, even though it’s effectively a second language, and learning those from an early age is beneficial.

  • My other concern is with teachers. Every few years there’s fanfare over some new initiative to teach Science in schools, for example. But the problem is that most teachers don’t have a clue about science—so it’s either ignored, or taught at such a poor level that it’s not even worth doing. Getting teachers to be competent to teach code is the big hurdle, and it won’t be easy to cross, no matter how much excitement builds over these reforms. For the most part, it will be like the headmaster I used to know who started an initiative to talk to kids about drugs. The response was basically—sure, sir, what would you like to know?


this is not new, nit even in Britain. There was the BBC computers in the eigthies as kids programmed at school. Much of the focus was on programming since thera was not much more to do with them. And Australia developed MicroBee, with inbuilt wordprocessor and terminal. Most countries had there own school computer projects. The was many enthusiast among the teachers but most of the teachers whom went on training really understod it, and the students were disappointed they didn’t made real programs.

I have tried both Arduino programming and HTML with students, grade 5-9. The reaction I get from the students are mixed. There is a great Aha when they understands the structure, and they like that. But again some disappointment that they don’t make conplete games, they start to realise how complexed the programming can be.

When I look for other teachers to get involved I find zero. The younger the kids are the less interested i programming the teachers are - there are reason why they did not chose to be Teacher in the upper years.

In beginning of projects like this, the teachers that are interested will join, but when it is rolled out in full svale there will be a lack of suitable teachers. I am sorry, but that is the reality.

I have a dream of letting the students learn mecanics like cogs, but that is also difficult to roll out.


Awesome posts! There is no doubt that IT will dominate for at least next 1000 years. I’d say we’re in 2nd Generation of IT. Anyways, back to the post.

There is a significant problem for US school systems. First, they are way underpaid… thus you get the quality of teacher matching the salary. Second, say a teacher actually learned and became proficient at programming. I’m 99% sure he/she’ll quit and work for IT company that’ll easily pay 5~8x more than their salary. I’m sure some teachers will remain as ‘teacher’ because that’s what they want to do. Most people don’t have that kind of luxury when you are a single income family. Third, I think most public school teachers don’t want to learn new things… You can tell by how much effort they put in to create the tests… Seen so many teachers using same tests every single year…

So, what’s going to really happen? There be a boom on private education sector. Instead of taking your kid for piano lesson, there will be a commercialized computer lesson where you’d pay anywhere from $30~50/hr. This is just my guess… I’m so thankful that I can teach my kids for free!!!

If the quality of university coding courses is anything to go by, the education sector has a long way to go to improve its reputation with teaching code. :frowning:

Depends on which University. I went to a particular University where they hire people who actually does Commercial IT training. Of course, they get paid way less…something between $3000~4000 per course where they spend 100~200 actual hours. The reason they do it is to ‘advertise’ other course they have commercially. From one professor, I’ve taken 5 additional commercial course w/ him. I think he makes around $500k a year.

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I live in the UK and my youngest daughter was the first year to take computer science at GCSE level (aged 16 years) after a 2-year course. Her response has been mixed, she has enjoyed some of it but has complained liberally about having to learn Python whilst learning nothing about newer languages such as HTML5. The languages that the kids learned were based on what the teacher chose, so it could vary quite wildly from school to school if that remains the case.

Before that however, the only real lessons they had surrounding computers was IT which really just taught them how to use Office programs. I think the new curriculum is a good thing and I think that it’s important that kids are familiar with and comfortable with technology fairly early. My daughter has done well in the class so far (computer science) and we’re awaiting her exam results at the moment so it will be interesting to see how she fared.

Back in the 80s, as someone pointed out, we did have basic coding in schools, I was just leaving as it was coming in. But since that time it’s degenerated into learning about stuff so basic that many of our most talented kids have had to find their own way if they wanted a career in tech. Hopefully, the new curriculum will improve by 1000% and kids will learn worthwhile skills that they can use for their career.

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