Back to school: Canada lagging in push to teach kids computer coding
Tomorrow's workers need to know more tech than merely checking their Facebook feed
Armed with rope, pictures and elephant headbands, it looks like this group of nine-year-olds is setting up a huge game of hopscotch. But they're really laying out the biggest thing to hit British schools in a century.
As the students direct each other through the grid they've built, they're learning the basic fundamentals of computer coding, in the process moving beyond how to use computers to how computers work.
- Kids learn coding in class to help problem solving
"We're actually enabling them and empowering them with skills and capability so that they can choose how they solve problems using technology," says Peter Gaynord, a teacher at Histon and Impington Junior School near Cambridge, England.
This class is far from unique. In fact, every single school in England — all 16,000 primary schools and 3,500 secondary schools — have been put firmly on a high-tech path.
A new national curriculum, implemented last year, has made computer science a mandatory subject for all students, starting from the tender age of five and continuing through to the end of high school.
It's arguably nothing short of an education revolution. And it stands in stark contrast to the Canadian landscape, where computer programming classes are only offered as high school electives. That is, if they're offered at all.
"I'm really surprised that administrators and teachers and parents are not saying, 'But what about our kids here?'" says Chris Stephenson, an Oshawa, Ont.-raised computer science education advocate who now works for Google in Oregon. "The silence is deafening."
While Canada may not be talking about overhauling its approach to computer science education, other countries are.
From Australia to Holland, educators are shifting away from merely teaching software programs toward teaching computer code, the language that directs computers to perform those programs.
In the U.S., many districts have agreed to add coding classes. Last year, Chicago elevated computer science to a core subject in all public high schools.
The shift stems from the growing conviction that computer coding is the new literacy, as critical as reading and writing for the next generation of skilled workers.
Smart governments don't want their citizens merely checking their Facebook feeds. They want them understanding how Facebook's software works.
Or even better, creating the next Facebook — and all the jobs that come with it.
"Computers are everywhere. They're not going anywhere. Every job is going to involve data manipulation or some sort of involvement with computers," says Wendy Powley, a research associate and adjunct lecturer in computing and education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"If our kids are never exposed, they're never going to choose it as a career. They're never even going to know those opportunities exist."
Technology 'too helpful'
It is hard to imagine that Canadian kids aren't exposed to computers, given that they're awash in blue screens, their schools brimming with computer labs.
But the reality is that most school-age kids are only skilled at navigating their way around programs that have been built for them, be it web software, an app or an internet search engine.
"It used to be that the people who were good at technology were the early geeks assembling their own computers in the basement," says Paul Gries, an acting vice-dean of teaching and learning at the University of Toronto.
"The technology has become good enough, too helpful. Nobody knows how to go deeper."
Powley says she's noticed an uptick in incoming Queen's students choosing computer science, aware that's where the future job opportunities lie. "They're starting to catch on."
But too often they are the students who naturally gravitate towards computing. Or they have benefited from a savvy parent or teacher pushing the subject outside the general school curriculum.
That's exactly what happened in one class at River Oaks Public School in Oakville, Ont., where Cameron Steltman has been including coding in his classes for three years.
Untrained as a computer science instructor, he tapped into his self-described passion for technology and started teaching his students to code with online courses from Code.org, a U.S. non-profit group.
"Why hold them back?" says Steltman, of his Grade 6 students. "This is a skill they need. The world is changing."
Jobs of the future
Most Canadian students, though, aren't that lucky. Not even at River Oaks, where the other Grade 6 class doesn't have a Steltman folding computer coding into the lesson plan.
The hit-and-miss feel of computer science education seems to extend right through the country's primary and secondary schools.
Powley notes that in her home province of Ontario, only a third of high schools offer a single computer course. And when computer coding is offered, it's an elective that's introduced in the later years. By then, habits have set in.
By contrast, she says, "the U.K. model is wonderful because the kids just grow up with it. It's like math. It's like English."
Not everyone is a fan of the mandatory British approach, mind you.
William Zhou, the co-founder of Canadian high-tech company Chalk.com believes that Canadian kids need more exposure to computer coding. But mandatory classes, he says, might be too ambitious.
We just don't have the computer science teachers to do it, he says, adding, "If we just say 'Let's teach this,' we will end up with students that hate the classes. That's not what we want."
Still, it's hard to ignore that most countries are pushing hard to create the workforce of the future. "Globally we are shy, absolutely," says Nick Oddson, a senior vice-president at D2L a Kitchener, Ont.-based high-tech firm, who has worked in India and is struck by the sheer volume of high-tech workers that the country is producing.
"A tech background creates opportunities," says Oddson. "[Those students] create the startups. So they are going to create their own jobs."
The federal government recently predicted that jobs in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology engineering and maths — would grow by 12 per cent between 2013 and 2022. And 35 per cent of those jobs are expected to be computer science-related.
Last year, former employment minister Jason Kenney bemoaned the fact that Canadian companies say they can't find high tech workers to fill vacancies.
For her part, Stephenson is alarmed by the prospect of Canadian kids missing out on these emerging jobs.
"My family is from Oshawa," she said, where layoffs at car factories have hammered the local economy. "I know what happens to families and communities and cities when you train students for the jobs of the past and not the jobs of the future."
with files from Ioanna Roumeliotis