Winnipeg school division charts new territory in computer coding for kids

A Winnipeg school division is diving head-first into uncharted territory in Canada – teaching coding to young kids.

Pembina Trails School Division develops framework for teaching K-8 kids computer coding

A Winnipeg school division is diving head-first into uncharted territory in Canada – teaching coding to young kids. CBC's Teghan Beaudette reports. 1:53

Ben Safiniuk is seven years old, and he knows how to write computer code – sort of.

“Well, I have made a stickman. He’s like, ‘Hello’ and then he got sucked up into a ship,” said Ben.

He’s a student in the Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg who can make a blue dog dance across a stage or build a game with disappearing red blocks. And he’s not the only one.

The school division is diving head-first into uncharted territory in Canada – teaching coding to young kids.

“As I get to travel around our 33 schools, I’m now noticing I’m being asked more and more from younger and younger grades, ‘Can you teach me Java?’” said David Wall, Pembina Trails’ educational technology consultant.”
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      The only problem? Many teachers don’t have any idea how to teach kids code. And it isn’t a failing on their part – there’s no curriculum or framework in Canada for how to teach kids from Kindergarten to Grade 8 how to code.

      “Quite a few times I get emails and calls like, ‘Okay, these kids are talking in language I don’t understand. PHP, HTML, what does that mean?’” said Wall.

      So instead of waiting for one, the division is making their own. In education speak, it’s called a “continuum,” but it’s essentially a guide for teachers who don’t know Java from… java.

      “Our goal was to write a continuum as a resource for our teachers so they would have something to go to no matter what age the child came to them and said, [for example] ‘I’m in Grade 5, I want to learn coding,’” said Wall. “Traditionally, coding has just been in a computer science option course in high school.”

      They aren’t sure when the continuum will be done, but when it is, Wall hopes it’ll help other divisions across the country develop their own frameworks.

      In the meantime, they’re getting as much coding as possible into the classroom.

      Last week, 13,000 students in the division got a taste of what’s to come. The entire division participated in the international Hour of Code event – where 57,000 classrooms around the world spend some time coding.

      But Wall said students aren’t waiting for teachers and curriculum to catch up. They’re doing the learning on their own.

      13-year-old students make money coding online

      “I got into it when I was 11. I was just doing math in my school’s computer lab and then I went to the computer science page and I tried it out,” said Grade 8 Linden Meadows student Zach Lowden. “Then my friend got into it too and so we ended up having a contest to see who could get farther and do more coding. It kind of went from there.”

      Lowden is now 13 and makes money at home by building code for Minecraft. His specialty is Java.
      Zach Lowden, age 13, teaches students in his class how to code in Java. Zach makes money in his spare time writing code for Minecraft. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

      “You can write plugins using Java and then people will hire you to write custom-made ones and then they’ll buy them off you,” he said.

      Lowden set up his own PayPal account to get paid but said he does it mainly for fun and doesn’t make much cash.

      When Lowden crossed paths with Wall one day at school he told him about what he was doing in his spare time. Soon, Lowden was leading a lunch-hour “coding club” at his school – creating lessons and teaching other kids how to code.

      Two years later, and he has lesson plans from the simple – teaching strings, creating variables and logging it to the console – to the complex.

      “Now, they’re ahead of me in certain things. There’s a coding language called HTML, which is what people use to write websites. I don’t really know much HTML, but one of the kids I was teaching is really talented at HTML now,” said Lowden.

      Lowden’s principal said he was a quiet, shy kid who didn’t talk much in class or the hallways before he started coding club. Once he was leading kids in lessons, though, it was a different story.

      ‘I didn’t expect that level of engagement’

      Grade 2 teacher Dana Jordan is seeing the same types of transformations in her classroom.

      “A few of them had already been doing it at home which was amazing. The rest of them, I mean, daily they pick up an iPad and an iPod, and to sit down and learn how a computer thinks – they just did it,” she said.

      Jordan and a handful of other teachers have been given some training in how to guide kids through learning-to-code programs. Her husband is a computer coder, but she never took an interest until she got the training.

      “I’ve seen the papers at home with all his jargon -- had no idea what it was all about. Then when we sat down at the computer it wasn’t too difficult. It was just learning how a computer thinks,” she said.

      Seven-year-old Ben is still ahead on some fronts though. He came to class with an idea for a better program to learn code on – called Scratch, an MIT-developed kids coding program.

       “I guess what I didn’t expect was the level of engagement. Especially at this time of year – it’s the holidays coming. The kids were engaged and they were pumped and they could’ve taken two hours of code,” she said. “Ben … said I need to teach the kids all about Scratch, so guess what we’re doing after the holidays? We’re going to be ‘scratching.’”

      ‘The stereotype of the coder is the geek’

      The division is paying close attention to getting girls involved, too.

      The gender imbalance in the industry is huge, and the division is trying to address that.
      Grade 2 teacher Dana Jordan said what shocked her about teaching seven-year-old kids code was how engaged they were immediately. She's already planned more coding lessons for next term. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

      “The stereotype of the coder is the geek. So the geeky boy sitting in his basement, he’s kind of pale, glasses – maybe broken at one time but that’s changing rapidly because of the kind of tools that are available,” said Wall. “There are groups of girls at our schools who run their own coding clubs so it’s really growing exponentially.”

      12-year-old Nia Gutierrez isn’t in a club, but she uses Coding Academy at home to teach herself how it works.

      “It’s like a puzzle. I love puzzles. Every code, it’s like a piece of a puzzle and slowly you try to put the whole picture together. It’s like a game,” she said. “It’s really interesting.”

      Gutierrez says the prevalence of men in the industry doesn’t faze her, and she wants to make websites once she’s had a bit more training.

      More screen time?

      Almost all the kids have goals tied to coding.

      Ben wants to build a video game with disappearing red blocks, Zach wants to build more ambitious plug-ins and others want to figure out how to build apps.

      Selling coding to parents can be difficult – more screen time comes with concern for many, but Jordan said many parents are grateful that the kids are focusing on something meaningful at home and school.

      “As a 21st Century learner, this is what it’s all about,” said Jordan. “This is what kids need to know. We teach them how to read. We teach them all about math and I strongly believe they also need to learn about computers.”

      Wall said coding helps with problem-solving and process-oriented thinking, and beyond that, it’s a language we live in every day.

      “If you look around from your home to your vehicle to what we have in our hands to the camera you’re using, there’s code embedded inside them. It’s a part of our everyday,” he said.


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