Today’s students are growing up in a world very different from the one in which their teachers did, and there are fascinating opportunities awaiting this generation. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for educators and schools to anticipate which skills these students will need after they graduate.
There has been a lot of talk about 21st Century Skills, with a popular model from the US identifying the four ‘essential’ 21st Century skills as; communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking – the 4Cs. I’m a fan of this model and I’ve found that students genuinely enjoy projects and activities which enable them to develop these skills.
Alongside communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, I’ve recently been converted to the idea that there is another 21st Century skill which every student should be introduced to, because it is the quintessential 21st Century skill – computer coding.
Many people still think that learning to write computer code is something that’s only of use to nerds, hackers and residents of Silicon Valley, but it’s about time that stereotype was changed. Today’s students need to be introduced to the basics of computer coding so they can understand how computer programs work and so they can begin developing the skills that will enable them to write their own programs, create their own websites and develop their own apps.
At present computer studies at schools in Thailand, and the rest of Asia, focus on using mainstream computer programs such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel. These programs will have fundamentally changed, or been discontinued, by the time today’s students have graduated. Simply learning how to use popular software applications is no longer enough for today’s students. Other countries, including the UK, are waking up to this reality and education departments have reformed their computer studies curriculum to introduce students to the basic principles of computer science from an early age. Eventually, coding will become as common place on the school curriculum as Physics and History. Unfortunately, Thailand is unlikely to implement such curriculum changes for years to come, chances are, today’s students will have graduated by the time the Thai MoE puts coding on the curriculum.
But don’t despair, because thanks to an excellent initiative from the US, the ‘Hour of Code’ , teachers with only rudimentary computer skills can still give students their first ever insights to computer science – all you need is a computer.
The ‘Hour of Code’, was first introduced in response to the lack of opportunities for school students to learn basic programming skills. The initiative, which has the support of a diverse range of public figures that includes; Bill Gates, Snoop Dogg, Malala Yousafzai, Richard Branson, Aston Kutcher and Mark Zuckerberg, aims to ‘demystify the art of coding’ and expand student participation in computer science.
This year the Hour of Code, which takes place from 7th-13th December, has teamed up with Minecraft, Disney and Star Wars to create some great online tutorials which have everything students, and teachers, need to get their first taste of coding.
The Minecraft tutorial is a great place to start. It uses Blocky to introduce learners to the basics of computer code. Students use these blocks to program a Minecraft character to complete various tasks. Under each block is a line of Java code and the students can ‘look under the hood’ to see the actual code that is being used. Not only is the tutorial easy to follow and engaging but it also introduces learners to ‘commands’, ‘repeat loops’ and ‘if statements’, concepts which lie at the very foundations of computer programming. Once you’ve come to grips with the Minecraft tutorial they can move on to the Star Wars tutorial which allows students to actually begin writing lines of Java code. There is also a Frozen tutorial which encourages students to program Elsa to carve patterns by skating over the ice – a great activity for students learning angles.
The benefits of learning computer science are immense and all students should have this opportunity, not only because it can be a path to a rewarding career but because, as Steve Jobs famously explained, ‘everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer… because it teaches you how to think.’ Furthermore, these online tutorials are excellent practice for students to apply their English language skills in ‘real life’ situations, by following instructions and issuing commands.
In the same way that all students are given the opportunity to play a musical instrument and ride a bicycle, 21st Century students should all be introduced to the basics of computer science because developing computer literacy is essential for this generation. Students who ‘speak code’ will have far more opportunities than those who don’t, and it is these individuals who will use technology to meet the challenges of 21st Century life – challenges, such as climate change, environmental destruction, natural resource management, health epidemics and overpopulation, which will only be overcome with human ingenuity aided by technology and computers.
If you are interested in getting involved, you can get started by visiting the Hour of Code’s website www.Code.org , there is still time to sign up and there are lots of great resources to inspire future programmers. You can even download certificates and stickers for students who successfully complete their first hour of programming.