Introducing computer coding in the early grades is now emerging as the favoured strategy for ‘seeding’ entrepreneurial skills in the schools. Since former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed in his famous 2012 New Year’s resolution to learn code, digital industry leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have rallied around Code.org, a movement to get school children to learn about programming. Every year since, in early December, millions of students world-wide have participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code, a week-long event designed to promote the renewal of computer science education.
The so-called CodeKids movement, inspired largely by Microsoft-funded Code.org, is spreading like wildfire in and around North American school systems. Acadia University president Ray Ivany’s 2014 Now or Never report, effectively declared the Maritime province of Nova Scotia an economic ‘basket case” and called for urgent action to stoke-up “entrepreneurship” and implant it in the rising generation. It then emerged as one of six major “action points” branded as “our ICT Momentum” hoisted up by the subsequent One Nova Scotia Coalition as key strategies to revitalize the province’s struggling economy.
Computer coding for students is seen by One Nova Scotia zealots as a critical part of the teaching entrepreneurship agenda. With the support of New Brunswick CodeKids champion David Alston, younger Nova Scotians such as Jevon MacDonald of Volta Labs, succeeded in September 2015 in bringing “Brilliant Labs” promoting STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) to a first cohort of pilot schools. In late October 2015, Nova Scotia Education minister Karen Casey went one step further, announcing that “mandatory coding” would be taught in every grade from Primary to Grade 12 in the province’s 400 public schools.
The Nova Scotia curriculum initiative, purportedly the first in Canada, presented “coding” as the primary means of implanting entrepeneurial skills. “We know that coding promotes problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, innovation and creativity,” Casey claimed. “And we know that these skills are directly related to industries like computer programming, manufacturing, communications and more.”
Education Minister Casey’s implementation plan proved less convincing. Mandatory coding courses would start in a few months, September 2016, and be implemented by existing teachers retooled to teach introductory computer science. That professional development training, she added, would be provided by staff from IBM and Google brought in to instruct the prospective teachers.
However laudable the initiative, the Nova Scotia implementation strategy left a lot to be desired. No specific reference was made to the existing Brilliant Labs pilot project, to the current competencies of teachers, the state of the school-level technology infrastructure, or the potential for ongoing business partnerships. While the plan was lauded by Nova Scotia’s relatively small private business class, including Jordi Morgan and the CFIB Atlantic, it was presented as yet another ‘inside the system’ project.
Many national and local businesses actively promote technology education and specifically programming in the schools. Most promoters of teaching code are convinced that ICT (Information Communications Technology) is not only the wave of the future but the gateway to most jobs for today’s students. Mesmerized by the Internet revolution, they see an urgent need for teachers and their schools to finally get on board.
Nova Scotia is in economic decline and ripe for urgent action. In the province, ICT accounts for 8.2 per cent of the business sector and is considered a potential future growth sector. To retain young Nova Scotians, the province is scrambling to support its fledgling, mostly grant-funded “start-up” community, seeing them as sources of future employment. The strategy is one of necessity, given the slow decline of traditional private sector employment industries like pulp and paper, fishing, and resource development.
Computer coding may be a rather narrow base upon which to launch the needed entrepreneurial transformation. Computer Science died out as a credit subject in Nova Scotia schools over the past two decades, as it did in most other provincial school systems. It was approached as a branch of Mathematics where students were barred from entering without first acquiring higher level Math competencies. Faculties of education stopped training Computer Science teachers because demand dried up while industry and commerce was becoming more and more driven by the latest technology. Students resorted to learning programming on their own or later in the changing workplace.
Technology is here to stay but as a tool to unlock new knowledge not an end in itself. Current teachers “assigned” to teach computer coding may not be the best ones to actually deliver the new program. Judging from the Ontario SNOW program, focusing on providing Special Education teachers with the latest assistive learning technology, employing technology tends to introduce new challenges in class management. Planning for successful implementation will involve supporting teachers in new and unfamiliar pedagogical terrain outside their normal teaching comfort zones.
The private business sector has been crying, in recent decades, for more graduates with computer science knowledge or higher level technological competencies. Former teachers like Halifax technology expert Ari Najarian have been sounding alarm bells and even presenting new curriculum for junior and senior high schools. It was next-to-impossible to get those inside the system to pay much attention until Gates, Zuckerberg and Alston forced their way onto the public agenda.
The American promoters at Code.org and the annual Hour of Code attracted millions of students and thousands of teacher converts. In Nova Scotia, it took the “shock treatment” administered by Ray Ivany’s dire economic forecast.
Will introducing mandatory computer coding at all grade levels drive the change? Are school systems awakening to the need to fully embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in slow growth regions? Where will the capable, qualified teachers of computer science come from? Will the focus on developing fundamental reading and numeracy skills be helped or hurt by the ICT initiative? How long will it take to produce a new generation of computer savvy, technologically proficient graduates?