Last week, I had the privilege of giving one of the keynote talks at IPON 2018. IPON is the Netherlands’ leading conference/trade show devoted to innovation in education and ICT applications and services. The event showcases teaching methods, learning materials and tools, hardware and software.

During my talk, I renewed my call for computer science to become a mandatory subject, starting in primary school and continuing through secondary school.

Here are some of my thoughts on the experience based on my discussions afterwards with the school administrators and teachers I met there who are committed to introducing technology education to their pupils.

An Overall Strategy and Approach to Technology Education is Lacking: Schools and teachers are pursuing different teaching objectives when it comes to technology. Coding seems to be taking the lead but this narrow focus could have dire consequences later on. Unless we define technology education in a wider context of computer science, technological literacy and computational thinking, we will produce programmers with knowledge and skills which will become obsolete quickly or taken over by AI. We need a stronger focus on computational thinking and the ability to evaluate technology according to its pros, cons and implications. We need to teach in a way which gives students a basic understanding of technology and enables them to collaborate with technologists even if they decide not to become computer scientists, developers or programmers themselves.

Schools and Teachers Think Using Technology in the Classroom = Technology Education: The IPON exhibition was full of ICT technology which could be brought into the classroom. However, school administrators and teachers should not confuse a student’s ability to use technology with a student’s understanding of how technology works and why it works or a student’s ability to create with technology. These are two very different skills sets and a significantly smaller fraction of students truly understand how technology works and can create with it.

Schools and Teachers Think Coding Lessons Should be the Focus of Technology Education: Many schools are happy to report that they are providing their students with coding lessons. While this is a great first step, teaching technical skills such as coding should not be the focus during primary education. Instead, schools should focus on helping kids develop thought processes which help them understand how technology and machines work. Coding focuses on execution of tasks whereas computational thinking is applied during the whole technology development process. Finally, while coding focuses on mastering specific programming languages, computational thinking helps students understand the logic and patterns of technology and computers.

Schools and Teachers Focus on On-Screen Coding Activities: Several teachers I spoke with talked about specific programming languages that their students are learning on screen. The pedagogy we at NewTechKids have developed is based on encouraging students to learn programming concepts by programming tangible objects ranging from robot heads made of cardboard boxes to toy robots, robotics kits and programmable mini-computers such as Micro:bit. We believe that kids master abstract computer science concepts by applying them through a use of a tangible tool.

Schools and Teachers Lack Access to Training Developed by Experts Specialised in Computer Science Education at the Primary Level: Most of the resources that teachers are using to introduce computer science in their classrooms come from the usual suspects: CS Unplugged, and Scratch. It’s very clear that even more training resources are needed to help teachers gain an understanding of basic computer science concepts, teach computer science in the context of 21st century skills and develop a mindset which helps them master this new subject.

Teachers Who are Teaching Coding/Programming Lack Peer Support: Many teachers said that they took the initiative to introduce coding at their schools, often without significant support from school administration. They also said they wished there were more peer support communities where they could interact with like-minded teachers to share experiences and ideas.

There is a lot of work to be done but IPON shows us that computer science and programming education at the primary school level is expanding and set to grow rapidly in the years to come.

(Blog post written by Deborah Carter, NewTechKids’ Co-founder and Business Director)