The misconception that 'coding is boring' motivates EAK co-founder Dee Saigal

I grew up thinking that people who could speak the language of computers may as well be a different species – they probably had a completely different brain to mine. Computing couldn’t have seemed further away from the creative subjects that I loved as a child – more than that, I imagined it was something I would never be good at.

It’s not just me. For more than four decades, computer science has been taught in a way that only a small percentage of students have been inspired by.

Following the realisation that technology is now essential to our everyday lives at home, at work and at school, from September 2014 the English national curriculum required all schools to teach computing to children aged 5 to 16. The intention with the new curriculum was to teach students how to problem solve, and empower them to become creators of digital media, rather than consumers, in preparation for life beyond school.

Although the curriculum was transformed to become more relevant to 21st century students, the perception of engineering and coding among most children and adults hasn’t really changed. Learning to code and create on the web is still generally perceived as being ‘difficult’ and ‘dull’, and is considered to be appealing to students who are better at maths and science, and not those with an interest in languages and the arts.

However, there’s not much point in a student learning to code if they can’t think creatively. Contrary to what most people think, coding isn’t really a subject like maths or science – it’s simply a tool, which is the by-product of creativity. My co-founders at Erase All Kittens (EAK) and I have spent the past two years trying to devise a solution to this problem.

Consistent feedback from research – coding 'isn't creative'

EAK pioneersSpreading the word: crucial for a startup

It has involved research with hundreds of students where we came up against the same issue time and again: the huge misconception that coding ‘isn’t creative’. And that means there is still a ‘self-selection’ bias: many of the students learning to code outside of school have chosen to do so, and the majority of them are boys.

We also learnt that the biggest drop-off in interest for students is after the age of 12. So, how do we keep students interested, and engage more of them?

Creating engaging tools and lesson plans which are specifically designed to harness new skillsets effectively for life after school, would be a good start. One challenge is the fact that most of the tools that are currently available for coding only adhere to the curriculum, without taking into account the influx of digital technology and globalisation. This will greatly affect the extent to which students will be ready for life after school, and will consequently have a big impact on their futures.

For education to be effective in today’s world, schools should be adapting their ways of teaching. For example, Ian Livingstone CBE, founding father of the UK games industry and the driving force behind England's computing curriculum, will be opening two free schools this year, with the purpose of ‘embedding digital creativity in future generations of our society’.

These schools will offer an education rooted in science, technology, engineering, arts and maths, and promise the latest in technology and creative thinking to prepare students more effectively for our new digital era. Our objective shouldn’t just be to teach students how to code — as this on its own isn’t effective — we should be teaching them how to think, collaborate, and become lifelong learners.

Think of coding as 'a literacy that spans the curriculum'

Leonie EAKLeonie meets some EAK charactersUltimately, teaching coding with personal learning and thinking skills (PLTS) is what will offer children an advantage in our hyper-competitive and increasingly digital world. We could also treat coding less like a standalone subject, which would eventually result in people thinking of it more like a literacy that spans the entire curriculum — much like reading and writing. A more creative and practical approach to code education won’t just engage more students, it will help to prepare them for their future.

Finally, if we want children to be engaged, it’s important that we focus more on understanding what it is that engages them when creating and selecting any educational software or learning resource. Let’s look at what is currently being taught in more detail.

Most coding tools use Blockly, a visual-based programming language, which has been designed specifically for children. It uses visual blocks that students drag and drop to write programs, providing a great platform for introducing young children to coding. But should it be the only way?

One reason for the sudden drop-off in students continuing with code education could be the difference between learning visual-based programming languages, which are designed for kids, and learning professional, text-based programming languages, which allow people to create on the web where they can feel satisfied with an immediately tangible result. Kids are also familiar with web pages so it’s more rewarding.

Perhaps we’re missing a trick here, because it’s a proven fact that children learn languages quickly and easily when they are very young. If that’s the case, why don’t we try inspiring children by teaching them the real languages of technology, in a way that would be challenging and engaging?

'It's vital that we shake up code education' 

In trying to come up with an answer, my team and I created Erase All Kittens (EAK). It's a web-based platform game that teaches students aged 8 to 14 to code, while helping to build up their creativity and critical thinking skills. In EAK, players can edit the source code that governs the game’s environment, enabling them to build and fix real levels as they play, using HTML and CSS.

We beta-tested the game with several Oasis Learning Community schools and learnt that EAK encourages students to become researchers, teachers, problem solvers, team builders, writers and designers, as well as coders. It’s a tool that aims to inspire and, later, equip students to build their own simple creations on the web, and provides teachers with the opportunity to become the facilitators of independent, autonomous learning.

Computing in schools has enormous potential. It’s an opportunity to provide students with far more of an understanding of the world around them, and give them the confidence to think about changing it from their earliest years. In order to engage young children though, programming needs to be meaningful – not just about learning the concepts and procedural building blocks.

If we want to inspire children to become creators of technology, rather than consumers of it, it’s vital that we shake up code education and deliver it in a number of different, and more creative, ways.

Dee SaigalDee Saigal is the chief executive and chief scribbler of Erase All Kittens (EAK), a story-driven game that teaches children computational thinking and professional coding languages

Erase All Kittens is a web-based learning tool to support students 8-plus with both computational thinking and professional coding like HTML and CSS. While its aim is to inspire both boys and girls to code, and equip them with practical skills to empower them to create on the web, the game also has a strong focus on personal learning and thinking skills. Through word of mouth EAK has more than 70,000 players around the world, almost half of them girls. The current website game has one hour of gameplay content, and new content will be added every six to eight weeks.

See also "What's up pussycat? Pupils who erase kittens" and "The Thing about BETT?"

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