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Column Why should we tell our kids to put their smartphones away before class?

Junior Education Minister Ciarán Cannon argues that Ireland’s education system needs to incorporate more computer science to empower children for the jobs of the future.

WHEN GUTENBERG FIRST cranked up his new printing press 560 years ago there were perhaps 30,000 books in all of Europe, fifty years later there were over twelve million.

Gutenberg’s technology “changed the face and condition of things all over the world, so that no empire or sect or star seems to have exercised greater power and influence on human affairs,” as Francis Bacon later wrote.

We can only imagine the excitement of teachers and students of the time whose love of learning suddenly, in their eyes, had no boundaries. But are we not now witnessing another revolution in learning, in how the human race communicates, innovates, discovers, stores and retrieves knowledge about the world?

At this point in time there are a number of trailblazing teachers working in the formal Irish education system and in the voluntary Coderdojo movement. These are far sighted people who recognise that this revolution is underway, that the world we are teaching in today is not the world we teach for.

Half of the career options that exist now won’t exist in 2030. Minister Pat Rabbitte’s Digital Strategy launched just this week indicates that by 2015, across the EU, only 1 job in 10 will not require a digital skill.

Ireland has to quickly come to grips with this technological revolution by supporting our trailblazers and making them the norm rather than the exception. In education we need to design and use new learning experiences. New schools are needed for a new age, the social power of technology will force us to redefine education and to take on many new challenges.

Why should kids put their phones away?

Currently there are two distinct challenges facing us as policy makers and educators. Firstly, how do we use ICT to facilitate that paradigm shift in teaching and learning?

Why for example do we tell our children, who have just spent the morning using a smartphone that connects them to the world, to switch off that connection and put it into their school bag, before they begin learning about the world, using paper and pencils?

Secondly, how do we ensure that our children, rather than being passive users of technology, begin to really understand it? That brings us to the debate that is raging here in Ireland and globally: Do children in our schools, particularly in our primary schools, need to learn computer science and computer coding? Yes, of course they do.

Let’s look at some of the other things we teach our children in school, like English, Maths, Science, Geography, History and Music. If we strip away all of the extraneous noise and drill down to the very essence of what education is all about, most of us would conclude that it is about teaching our children about every facet of the world around them so that they can gain an ever deeper understanding of it, lead long and fulfilling lives, and go on to make their own indelible mark on humanity’s history.

Right now virtually every aspect of our lives is somehow connected to technology. Is it acceptable that our children end up being passive uninformed users of that technology without having a deeper understanding of how it works?

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we churn out a nation of programmers, that every child will become the next Mark Zuckerberg. The teaching of computer science is not about learning how to use other people’s shrink wrapped software. If that is the pinnacle of our ambition then we are selling our children very short.

Our education system needs to catch-up

Computer science can empower our children to understand and manipulate the digital world around them and in that process they acquire many other complimentary skills that will serve them well through life. Woven into computer science we also find literacy, numeracy, logic and analytical thinking.

If anyone doubts for a moment whether our children are ready for this evolutionary shift in education I would advise them to sit in a Coderdojo session.

You will see the wonder on a child’s face when they write their first Scratch program, hit that little green flag, and suddenly realise that they are in control of the machine, or the excitement when they write a few lines of html and announce their presence on the World Wide Web.

You will see children creating their own games, in a new digital landscape that they designed and you will be amazed to hear nine-year-olds describe lines of complicated code as something they threw together before they went to bed the night before, just for fun.

What has happened here in Ireland is that our formal education system has been temporarily left behind and our young people, with the help of volunteer mentors, have simply begun teaching one another the skills that excite and inspire them.

But there is no reason why our formal system can’t catch up and there are some positive developments underway.

Creating ‘poets of the future’

From September 2014 Junior Cert students will be able to access a short 100 hour course in computer science and coding. It is good to see the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment consulting with Bill Liao and James Whelton, the founders of the Coderdojo movement, in the development of this course.

Another significant development is that by the end of 2014 every post-primary school in Ireland will have an industrial strength high speed broadband connection.

These developments are welcome, but much more needs to happen and quickly. The Estonian primary school system is piloting a new curriculum where children as young as seven will take coding classes as part of their normal curriculum.  After that, they can join extracurricular coding clubs just like Ireland’s Coderdojos.

Liao describes Coderdojo kids as “the poets of the future”. The ambition in Estonia is not to just churn out software developers, but also people who have deeper and smarter relationships with technology.

Estonia doesn’t have the critical mass to become Europe’s Silicon Valley but Ireland does and it already has the knowledge, the skills and the passion to make revolution in education happen much more quickly than some believe possible.

It will happen if we can facilitate deep and meaningful collaboration between policy makers, teachers, the voluntary sector and industry. Our children are waiting for us to catch up.

Let’s lead them from the front.

Ciarán Cannon is the Minister of State for Training and Skills and Fine Gael TD for Galway East.

Column: How my school computer club turned into a worldwide movement

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