An extract from my interview with KiasuParents…

To understand the significance of coding, we spoke with two schools, Discovering Without Borders and Tink Tank, for their insights. Discovering Without Borders runs STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workshops for children. It was founded by Australian educator Yen Siow, who worked as special projects and student engagement coordinator for the Swinburne University of Technology Melbourne for eight years, and is passionate about seeing children learn the “art” of coding. Tink Tank is a new coding school established by a group of young technology enthusiasts, including Himmy Cheng and Deddy Setiadi, who are Singapore Management University graduates with computing backgrounds.

What is coding exactly? What do children learn when they attend coding classes?
DWB: Coding is the language of programming computers to perform a certain task.When we teach a programming language to children, we want to see them develop the skills required to communicate with a computer.

Tink Tank: Programming classes will help children build up life skills such as problem solving. Coding is sequential—you need to know what to write and why one code comes after another. Children will be able to make logical connections that can help them analyse different situations and look at the big picture before drilling down to the smaller steps needed to reach a goal. Also, when they engage in hands-on coding activities and encounter errors, children will learn to identify problems in order to debug a programme.

Why should children pick up coding? Is it only useful for those aspiring to become programmers?
DWB: All children need to be equipped with the right skills to communicate efficiently with technology-based tools, as our society is rapidly moving towards technology dependency in our homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces.  The Singapore government has set in place a “Smart Nation” goal to equip the nation with sensors that will measure utility usage, traffic, health indicators, and so much more. Our children will not just be the end users of these technologies—they will need to be the creators and problem solvers for these tools. I strongly believe learning a programming language is as important as learning your mother tongue, and should be a compulsory subject for all children in schools.

Tink Tank: There has been a lot of buzz in recent times about how coding is the new literacy. While our current world is shaped fundamentally by math and science, which we learn in school, our future world will be a digital world, where our lives are shaped by computers and connected devices. A lack of literacy in programming may be crippling, as it is undesirable to be merely a passive consumer of technology. We feel every child should learn to code, or at least have exposure to it.

If your child dreams of working in the IT sector, she will likely have excellent job prospects with Singapore’s “Smart Nation” plans. Even if your child doesn’t pursue programming, coding will be a valuable skill in any career. For instance, marketing has gone digital, and crucial components of marketing, such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), will likely involve HTML coding and using tools like Google Analytics.

At what age would you recommend that children learn to code?
DWB: Preschoolers can already learn the concepts of programming languages using games or simple technology toys that are based on creating actions through commands. [Click here for a list of coding apps for kids.]

Tink Tank: We think 9-12 years old would be good, as children of this age would have developed an adequate level of logical maturity.

How useful are the free coding tutorials online, such as Hour Of Code?
DWB: Hour Of Code is an excellent tool for children of all abilities to learn. However, children should be guided by an adult to ensure they understand the requirements of each session, or else I do find that it could become an unproductive time of “playing” with the computer program but not learning anything useful or building on specific skills for programming language development.

Tink Tank: These are excellent resources to pique a child’s interest in coding and provide a basic introduction, given their rich visuals and game-like nature. However, many of the tutorials may be simplistic with limited programming knowledge taught. Also, the programming concepts may be subtle. Children will need guidance to truly understand and apply the concepts.

If parents are keen on sending their children to programming classes, what should they look for?
DWB: I have seen excellent content in locally conducted programming classes, but also instances where the teachers are poor communicators, or where the class is conducted in a way that is dry and boring. I would suggest meeting the teachers, viewing the class, and looking at how the teachers motivate the students to learn—observe how engaging the class is and watch for signs of interest in the children.

Tink Tank: We would advise that parents find out about the student-to-teacher ratio and the syllabus offered by the coding school [i.e. the learning objectives and end goals]. Coding is a journey and programming is unlike other subjects—a child needs to discover, make mistakes, debug programs, and learn from this. A low student-teacher ratio will ensure the instructor is akin to a mentor, one who can connect with the child and provide adequate space for experimentation, with sufficient attention and guidance.

In your opinion, would coding skills be an asset for secondary school entry?
Tink Tank: We believe coding knowledge will give students an advantage when entering schools with IT-related programmes through the Direct School Admission scheme.Examples of such schools are St Andrew’s Secondary, which has a robotics and engineering programme, and Pei Hwa Secondary, which has an ICT [information and communications technology] and robotics programme.