Magazine article Teach

Code Breakers

Magazine article Teach

Code Breakers

Article excerpt

The ABC's of Digital Education

There's a greater push to teach kids computer coding at school. But you don't need to be a technology whiz to introduce it to your students. Here's how some teachers are bringing coding to their classes-and how you can do the same.

A plumber from Brooklyn lies next to a racetrack. His vehicle-smashed. The audience-shocked. His condition? Unknown.

A few Toronto children could determine whether he lives or dies. Their task: "Check if Mario is dead."

This isn't a CPR class. They're learning visual basic, a computer programming language developed by Microsoft. They're practising with the game Mario Kart as part of classes run by Real Programming 4 Kids.

"That's a key part of my day," Real Programming 4 Kids' co-founder Elliott Bay, remarks as he reads the instructions. He never envisioned he'd run a business that teaches children computer coding by using video games. In the 1990s, he ran a math tutoring business in Winnipeg. His business partner, a programmer, put a beer down on a PacMan machine in a bar and said, "I could teach kids to program this." They started Real Programming 4 Kids years before organizations like the U.S.-based Code.org introduced Hour of Code, an initiative to have students spend at least one hour coding in December during Computer Science Awareness week.

In 2000, Real Programming 4 Kids expanded to Toronto. It now only operates in Ontario and has classes throughout the province. Many students have become programmers; most teachers are alumni. But what students learn applies to more subjects than just computer science, says Bay. Programming computer games builds math skills-plotting characters' movements requires geometry. Making jumps realistic uses physics. Most importantly, games make learning fun, says Bay.

Still, learning computer coding is serious. Few skills are as essential to children's lives as coding, or computer programming. Computer code is the language computers speak. It's how they receive instructions to operate. Because much of children's activities-and social interactions- involve computers, learning to code is as crucial as learning to read and write.

"The importance of computer programming is literacy," explains Kate Arthur, co-founder of Kids Code Jeunesse, a non-profit that helps teachers incorporate coding into their classes. A few years ago, she realized her inability to code limited her communication-despite her literature degree and communications background. "We're not expecting everyone to be computer programmers," she says of the organization's goals. "It's just making (students) aware of it. Not everyone's going to become the next Bill Gates and the next James Joyce."

But all students need to understand how computers and the Internet work. Many think the Internet is Google, says Arthur. Adults expect kids to live in a digital world, but children don't always know how this digital world is made, or how it works.

"It's important for them to know there's information behind what they're seeing," explains Debbie Adams, an elementary science and technology teacher in Montreal. "You don't just press a button. There are ways where you can take control and create your own buttons."

How students should learn to make these digital "buttons" is debatable. Businesses and not-for-profits offer classes and teaching resources, but many schools don't provide coding instruction. It's not mandatory in Canadian elementary schools. Some high school electives include coding. This doesn't mean schools don't want to teach coding. It may not be an option for them. Budget constraints make it hard to keep up with ever-changing technology. Teachers may not have enough time in their day to teach computer coding. They may not know how to code.

But teachers don't need to break a code to teach code. Another set of ABC's: accessibility, bravery, and creativity, can help them teach students to code, and learn it themselves. …

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