From September, coding will be part of the primary and secondary education curriculum in the UK, as part of wider changes designed to boost computer literacy alongside reading, writing and maths skills for British children.
Some independent schools are already providing a glimpse at the potential. Which is why I recently found myself in Cambridge, watching a classroom of Year 5 girls – 9-10 year-olds – practising their programming skills on iPad apps like Hopscotch, Move the Turtle and Kodable.
The school is the Stephen Perse Foundation, where I later see a Year 7 class sat at computers getting hands on with MIT’s Scratch programming language, then meet members of the school’s App Club, who have been making their own apps using Objective-C.
It’s fair to say this school is still an exception rather than the rule for the British education system: it’s an independent school with more freedom to set its own curriculum, and the resources to have rolled out an iPad for every senior-school pupil, with more available for younger pupils to use too.
The Foundation even has its own director of digital strategy, Dan Edwards, who is one of more than 2,000 Apple Distinguished Educators dotted around the world. It’s a powerful case study for what that company is doing in the education sector, but one that also raises thorny questions about the strategies of other schools, technology companies and governments.
The way tablets were introduced at the Stephen Perse Foundation followed an increasingly common pattern: first a limited pilot with teachers using the devices, then a trial with children, and finally the full rollout across the school.
The process has included training teachers, evaluating apps and constructing courses using Apple’s iTunes U service, as well as frequently shaking up the strategy when, according to Edwards, the girls blaze through a course or app that he thought would present a challenge for their age group, and demand to move on to the next level. “When we’re planning for next year, we genuinely don’t know where they’ll be,” he says. “When you remove barriers, it’s amazing how quickly things move.”
It’s interesting to see how the tablets are being used across the school’s curriculum, rather than being hived off into specific ICT lessons, as they might be in schools where the devices are more limited. The Year 5 class use the Pages app to create field trip reports and mock up newspaper front pages, and other apps for tasks like creating comic strips about the sinking of the Mary Rose.
Their teacher tells me the emphasis is on using tablets to create, rather than consume; a message later reiterated when I sit down with the school’s principal, Tricia Kelleher. “If you’re a school, you have to get beyond this just being a device that you use. You can create what’s on it as well, and that’s been the transformation in the last year. Otherwise, students are just being consumers,” she says.
Hopscotch is one of the coding apps being used at the school.
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Hopscotch is one of the coding apps being used at the school.
Kelleher also tells me about the Foundation’s decision to make tablets such a core part of its teaching, which she says was grounded in a wider strategy of reaching out to Cambridge’s thriving technology community, while providing skills that – even if pupils don’t end up in tech-related careers – will serve them well in the workplace.
“It’s about not just seeing a child as being a set of subjects, but looking at their world and the world they’re going to live in. And we had a lightbulb moment about five years ago, realising there was something missing here,” she says.
“Pupils would happily go into IT rooms, do their IT, go to another lesson and then not remember what they’d just done in IT. We realised that it needed to be embedded in what they do. We weren’t sure about the full potential of the iPad, but we took the risk. We can’t be telling our young people they should be risk-takers if we as an institution can’t take a risk.”
Those coding apps at junior-school level are laying the foundations for some students to explore the discipline when they reach senior school, through its App Club. It’s run by Rob Percival, once a teacher at the Foundation who quit to run his own business, but now helps out with the club.
I meet four members – Trinity, Michelle, Laura and Emi – who’ve already made one iOS app – a tool for helping teachers track their “House Points” system of rewards for students – and are about to begin work on a second.
“The coding games and Scratch are wonderful, but it’s nice if at the end of it, you can produce something that’s of a quality that other people can use and enjoy,” says Percival, who says the club doesn’t shirk the initially-steep learning curve of Objective-C.
“There’s a huge amount of initial enthusiasm, because they’ve all got ideas, and they think it’s cool and fun. Tapping into that is quite easy, but it’s a bit more difficult when they sit down to actually make an app,” he admits. “There’s a massive high, then quite a fast low, but once they manage to get through that, they can make something happen.”
The girls say they’re enjoying the challenge. “It’s interesting to solve the problems that come with it. We all made mistakes when we started, but it’s interesting to solve our mistakes and know not to make them later,” says Michelle.
There’s always a media fuss when a teenage developer and/or entrepreneur has some success – Nick D’Aloisio selling his Summly startup to Yahoo for a rumoured $30m being one prominent example. Actually, the prospect of whole year-groups of schoolchildren learning even just the basics of coding is just as interesting.
‘We can’t be telling our young people they should be risk-takers if we as an institution can’t take a risk.’ ‘We can’t be telling our young people they should be risk-takers if we as an institution can’t take a risk.’
But that brings me back to some of those thorny questions. My two sons go to a great primary school that’s a long way from having tablets available for every child. My children are lucky, with a tech hack for a father and tablets, apps and an enthusiasm for early coding close to hand. I recognise their privilege, but can’t help wondering about wider accessibility issues.
Apple has iPads going into a wider range of schools than you’d think – Hove Park school is another flagship case study – and rivals are also thinking about these problems. Just this week, Samsung announced an expansion of its Europe-wide “smart classrooms” initiative, which focuses on 6-16 year-olds at schools in disadvantaged areas, for example.
Samsung also signified its presence at this month’s BETT 2014 education technology event in London with a survey of more than 500 parents of primary and secondary school children in the UK, finding that 57% of them think schools do not invest enough in technology.
Perhaps if Apple and Samsung carry their fierce rivalry in the consumer technology world into the education sector, that will help. Libraries, too, could have a powerful role to play in boosting access to technology, although here too, there are complex and sensitive questions of resources. Initiatives like Code Club, which runs more than 1,800 after-school coding clubs around the UK, are also encouraging.
The visit also made me realise how there is more to tablets in schools than, well, tablets in schools. Look at the ecosystem around Apple’s iTunes U, iBooks Textbooks, Distinguished Educators and even lesser-reported moves like the Educations Collections section within the App Store, which groups apps and e-books by discipline (maths, science, history etc) with teachers in mind.
Can Google and/or its device partners build a similar educational ecosystem in the months and years ahead, to complement the growing numbers of affordable Android tablets that may be an appealing alternative for schools and school authorities, for example?
Visiting the Stephen Perse Foundation and seeing how tablets, apps and coding are woven into its curriculum rather than hived off into “ICT” was an inspiring experience, but it’s made me want to know more about how this can be brought to many more children in the years to come.
As a last point, it also made me think about the role of humans: from head teachers like Tricia Kelleher pushing through the resources and reforms required; through figures like Edwards who are figuring out how to use the new devices and give colleagues the support they need; through to those teachers using the technology on a day-to-day basis.
It reminded me that humans are important, rather than simply boiling these issues down to “School buys X tablets” headlines. “Speaking as a history teacher, the power of the story and the ability to have them in the palm of your hand? We mustn’t lose that,” says Kelleher.
“That’s the human contact. We must not become so focused on the technology, we forget the importance of the relationships that are part of learning. The thing that holds this together is the teacher.”