Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Context of Coding in Modern Education

Thumbnail for an infographic on why you should teach kids to code.
Click to view the full infographic from Kodable (2018).
Over the last several years, learning to code has become a common classroom activity (Thompson, 2017). Britain has introduced compulsory coding curriculum, British Columbia has committed to making coding instruction available for interested students at every grade level, and coding camps and clubs are held at schools across the world (Wente, 2017), to name a few examples. But why is the world obsessed with teaching students how to code?

There is no question that we live in a digital age. In response, schools are scrambling to ensure their students are digitally literate and equipped with global competencies, such as problem-solving, computational thinking, and design (Tuomi, Multisilta, Saarikoski & Suominen, 2018), that will enable them to succeed in a technological world. While not all students will become programmers or software engineers, research suggests that coding skills and computational literacies are relevant for everyone in our modern world (Bers, 2018; Tuomi et al., 2018), and are essential for the growth of our economy (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). Integrating developmentally appropriate coding and digital literacies instruction starting in elementary school can help prepare students to become adaptive, contributing citizens (Campbell & Walsh, 2017).

Benefits of Coding Education: 

Although many schools delay formal coding curriculum until secondary school, introducing students to age-appropriate programming languages in early childhood and primary grades can facilitate the development of computer science and engineering knowledge (Bers, 2018; Wong, Cheung, Ching & Huen, 2015). With the right tools, coding can serve as a playground for younger students, promoting social interaction, motor skill development, imagination, and problem-solving skills while providing an avenue for communication, self-expression, and creative storytelling (Bers, 2018). Coding has also emerged as a new literacy, enabling different forms of thought, communication, and self-expression (Bers, 2018; Campbell & Walsh, 2017).

Coding can also promote STEAM learning, weaving the arts into the traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects through the design of digital games, user interfaces, and other digital artifacts (Thompson, 2017). Lastly, coding can facilitate the development of countless skills that are essential for social participation, such as logical thinking, creativity, motivation to learn, collaboration, problem-solving, and self-discipline (Wong et al., 2015).

Challenges and Considerations for Coding Education: 

While many scholars and school administrators are convinced that coding is a necessary skillset for students, others argue that coding is far less important than an overarching sense of digital literacy - understanding how and why to use different software applications, instead of knowing how to create them (Wente, 2017). Additionally, some teachers feel that the challenges are stacked against coding: it may be too abstract for students, it can be difficult to schedule around existing curricular demands, and parents may not have the requisite knowledge to help students with homework and assignments (Wong et al., 2015). It can also be challenging to find teachers who are both able (Wente, 2017), and willing (Wong et al., 2015), to teach code, particularly to younger students. Some critics believe that schools should prioritize hiring math and science teachers to help students understand the world they live in (Wente, 2017), although the need for digital literacy is well-documented.

How is Coding Being Taught? 

Coding has long been an activity reserved for secondary school students, with time allocated for specific programming courses compared with only brief coding activities throughout the year in earlier grades (Wong et al., 2015).  However, Ontario is dedicated to helping students learn to code from primary grades onward. Engaging younger students in play-based, hands-on digital learning can be an effective way to promote meaning-making and risk-taking, as well as to introduce coding and robotics in early childhood education (Campbell & Walsh, 2017). Furthermore, the Ontario Ministry of Education (2016) has worked to provide teachers with lesson plans, training, and current digital tools to facilitate the integration of coding and computational skills into elementary school instruction. They have also committed to the expansion of coding workshops and robotics competitions for students, and have embraced the Hour of Code movement that encourages youth and adults to participate in one-hour coding tutorials for over 45 programming languages (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016).

Makerspaces and maker culture have also become a hub for coding, encouraging students to create physical or digital artifacts that integrate coded elements (Thompson, 2017; Tuomi et al., 2018). Organizations like Hack Club also help integrate coding directly into classroom curriculum, instead of limiting students’ exposure to after-school clubs and other extracurricular activities (Thompson, 2017). This emphasis on coding and digital literacies has resulted in a 20% enrolment increase in secondary school computer science courses (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016).

So Now What? 

Although coding has become widely accepted in schools across the world, there is still a lack of research on effective teaching practices (Tuomi et al., 2018). The development of concrete guidelines for teachers can help overcome the challenges posed by inadequate training and a lack of coding knowledge (Wong et al., 2015), however, the availability of tangible, user-friendly robots and programming interfaces such as ScratchJr. (n.d.), KIBO (KinderLab Robotics, 2018), and Bee-Bot (Terrapin, 2016) can help gradually introduce coding concepts and computational thought (Bers, 2018; Campbell & Walsh, 2017).

Additional Resources: 

Kids Learning Code (a Canada Learning Code initiative) offers workshops, camps, and afterschool programs for students between 3 and 12 years of age.

Hour of Code has become a global movement encouraging people of all ages to engage in one-hour coding tutorials for over 45 programming languages.

Additional apps and games for teaching students to code:

App icons for Lightbot, Kodable, and Osmo coding apps.

App icons for Swift Playground, Tickle, and Scratch coding apps.


Bers, M. U. (2018). Coding, playgrounds, and literacy in early childhood education: The development of KIBO robotics and Scratch Jr. In Proceedings of the 2018 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON) (pp. 2100-2108). Canary Islands, Spain: Santa Cruz de Tenerife. 
Campbell, C., & Walsh, C. (2017). Introducing the ‘new’ digital literacy of coding in the early years. Practical Literacy, 22(3), 10-12. 
KinderLab Robotics. (2018). Robot kits for kids | KIBO. Retrieved from
Kodable. (2018). 5 reasons to teach kids to code. Retrieved from
Ministry of Education. (2016, December 5). Ontario helping students learn to code: New supports for coding and computational skills in Ontario skills. Retrieved from
ScratchJr. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Terrapin. (2016). Bee-Bot home page. Retrieved from
Thompson, G. (2017, February 2). Coding comes of age. Technical Horizons in Education Journal. Retrieved from
Tuomi, P., Multisilta, J., Saarikoski, P., & Suominen, J. (2018). Coding skills as a success factor for a society. Education and Information Technologies, 23(1), 419-434.
Wente, M. (2017, August 15). Coding for kids: Another silly fad. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from
Wong, G. K. W., Cheung, H. Y., Ching, E. C. C., & Huen, J. M. H. (2015). School perceptions of coding education in K-12: A large scale quantitative study to inform innovative practices. In Proceedings of the 2015 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE) (pp. 5-10). Zhuhai, China: United International College.

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