Fine young coders

We visit Helsinki to see how Fin­nish ed­u­ca­tion is mak­ing pro­gram­ming a cen­tral part of the cur­ricu­lum

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How the Fin­nish ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is adding cod­ing to the cur­ricu­lum

At July’s De­velop con­fer­ence, Ei­dos life pres­i­dent Ian Liv­ing­stone de­clared that the UK ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is stuck in a ”Vic­to­rian broad­cast model of talk and chalk”. The govern­ment may have, after fierce lob­by­ing, brought com­puter sci­ence back to the cur­ricu­lum, but con­cern per­sists over the way chil­dren in UK schools are be­ing told about how com­put­ers work, rather than find­ing out for them­selves. Mean­while, at Mus­takivi Ele­men­tary School in Helsinki, Fin­land, we see sec­ond-graders nav­i­gate an avatar through a labyrinth us­ing the pro­gram­ming tool Scratch. It’s all part of a wider project about space which, along­side more typ­i­cal teach­ing meth­ods, uses ex­per­i­men­tal game-based learn­ing as part of a govern­ment-funded ini­tia­tive.

As well as the Scratch cod­ing, pupils must also nav­i­gate an ob­sta­cle course in the gym, and make their way around the school in search of an en­ergy source stolen by thieves. The chil­dren re­ceived their mis­sion from Cap­tain Pekka Hum­melin who, when he’s not wear­ing his cap­tain’s hat, is also a teacher at the school.

“It’s im­por­tant that the kids are able to have that ex­pe­ri­ence of, ‘Hey I made my char­ac­ter move. I de­cided two steps right, one step up,” he tells us when we ask him about the cod­ing seg­ment of the project. “What­ever they want to do, they need to have the ex­pe­ri­ence of, ‘I made this pos­si­ble!’ After that, they’re very into it. And they are work­ing so so­cially.”

“At first I thought it would be dif­fi­cult, or that it would take a lot of time,” adds school prin­ci­pal Mar­i­anna Po­hjo­nen. ”But when you come to think of it, it’s a lot of stuff we’ve al­ready done – we just haven’t un­der­stood that it’s about us­ing games in the teach­ing process. And the mo­ti­va­tion of the chil­dren is huge when we start to do some­thing like that. Ev­ery­one is in­volved, ev­ery­one lis­tens.” The plan is to start teach­ing cod­ing to sec­ond-graders as a stand­alone com­po­nent, not just a way of teach­ing other sub­jects. And while Mus­takivi is one of a small group of Fin­nish schools pi­o­neer­ing this ap­proach to teach­ing, in 2016 the new cur­ricu­lum will in­tro­duce el­e­ments of its think­ing into all schools.

Petri Eske­li­nen, chief con­sul­tant at Helsinki’s ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment’s me­dia cen­tre, is one of the driv­ing forces be­hind the ini­tia­tive. “This is a new way of get­ting hap­pi­ness into learn­ing,” he tells us. “My pri­mary goal is es­tab­lish­ing how to ed­u­cate our teach­ers to use ICT [in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy] in ed­u­ca­tion. Our teach­ers have al­ways used these meth­ods – I be­lieve that in the UK and ev­ery­where in the world teach­ers are us­ing these meth­ods – but when you de­fine them, that’s when you can put to­gether some­thing new.”

Through this ini­tia­tive, many Fin­nish game stu­dios are mak­ing their tools and games free to stu­dents and teach­ers, as well en­ter­ing into dis­cus­sions on the best way to teach ICT and cod­ing to young minds. But it’s not only game de­vel­op­ers that are in­spir­ing new coders. Cre­ative tech­nol­ogy com­pany Reak­tor of­fers con­sul­tancy and tech so­lu­tions for other busi­nesses, im­prov­ing web­sites and build­ing mo­bile apps. But it has also built Kood­ik­oulu (Code School), which pro­vides free pro­gram­ming classes to par­ents and their chil­dren.

The project started when con­sul­tant Juha Paana­nen de­cided to teach his fouryear-old daugh­ter how to use a com­puter, and started a blog called Girls Can’t Code to track her progress. He was soon get­ting re­quests from col­leagues to teach their chil­dren. Reak­tor, recog­nis­ing its ap­peal, put the call out to the pub­lic via Twit­ter ex­pect­ing to cater to 15 or so chil­dren. It re­ceived 300 ap­pli­ca­tions.

“That’s when we re­alised we couldn’t do this by our­selves,” Reak­tor’s head of mar­ket­ing tells us. “So we called out to other Fin­nish com­pa­nies and many joined in, all hold­ing their own cod­ing schools. They don’t pay us, they don’t even have to tell us, but if they want to they can and then we’ll help them pro­mote it. Even now, if some­one puts on a cod­ing school, it’s full in five min­utes. There’s a huge de­mand for it.”

It’s a de­mand recog­nised by Happi, a youth cen­tre in Helsinki. It re­cently added cod­ing to its range of ac­tiv­i­ties, and hosts a num­ber of game-re­lated ses­sions, in­clud­ing a game devel­op­ment group that is sup­ported by pro­fes­sion­als from stu­dios such as Rovio, Bug­bear and Rem­edy, which guide teens through the cre­ation of clas­sic ar­cade game clones.

Asked whether there is any need to teach cod­ing from such a young age, Po­hjo­nen is em­phatic: “It’s not com­pul­sory yet, but why not teach cod­ing? Be­cause we can, and it’s easy, and they learn very eas­ily. And there’s less ca­pac­ity to feel like you’re fail­ing when you can at­tack prob­lems from dif­fer­ent an­gles.”

Let’s hope ed­u­ca­tion chiefs out­side of Fin­land are pay­ing at­ten­tion.

Petri Eske­li­nen is re­spon­si­ble for the devel­op­ment and im­ple­men­ta­tion of the ICT pro­gramme in Helsinki’s schools

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