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