Learning to program is a skill for life

Foto: Gerhard Seiler

There are many initiatives underway that aim to integrate computers in the classroom, but many teachers and parents are sceptical of digital media. Students, on the other hand, are enthused.

The microcontroller on the table blinks; the circuit board’s LEDs display a glowing heart. “Cool! Now let’s make it show our names.” Primary school students Lisa and Tatjana are thrilled by what they’ve just discovered.

Together they’re learning programming in their classroom as part of a “Code your Life” initiative. They are allowed to try their hand at various programming tools and experience what a broad, creative and exciting array of things programming can do. Next to the girls, a group of students sit in front of a drawing robot and discuss the right instructions to give: “After the loop comes Turtle->forward(100) and then leftTurn 300 degrees, then we have the peak.” Using the programming language Logo, they make the robot draw the Berlin TV Tower. It’s tricky, but together they are able to take on the task one step at a time. Meanwhile, the loudspeakers in the next room are pumping out rhythmic sound. The students in this room are working with Sonic Pi Music, and they are all in agreement: “At first it seems really complicated, but when you get the hang of it, it’s super easy.” They are having a visibly good time experimenting with their own ideas: “You can make music like a proper DJ like this!”

Calls to integrate programming and self-guided learning with electronics into the everyday primary classroom experience are becoming both louder and more frequent. Why is this topic regarded with such urgency amongst educators? One thing is clear: it is not only policymakers and society at large that must engage with the issue of digitized education. Those in education must too—whether teachers, administrators, or theorists.

Digital is everywhere. Data and codes surround us in numerous aspects of our everyday lives. In the face of this pervasive digitalization, education for the future means adaptation. The ability to confidently navigate and effectively act in the digital sphere is now an essential component of a successful education. Helping children understand what lies behind the digital toys and ubiquitous codes that are increasingly a part of their lives not only makes sense from the perspective of shaping a politically educated citizenry or a workforce prepared for future job markets. Paired with solid lesson planning, coding offers many promising learning approaches in today’s classroom.

When language labs were introduced to German schools in the 1970s, the use of new technical devices in lessons heightened expectations. Now we know that the classroom does not benefit from technology alone, but only in combination with suitable educational approaches and concepts. Thus, the “computer labs”, a common feature of schools since the mid-1990s, are oriented towards a 20th-century model that cannot truly form the basis for a good education in and effective teaching with digital media today.

The introduction of electronic calculators was highly controversial at first. Today nobody questions them as a tool in the classroom. However, this does not automatically ensure maths is taught effectively. The use of electronic devices needs to represent a surplus value in terms of learning. We must learn from experiences gathered over the last decades. Technology can inspire and engage only if the didactic approach developed for it is innovative, and if the student remains centre stage. To respond to this challenge, educators need to fulfil new roles based on a new understanding of their field.

Digital devices, virtual gaming environments and online social networks are as natural a part of children and young people’s daily lives as the telephone, television or radio were for previous generations. Kids grow up in a digitalized world, encountering an array of digital devices almost from birth. At home and in school, they can discover programming as something that can guide them and give them confidence in the digital worlds they inhabit. This represents a major opportunity for new forms of intrinsically motivated learning. First, there are several conditions that must be met,. The key factor: educators with media competency who can turn their schools into places of constructive digital learning.

With the appearance of computers in schools, media educational theory and practice replaced the traditional approach of “learning with new media” with a new maxim: “new learning with media”. There are many positive examples of this approach in action. They are particularly evident in primary schools, where lessons are not so rigidly structured around separate subjects. New teaching concepts and methods have become commonplace in many primary schools, allowing for self-guided and self-accountable learning outside of the traditional 45-minute interval. Lessons that allow students to work at their own pace have flourished in the era of classroom computers, which can create stimulating media and study environments—first with the advent of computer corners, and now with individual laptops and tablets.

Even Claudia Bogedan, President of the Conference of German Education Ministers (KMK), recently stated that banning mobile phones from the classroom is a relic of “yesterday”. Using smartphones in lessons is a logical next step, as nearly every child now has one. Federal policymakers are also signalling a new direction. The Federal Ministry of Education has announced that in the coming years, 5 billion Euros will be at the disposal of Germany’s states in order to finance technology such as wireless networks in schools. And this despite the constitutional ban on cooperation between the states and Berlin in funding compulsory education. The condition is that states themselves must invest in more teacher training. One gets the impression that the conditions for a total digital overhaul of the school system couldn’t be any better.

Nevertheless, while states have put media education into their policy programs, they have not yet managed to create curricula that truly profit from digitalization, or indeed that generate modern educational methods out of the digital innovations that surround us. Still, the positive development of concepts for individualized learning through digital media is well underway.

Several progressive schools have already embarked on this path and begun introducing lesson concepts such as the “flipped classroom”, “free learning spaces”, or “bring your own device.” The educational approach followed by the “Code your Life” initiative allows teachers to create new learning situations with their students, transforming the classroom into a kind of open makerspace. This initiative is backed by the 21st Century Competence Centre (21CCC), a new space in Berlin dedicated to innovative and media-supported learning. Using materials developed there, teachers are changing their roles and learning alongside their students. During the sessions, scepticism and uncertainty quickly give way to eager curiosity in exploring an unknown world. The students enjoy the time so much that they would rather use their breaks to continue with other related projects.

In 2016, coding in schools and programming for kids have met with more interest than ever before. However, many parents and teachers remain sceptical. For most teachers, programming and building with electronic components remain (just as the internet was for Chancellor Merkel until recently) unknown territory. Thus it is all the more important not only to get children enthused about programming, but also to convince their teachers of how much they stand to gain from it too.

Gerhard Seiler & Jutta Schneider

Gerhard Seiler works as a media educator for digital inclusion and education for participation in a digital society. Currently responsible for strategy and innovation at the 21st Century Competence Centre, he previously worked as manager of the “Stiftung Digitale Chancen” (Digital Opportunities Foundation) and has headed projects at the “Haus der kleinen Forscher” (House of Little Researchers) and the federal initiative “Schulen ans Netz e.V.” (Schools on the Internet).

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