Building a digital future: Should coding be mandatory for every schoolchild?

Finland has become one of the first countries in the world to make learning programming compulsory for schoolchildren between seven and 16.

Finland's reputation as a tech powerhouse has been built on companies like Nokia and Supercell, and its booming startup scene. Now the country is aiming to further boost its digital economy by becoming one the first countries in the world to introduce programming to its national core curriculum. Starting from autumn 2016, pupils in first to ninth grades (ages seven to 16) will learn the basics of programming along with wider digital skills.

"Programming or computing won't be its own subject, instead it will be integrated into other subjects," says Thomas Vikberg, counsellor of education at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. "The idea is to give pupils an understanding of how computer programmes are created and how they work... This is needed to drive critical and creative thinking as computer programmes have an increasingly significant part to play in the society today."

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The new core curriculum stipulates digital technologies should be used across a variety of subjects with the main focus on areas such as practical skills, content production, creative working, and safe use of technology. In crafts, for example, programming could be applied to product design and manufacturing. But coding will take its biggest role in the maths curriculum where there are specific goals, from adopting computational thinking to learning a full-blown programming language such as Ruby or Python.

At its core, programming is giving commands to a computer which then executes them," explains Vikberg. "This can be practised by playing a game, like trying what kind of commands you can use to make all the students in a room to form a line based on their height. It develops the thinking and logics needed in programming."

Vikberg notes every school will have a different approach to how programming will be taught as the Finnish education system is highly decentralised. The national curriculum outlines education goals, but it is the schools locally that will decide how the curriculum is implemented. Individual teachers will also have plenty of autonomy over how they teach different topics and, in some schools, teachers have already included coding in their own classes.

International trend

While Finland is among the early adopters, it's not the first country to see the importance of teaching kids how our digital world is constructed. In Estonia, programming has been part of elementary education since 2012, and the UK introduced a new computing curriculum, which includes programming, in autumn 2014. Many more countries plan to follow suit.

"The introduction of programming into school curriculums is definitely an international trend. [Technology] has become such a dominant part of societies today," says Vikberg. "However the education sector varies between different countries, which means how this is put into practice varies greatly as well. There is not only one way to do it."

Finland and the UK are good examples, as the former has chosen to integrate programming into other subjects while in the later it's part of a specific computing curriculum. But while the approach is different, the countries share similar challenges -- one concern in the UK is the readiness of teachers to take on the new subject.

"The challenge for the teachers is great, but there are many hundreds of schools which have adopted the new curriculum, provided resources to help teachers access the professional development they require and consequently are seeing the subject embedded in a balanced curriculum," says Simon Humphreys, national coordinator for Computing At School (CAS). "It's not been easy and the key factor reported is time. Time to learn from other teachers, time for self-study, time for training and professional development."

Vikberg admits teacher education is a challenge facing Finnish schools as well, but says major emphasis has already been placed on offering additional training for teachers both locally and nationally. One teacher who has already benefitted from this training is Satu Airamo from Ohkola school in Southern Finland. She admits her initially wary response to programming as a subject has changed as a result.

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"Although the term 'programming' does cause some confusion, the goals explained in the new curriculum are very beneficial to developing thinking and learning in other ways as well," Airamo says. "While of course not every student will be a programmer, learning to programme teaches a variety of skills which will be useful in further studies and in life in general."

Similar reasoning for teaching technological skills in schools is echoed across the sea.

"We teach physics because we live in a physical world; we teach chemistry because we live in a chemical world. And we believe it is so important that we teach it to every child, including the majority who will not become professional scientists," Humphreys says. "We need to teach the fundamental principles of computer science as these underpin our digital world."

And as this digital world gets ever richer and more intertwined with our daily lives, so it seems will the necessary education to help future generations shape it.

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