​Poland wants its kids to code - but time is against them

Faced with worrying shortages in software skills, the Poles are stepping up efforts to develop their children's programming and teamwork skills.

schoolchildren in computer class

Samsung's Masters of Coding initiative teaches Polish children from pre-school to high school learn to think like IT engineers.

Image: HighwayStarz

Poland's education system has always been strong on hard science and computing, but looming skills deficits are calling for an even more radical approach.

While a Samsung-sponsored initiative has been aiming to bring skills in coding projects to even the youngest pupils since 2013, next year the country is planning to test a new primary- and secondary-school curriculum that focuses on software development.

However, both projects require creative planning and training to deal with teacher shortages and crammed curricula.

On the surface, Poland has done well when it comes to IT education. "We are quite fortunate here", says Maciej Syslo, professor of mathematics and computer science at the universities of Wroclaw and Torun.

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"We currently have computer classes at each level of education. It starts with general computer activities at primary school, with proper computer science being taught at high schools. There's also an elective subject for students who want to pursue the field in later studies. Our schools are fairly well equipped, despite all the complaints you get in every country."

But despite those efforts the country faces a serious deficit in IT engineers. Estimates put the shortfall at about 50,000 engineers but it rises by three to five percent a year. By 2020, Europe as a whole faces a shortage of around one million developers.

The problem has already been picked up by business. Most prominently, Samsung has been running the Mistrzowie Kodowania, or Masters of Coding, initiative since 2013, where children from pre-school to high school learn to think as IT engineers need to.

But Blanka Fijolek, corporate citizenship and sponsorship senior manager at Samsung Electronics Poland, says the goal is not to create an army of engineers.

"We are instead aiming to get across modern skills in our schools. This includes analytical thinking, logical thinking, problem solving, and, above all, teamwork. Those are the modern skills that badly need to be developed more in schools, not just in Poland, but all over Europe," she says.

Taking place at weekends in schools, Mistrzowie Kodowania involves pupils in projects that focus on problem solving.

"The first thing we do is move to desks into a formation that allows for group work and collaboration", Fijolek says. "Polish schools still employ a parallel desk formation for traditional, almost feudal, classroom activities. It makes teamwork impossible."

The key of the programme is not just involving the children, who are motivated already and open to new ideas, but also giving the teachers a role they're happy with.

"They are hesitant to stand down from their role of lecturers and let the pupils take the steering wheel", she says.

Fijolek stresses that the teachers do not need a computer science degree themselves. "On the contrary, many of the teachers involved are language teachers, biologists, and librarians", she says.

"They too expand their skill sets, and I'm pleased to see they treat it as a way to convey their own fields to their audience. If, for example, you have a history class, and the teacher knows how to code, he can teach the children to create an overview of the succession of Polish kings."

A hundred volunteers are currently supporting teachers. Mistrzowie Kodowania claims that 1,300 schools with a total of 100,000 students already host regular sessions, with the number growing each semester.

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The Polish government has taken an interest as well. A new draft curriculum with many of the tenets that Mistrzowie Kodowania espouses will be piloted in the coming school year in 600 schools, although formal political approval is still pending. If successful, it will be rolled out to all schools the year after.

According to Syslo, who sits on the advisory board for the ministry of education and is a co-author of the new curriculum, less focus will be put on teaching students to use office software, and more on the creative part of computer use.

"We're changing the curriculum by training students in computational thinking", he says. That goal involves not only coding solutions to given problems, but also working in teams. In the end, he says, "programming is a tool to solve problems using computers".

The question remains whether it will be enough. The new curriculum has to be crammed into the existing one-hour computer courses currently available.

"That is a challenge," Syslo agrees. "But there's much you can do in that hour. The curriculum has been designed so the hour is only for instructional purposes. Projects are to be given as homework and involve collaboration in the cloud. Also, we're looking for as much synergy with other subjects as possible, where students would solve problems posed in other subjects using programming."

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