Do you want successful kids?
Teach them coding from kindergarten

 The most useful foreign language you can learn is software language

Two little girls are playing on the lawn. They count to three, then advance three little steps, carefully gripping a plastic rod at each end. The rod starts to flash green. "Not there yet," one says. "Right, it should be less sensitive," the other girl agrees. They trot over to a tablet and rejig the code governing the movement sensor on the rod. They want the lights to flash only when the rod is moved sharply, not when the bearer is walking naturally in a straight line. They repeat this process a few times until the game works to their satisfaction.

Nearby are a group of kids playing capture the flag, using the flashing plastic rods in the stead of flags. Instead of capturing a flag, the object of the game is to capture a rod and manipulate it or toss it into the air. "We wrote a secret language for the game," one of the kids explains. "One light means one thing, two means something else. It's like a language of lights."

The children, aged 8 to 12, were subjects in an experiment spearheadad by Dr. Oren Zuckerman and his team at the Media Innovation Lab at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya's School of Communications. The children's common denominator is that all can program in Scratch, a learning environment for children developed at MIT in the early 2000s. As a doctoral student Zuckerman himself was on the Scratch conceptualization team, and even gave it its commercial name.

Programming using Scratch involves connecting colored building blocks containing programming commands in English or Hebrew. The children connect the blocks on the screen like Lego and test to the connections to see which work. They can invent characters and computer games, or control objects programmed in Scratch, such as robots, and the rod, which the researchers made for the purposes of the experiment.

Few of these children will become programmers in adulthood, or develop life-changing technologies. But understanding and internalizing code from a young age could help them in their adult life, to test decisions made for them through a critical eye. Just think of the quality of the discourse that could have taken place between the European parliament members when grilling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about the Cambridge Analytica affair if they had possessed the slightest grasp of how technology is created and used.

Japan, Ireland, Britain, Singapore, and some American states and cities, including Florida, New York, and Chicago, have already decided that programming should be part of the mandatory curriculum just like math, literature, and history and that it should be taught from kindergarten or elementary school at the latest. Some people in the Israeli high-tech scene hope Israel will follow suit.

 

 Programming in the curriculum

Some weeks ago the Growth Companies Forum submitted a detailed paper to the Finance Ministry, urging it to fund a national project of the type. The forum, led by Kerem Nevo and Nir Zohar of Wix, was established in 2015 by a number of Israeli technology companies to identify and deal with the barriers and obstacles depressing the growth of companies in Israel.

"The Israeli ecosystem has grown to tremendous dimensions. It is accomplished and variegated. Venture capital funds invest billions in startups at various stages each year, but the test will lie in their ability to sustain growth in the competitive global environment," says Nevo. "Some worrying trends are already emerging that could hold back the development of companies in Israel, and foremost is manpower. The dearth of manpower impels companies to station their divisions in other countries, significantly increasing salaries in [Israeli] high-tech and not benefiting the communities that don't share in the Israeli high-tech's success."

The state is taking the problem seriously, she says and is trying to find solutions, including by funding programming boot-camps designed chiefly for science graduates who couldn't find work in their fields. But the real solution, she says, is to start really early, to get a lot more people into the educational funnel and to make the high-tech industry accessible to the entire Israeli population, creating equal opportunity.  "The world is becoming ever more technological and programming skills should become a language, a mandatory subject starting from elementary school to 12th grade. It should be as important as mathematics and English, not be offered as a choice," Nevo says.

Programming is becoming a life skill, says Carmit Moran, CEO of Robotech Technology, which sells software for teaching mathematics and technology. Kids who learn it can understand their surroundings rather than settle for the default situations set by others. "That is also the concept underlying the free programming and open code movement, which is behind the Android operating system and some servers around the world," she says. "Open code developers decided to improve their technological possessions rather than settle for what they had."

Zuckerman has a similar vision. "The Internet of Things is one of the strongest trends today, and artificial intelligence. Buses, bicycles, and scooters are in a network. Technology is embedded in daily life. The transition to the IoT enables developers to program this physical world as well. Imagine that in the future, a child can buy a smart room kit and program the room experience himself. For example, the child could program the conditions for the blinds to open and close, and when the light goes off."

It's faster to learn code than to learn a foreign language and is a better investment, leaving English out of it. Like natural language, the languages of programming have a vocabulary and grammar, but unlike the case of human dialects, programmers who know one language can easily switch to another: they need to learn new vocabulary, but not much. "Once the mental models exist, what a parameter is, what a loop is, what parallel operations are – learning the language itself doesn't require much," Zuckerman says.

 

Kids prefer the lab

In recent years, much attention has been paid to math education, but the choices Israeli high school seniors make in their majors for matriculation has evoked little public debate, though it affects their future preferences for higher education. A Finance Ministry study from 2017 found that the chance that pupils who studied computer science would choose that for their first degree was high, about 30% among men and 20% among women. The chance of biology students choosing computer science in university was 11% among men and 4% among women. It can be assumed, at least in part, that not only a correlation stemming from areas of interest is at play, but also causal influence - the exposure and confidence that students develop regarding their probability of success in studies.

But in contrast to the needs of the market and to the economic value of programming studies to their learners, Israeli high school pupils who major in computer studies are a small minority compared with other pedagogic subjects. The kids prefer labs to computers: almost 21,000 choose to major in biology each year and only a third of that, 7,200, pick computer science.  Between 9,000 and 10,000 choose physics and chemistry. Over a decade, the increase in the number of computer science students grew by only 32% compared with 40% for chemistry and 53% for biology.

Half the student body in 12th grade is female but only 31% matriculate in computer sciences, and among Arab students, only 11% do, less than their proportion in the total Israeli student body – 23%. The conclusion is that the study material and pedagogy need to change.

Let's go back to the children in the programming experiment with the electronic rod. The experiment proves that programming studies for children can take place outside, through social interaction and teamwork, with an emphasis on creativity, imagination and acquiring skills such as decision making and problem-solving.

Some educators worry about the key role played by industry in introducing programming studies to the curricula. "There is a lot of research, argument, and discussion about the purpose of teaching young children to program," says Zuckerman. "Is the purpose to beef up the future workforce, or to help children develop their thinking and better prepare them for the 21st century?"

 

Why can't it be both?

"Because the end can determine the means," says Zuckerman: "There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. When the value is programming-oriented thinking and not programming, then you teach the principles, and programming is the cherry on top. Children need to learn that code is a mode of self-expression, like sculpting in clay or photos on Instagram."

"The group that developed Scratch is called Lifelong Kindergarten, and the idea is that experiential learning like in kindergartens is the most meaningful learning - learning from experience, and that's how you learn all your life," he says. "Unfortunately the trend today is in the other direction. Kindergarten is becoming more like school, instead of school taking an example from kindergarten."

 

Not like math.

"Exactly. They're made to learn laws by heart in frontal class with an exercise book. The system makes them hate it instead of showing them how relevant it is to their creativity."

When should programming start?

"I think the best is to start teaching programming in third grade, age 9 because the biggest obstacle to programming is writing the language, be it Hebrew or English, and knowledge of language is important. Without language skills, you lag in programming, and that isn't fair. Another reason is the development of the ability to think abstractly at that age."

So why talk about kindergarten?

"The concepts of programming should be made accessible in kindergarten. But one should be careful to do it right, not toss a screen at them, but expose them to an environment that combines physical objects and play outside. If there must be a screen, it should accompany and guide them."

The leisure of spending time with the kids is the fief of well-to-do parents. It isn’t good for social mobility.

"Right, which is why the education system has to change. Society should take care of these kids. What I would tell parents is not to stress it, the children don't have to study programming right now. If it's done, though, do it properly. Choose the right study program, or wait a half year or year, because things develop and change and the education system will pick up the pace."

Programming? Some schools don't have wifi

In a paper submitted to the Finance Ministry, the Forum of Growth Companies reviewed plans instituted elsewhere in the world. Some countries instated laws requiring schools to provide programming as a compulsory subject from first grade, leaving schools free to determine how they do it. Some spelled out curricula at the national level. This shows that the field is still in its infancy and is characterized by trial and error. Around the United States, the industry itself participates in training teachers in order to set the standard and offers the government to turn computer science and computing into a 12-year study course.

Programs for computer studies reached the Israeli education system 20 years ago, and the programs for high schools are considered to be groundbreaking. However, neither programming nor robotics is developed in elementary or junior high schools. Most are enrichment programs, and computer classes in primary schools still focus on basic skills, such as using Office and building PowerPoint presentations.

The Education Ministry has a program for teaching programming in elementary, based on adopting Scratch in the early years of school. The ministry notes that the program is already up and running in 570 schools - one-fifth of Israel's elementary schools. But obstacles loom, the first being the digital gap. Some schools don't have the technological infrastructure, such as classrooms with computers and hardware for robotics; some don't even have wifi. The forum suggests instituting a uniform standard for computerizing schools, to ensure that all can teach computers.

Another obstacle is the lack of suitable teachers. The forum thinks the answer lies in retraining high-tech people, which is also a solution for layoffs in high-tech and for the schools too until new teachers can be trained.  They note in a paper that a considerable number of high-tech people would like to divide their time between work and teaching.

Realizing the dream, or hasty improvisation?

There is some promise in the framework of after-school activities outside the schools. Wix for example, one of the bigger internet companies in Israel, recently trained 30 teachers for middle school in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Yeruham and Emek Hamayanot to teach a course of the organization Code.org, which in 2013 initiated the Hour of Code – free programming tutoring for children and adults. Major high-tech companies and their founders, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, have invested around $40 million in this organization.

Shahar Bar-Or, CEO of the Western Digital R&D center in Israel, is the living spirit behind the Cyber Championship, a contest born in 2015 that has become a gigantic endeavor. About 300,000 pupils from grades 1 to 12 in schools around Israel compete in programming and math missions for 6 months. The Education Ministry takes great pride in this contest.

Bar-Or created the contest based on his experience in 2014, when he wanted to expose his three children, aged kindergarten to 4th grade, to programming and sought suitable educational software. He found CodeMonkey, a game in which children control a monkey character and guide it to collect bananas, overcoming various obstacles, using textual code.

The kids loved it, and he thought that if it was good for his kids, it could be scaled up for lots of children, Bar-Or explains. They turned it into a competition among the children of employees at Sandisk, which became Western Digital. About 250 kids took part and some won prizes. "The feedback was excellent," he says.

On a volunteer basis, Bar-Or also chairs the education committee of IATI-Israel Advanced Technology Industries, which has hundreds of Israeli technology enterprises under its wing. He brought in more, connected with the Center for Educational Technology, and ultimately reached Education Minister Naftali Bennett. "When there's a coalition of industry and state, via the Education Ministry, it works wonderfully," he says.

Another project stemming from the Cyber Championship is to place about 100 outstanding high-school pupils in internships at Israeli technology companies.

Zuckerman doesn't like hearing about solutions like the Cyber Championship and he isn't nuts about CodeMonkey either. "It's based on gamification, which provides external reinforcement for learning, instead of internal reinforcement," he explains. "Since it is such, it's good for achievers and children with good ability. They run ahead and advance fast, but for others, it can create barriers."

The education system is full of competition, and so is life. So what would be better?

Zuckerman: "I'm not against competition. I think it is a very powerful tool but you have to know where and when to use it. When it comes to teaching programming, we're presently in a vacuum, in which not all children have alternatives. The education system doesn't supply them with an alternative of a comfortable, uncompetitive environment to study programming. The question is whether we want to teach the children or develop their ambition and locate the top 5%."

Could competition be a band-aid that obscures the absence of profound activity in teaching programming?

Bar-Or: "I don't agree that it’s a band-aid. It's a happening that's occurring at schools. The children work together in class and after class, invest long hours in individual learning, and the competition is constructed such that reaching achievement involves passing through all these values. There are thousands of pupils who reach very high levels, at least a year or two beyond the average level of their age group, which shows the unexploited potential that the system sometimes doesn't even notice. The goal, at the end of the day, is to expose, and to reach a broad base of pupils who gain experience in programming. Some will want to continue with it, some not, which his fine. The challenge is otherwise."

What is the challenge?

Bar-Or: "To convey the methodology and concept expressed in the Cyber Competition – self-learning, learning with friends, working in teams, working at school and outside it, into the regular pedagogical system. To ensure that math, English and other lessons are taught in ways that take better advantage of the digital infrastructure in which the children swim so well. As a society and as an education system, we are barely scratching the surface of the potential of the places to which these pupils can be led."

© 2020 by RUTI LEVY.