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Summary:

When should children learn to code? Estonia’s Tiger Leap Foundation wants children as young as six to be enrolled in coding classes — all part of a national program that has already turned this tiny country into a technological powerhouse.

Kids arrive home from school

Teaching people to code is the new hotness: startups like Codecademy and Bloc are all about helping people learn to program quickly and easily online, and they have helped spawn a cultural movement lauded by the likes of Tim O’Reilly and Douglas Rushkoff.

Some people are taking the idea a little further however.

Just look at Estonia, the tiny Eastern European nation (population 1.3 million), where a new project is being put in place with the ambition of getting every six year old to learn coding at school.

The “ProgeTiiger” scheme, according to reports, will begin pilots this year with the ambition of getting school kids of all ages to start coding. There’s no suggestion yet that the classes will be mandatory, but the organization behind the move the Tiger Leap Foundation, says it wants to produce more creative computer users.

“The first e-courses are meant for primary school teachers and they will take place at the educational portal http://www.koolielu.ee (Koolielu is Estonian for “school life”) that the Foundation maintains,” the group’s head of training, Ave Lauringson, told me. “We expect about 30 teachers to take part in the first course. So we are just taking our first steps now, but we intend to expand the program significantly.”

The idea — which is being developed with funding from the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research — is that children in grades 1-4 will take coding classes as part of their normal curriculum. After that, they can join extracurricular “coding clubs”, explained Lauringson. The foundation itself was developed by current Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and education minister Jaak Aaviksoo in the late 1990s, with the aim of bringing internet connections to all schools in the country.

Given those credentials, it’s clear that while Tiger Leap has no concrete agreement to expand the pilot into a mandatory system, it’s clearly a stepping stone to a larger national program.

If it seems ambitious, you must understand the context. Not only do many Western education systems fail to teach computer science to any meaningful degree — the paucity of teaching in Britain left Eric Schmidt “flabbergasted”, for example — but Estonia is already a hotbed of technical talent. There are dozens of big companies that use Estonian engineers and whole startups (Skype being the most famous example) whose products were built on the back of Estonian skills.

So how do you inculcate an entire nation like that? It’s partially possible because Estonia is a small country, but also because it’s made some decisions along the way to prioritize technical literacy.

Since gaining its independence from Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, its politicians and business leaders have followed a deliberate, direct path to try and build the country into a technologically-advanced nation.

These days most of Estonia’s government services are run online, most of its banking is done online, and there’s a significant corps of programmers who have built some really important companies. It’s working, and Tiger Leap’s idea is clearly to try and muscle that advantage along even further.

How do other countries replicate that?

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  1. Reblogged this on BrownGoods and commented:
    Dont we think that’s a little young?

    1. nope. Kids are already learning a highly complex language that their parents and peers speak. There is strong evidence to suggest learning new languages early on in language development creates a much more malleable and effective neuro framework for learning additional languages and later in life.

  2. If you think of learning coding as if it is learning another language, then this is the perfect time to start (just think of software as a language with a very different structure, just like what happens when we learn languages from a compete different language tree).

    In the US, we wait too long to learn additional languages, making it harder for us. Learning software languages at a time when our brains are most flexible will create a generation of students who can write–and more importantly think–in human and computer.

  3. You all know whos responsible for this, right?

  4. Estonian_Sceptic Wednesday, September 5, 2012

    On the other hand, please let’s also listen to guys who actually know their stuff about programming: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/05/please-dont-learn-to-code.html

    This is not to say that the idea of getting 6 year olds programming would be a bad idea per se, but it just smells another one of those “this is so hip idea, let’s do this, ESTONIA NUMBER ONE!” things that makes me a bit sceptical… (I am an Estonian myself)

    1. I actually had a whole section on this in my original post which I meant to add in! I’ll follow up on Friday, it’s a great point.

  5. Estonia’s not alone. U.K is revamping its educational system to start kids learning code in elementary school. I’m not sure anyone needs to learn it at six. But it’s possible with educational software like Scratch. And you can easily incorporate coding into the teaching of math. It’s mostly a matter of having teachers who know how to code. That said, I don’t think the purpose of teaching kids to code should be to turn them into a country of coders. That’s about as likely to work as turning every kid who learns to write into a writer. Kids, like everyone, should learn to code because it helps you better understand the world you’re living in and makes it easier to connect discipline. It’s so obvious to anyone who learns that it’s a core competency. Atwood’s argument makes no practical sense. If programmers don’t know how to write, doesn’t it make sense that people who know how to write learn at least enough programming to collaborate? This is not the time to be skeptical, it’s the time to take to leap. Or North America’s going to find itself playing a lot of catch up.

  6. Tara Tiger Brown Wednesday, September 5, 2012

    At LA Makerspace we are teaching kids as young as 4 how to program using MIT Media Lab’s Scratch programming tool.

    What’s interesting is that we have more girls than boys at the younger ages and starting around 12 boys start to dominate.

    Also, Coder Dojo has Europe and America wide coding clubs for kids.

    1. These are all worthwhile and exciting things. But there’s a big difference between an opt-in club and a curricular activity, no?

  7. i like it!

  8. its kinda silly. i am a coder. 35 years i have been coding. everyone doesnt need to learn coding. just like everyone doesnt need to learn lots of things.

    the dot com revolution is ending.

    everyone cant be a coder.

    just like everyone cant be an investment banker, or a lawyer or a doctor.

    1. not everyone doesn’t need study study the time it takes for a 1,3kg object to fall from 15th floor. but they still teach physics, chemistry and complex mathematics during the first 12 years of basic education. why not coding

  9. If you do it right learning to code can be a lot of fun. We at CreativeGaming.eu use Kodu, a game design tool by microsoft and have made very good experiences. I am teaching the topic in in a School in Germany on a weekly basis this school year.

  10. Lennart Luhtaru Thursday, September 6, 2012

    They already use Lego Mindstorms to make coding fun in some elementary school in Estonia. Starting from 1st grade is really just another logical step.

  11. I think it’s great! Children pick up technology very quickly from a very young age, most children are more tech-savy than some adults. Raising great minds from a young age! :)

    And to who ever wrote this, Estonia is a Nothern European country! The Soviet Union broke a long time ago, so stop putting the Baltic countries in Eastern Europe! Estonia has probably developed more than most of the European countries since the Soviet Union and is a modern country.

  12. Does anyone know what Estonia is reducing time on in order to add this to their curriculum? This seems like a great idea on the surface, but there are only so many hours in the day or days in a year. Something has to move, it seems like the most important unasked question in this story.

    1. A really good question, and one we were just talking about here earlier. I’ve asked for some more detail, but don’t forget a lot of kids already do “computer” classes — often learning to use proprietary software packages like Office, for example. But will update you if I find out more.

  13. As an educator, I believe it is very important to teach material that is important for the future of the students. When inventing my math and memory system Brainetics (http://www.brainetics.com), I wanted to focus on new subjects and innovative methods to teach. By teaching for the 21st century, students will be more prepared in the future. It seems like so many aspects of today’s society centers around the digital environment and teaching should be altered to adapt.

    Great article,

    Mike Byster
    http://www.mikebyster.com
    Inventor of Brainetics, Educator, Author of Genius, Mathematician

  14. A stroke of genius or is it going to build a bunch of introverts and psychos who are going to neurologically sick.? Other studies say that this is the worst thing to do to kids who need to learn to relate to each other to learn how to live in a society, have time to think instead of being driven into frenzy to obtain immediate answers.

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