Estonia’s plan to get 6 year olds coding is a stroke of genius

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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