OPINION: Add computer science and coding to Irish schools’ curriculum

8 Sep 2014

Ciaran Cannon, TD, addresses the audience at Silicon Republic's Female Founders Forum in Dublin in June. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

Last week saw the introduction of computer science onto the UK schools’ curriculum. Ahead of the publication of the new Digital Strategy for Schools, Ciaran Cannon, TD, says Ireland, too, must be courageous.

A pretty momentous event occurred last week in the history of education in England; an event that went largely unnoticed internationally and one that will in time prove to be an inspired decision on the part of the British government.

As schools across England threw open their doors to millions of students, they did so with a new subject on their curriculum – computer science. Children from as young as five will for the first time learn about a science and a language that is reshaping the world around them on a daily basis. In the words of the new computer science curriculum document, the aim is quite simply to equip children with “computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world”.

Schmidt speaks

This major innovation in education results from a campaign by teachers, parents and ICT professionals. It has been a passionate and concerted one that perhaps found its touchstone in the words of Google chairman Eric Schmidt, when in 2011 he accused education leaders in the UK of failing to sustain a centuries-long tradition of British innovation. In particular, he was scathing in his criticism of an IT curriculum that focused on teaching children how to use software, but gave no insight whatsoever into how it’s made.

However, just three years later, an education system serving a population of 57m people has managed to respond to the challenge thrown down by Schmidt and began gifting its children with a critical future skill.

Schmidt delivered his powerful critique in Edinburgh and it ultimately had an impact in Whitehall. Much closer by, in Dublin, a small country of just 4.5m people has yet to take such a courageous but necessary step.

All around us every aspect of our lives is quickly evolving through technology. Ten years ago, Facebook didn’t exist, now it has more than 2m users in Ireland with Twitter coming close to 1m. A recent survey of Irish young people aged 15-35 found that for 90pc of them, the very first thing they do upon waking in the morning is to check their smartphone for updates.

Is it acceptable that our children end up being passive uninformed users of that technology without having a deeper understanding of how it works? Millions of lines of code are no different to the DNA or the laws of physics that form the building blocks of our physical world. Every day new empires rise up using technology yet, up to now, we in Ireland have considered it acceptable not to teach our children about this powerful new force for change. Bear in mind also that by the end of next year, there will be almost 1m vacancies in the ICT sector across Europe.

Maximising potential

I’m not for a moment suggesting we need to churn out a nation of programmers, so every Irish child will become the next Mark Zuckerberg (although there are very encouraging signs that some will). We teach our children other subjects, such as English, maths, science, geography, history and music, so they understand every facet of mankind’s incredible discoveries and in doing so maximise their potential to make their own mark on humanity’s history. Leaving computer science out of that list is no longer acceptable, in fact, it wasn’t even acceptable 10 years ago. It is a subject that can empower our children to gain an even deeper understanding of our modern world and in that process acquire many other complimentary skills that will serve them well through life. Woven into computer science we also find literacy, numeracy, logic and analytical thinking.

Digital Strategy for Schools

In just a few weeks, our Department of Education will publish Ireland’s first ever Digital Strategy for Schools. In essence, that strategy can be one of two things, a conservative and unambitious tinkering around the edges of Irish education or a truly groundbreaking and courageous call to action.

Last May at Excited, Ireland’s first digital learning festival, our Digital Champion Lord David Puttnam set the clock ticking when he said we have at most four years to effect the necessary change before Ireland’s children get left behind internationally.

I’m confident Minister Jan O’Sullivan and her officials in the Department of Education know exactly what’s needed and they are deserving of our support. They should have the courage to produce a digital learning strategy that challenges our Government to support education with renewed investment and our Government should respond accordingly. Specifically, our Digital Strategy for Schools should contain a commitment to begin teaching computer science and coding to all of our students in September 2016. 

In achieving this commitment, our Department of Education would not be working alone. We now have Excited, a new Irish digital learning movement uniting a large cohort of trailblazing teachers, students, academics and industry leaders who have the knowledge and passion to stage a learning revolution. We have the founders of CoderDojo, our powerful community-based digital education movement, also willing to lend their expertise.

Most of all we have children who have the capacity to master “computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world” if we just give them a chance. 

We cannot let them down. 

Ciaran Cannon

Ciaran Cannon is a TD for Galway East, a former Minister of State in Education, and a founder of Excited – The Digital Learning Movement.

Lord David Puttnam will give an address by video link at the Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin on Friday, 12 September