Mainstreaming Digital Mavericks

A quiet revolution is taking place in Europe’s classrooms.

All across the continent, pioneering teachers, curious children and forward-thinking decision-makers are slowly but surely reshaping how we view the role of technology in education.

This shift isn’t just about getting more high-tech devices into schools – although the integration of technology into learning environments can drive collaboration, creativity and greater student success, as shown through the use of personalized devices to improve homework completion rates or in the introduction of online examinations. Nor is it simply a question of teaching every child to code.

What we are actually starting to see is a fundamental reassessment of why and how we should be equipping the next generation of Europeans with high-level digital skills.

Professor Simon Peyton-Jones, chair of the UK’s Computing at School (CAS) group, put it best when he highlighted that the reason every child is taught science from primary school onwards is not because every child will go on to become a physicist or a chemist. It is because learning science teaches us vital facts about the world around us. The reason for teaching every child computer science is the same. In an increasingly digital landscape, those who understand technology will have the power to shape the world to their liking.

While coding and programming matter, making sure children acquire broader skills such as abstraction, modelling, design, and analysis during their computer science classes is even more important, particularly in a context where often the biggest experts in the room are the kids themselves; a generation which has been christened the “digital natives”. But this moniker can be misleading. Many twelve-year olds can reel off the virtues of one games console over another, or list the specs for their new smartphone, but few understand the technology that underpins these devices. As long as this remains the case, children can only be consumers of technology, not creators of it.

The integration of computer games such as Minecraft into classrooms, used to teach anything from English to Geography, shows that there is scope to make use of technologies children already engage with, to encourage the development of broader skills across the timetable. However, such one-off initiatives rely too much on lone individuals, whether it’s the teacher who allows their students to use computer games in English class or the school principal who sets up an after-school coding club.

We certainly need these mavericks. Their enthusiasm, initiative and resourcefulness is the lifeblood of Europe’s education systems. But we can’t rely on them to up-skill a whole generation of European youth. For that to happen, we need an institutional attitude shift towards how we value computer science.

While this might sound like a daunting task, we know it can be done. Last September, after extensive consultation between policymakers, educators and the technology industry, England became one of just 3 EU countries to introduce a compulsory computing curriculum from primary school onwards; a curriculum littered with references to “understanding and applying fundamental principles”, “analysing problems in computational terms” and “evaluating computational abstractions”. In short, the days of simply learning how to add up data in a spreadsheet are out; creative, collaborative and versatile computational thinking is in.

Other countries have followed or are following suit – last year, a European Schoolnet study found that 11 other EU members states already integrate computer programming and coding into school curricula in some way or another, while 7 more plan to do so. But progress is still slow and levels of focus vary wildly from one member state to the next.

The urgent need for further action to improve this state of affairs was brought home at the Latvian Presidency’s recent eSkills for Jobs conference in Riga, which saw the launch of a campaign aimed at stimulating the creation of the digital jobs needed to build a strong digital single market in Europe. Youth unemployment in the EU still stands at a shocking 21 per cent, and yet thousands of jobs openings remain unfilled. The most recent predictions foresee a shortage of 825,000 ICT professionals by 2020. And that’s not even taking into account that nowadays, 90% of all European jobs require some level of digital skills.

Simply put, these numbers show that we are currently failing to equip Europe’s youth with the skills they need to succeed.

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As the digitization of European society continues apace, those without the skills that employers need risk being left behind. And as the European Commission pursues its ambitious plan to create a Digital Single Market which will boost European growth and competitiveness, overlooking the importance of digital skills for every European could have serious repercussions for Europe’s long-term economic success.

Tomorrow’s leaders are today’s learners. And if Europe’s future workforce is to grow up with a sufficient level of digital-savviness, Europe’s educators need coordinated and consistent support. Ahead of the introduction of the new English computing curriculum, a worrying two-thirds of teachers said they did not feel they had received enough governmental support to deliver it. This lack of confidence is not due to a lack of enthusiasm – more than half of teachers follow technology training in their own time. To support this innate enthusiasm in a structured way, the eSkills for Jobs campaign has rightly identified improving the continuing professional development of teachers as a key priority.

Industry has a vital role to play in lending support where it’s needed, whether that’s providing teachers with expertise and resources via the European Coding Initiative or challenging students to test out their programming skills in competitions such as Kodu Kup Europe. It’s also crucial that industry and educators work to close the gap between education and employment. A recent report by the UK House of Lords’ Select Committee on Digital Skills highlighted how ensuring that industry-education partnerships flourish is an essential part of “helping future workforces adapt to the requirements of a new digital world.”

Richard Riley was correct when he said that “Education should prepare young people for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems of which we are not aware.” But a well-rounded education doesn’t begin and end in school. Across the globe, millions of students are acquiring essential life skills outside of the classroom too, through extra-curricular clubs and activities.

One such initiative is CoderDojo, the global network of free, volunteer-led, community-based programming clubs for young people. In less than 4 years, the CoderDojo movement has grown into a veritable phenomenon, with more than 550 Dojos in 57 countries worldwide. Every month, 30,000 children – or “ninjas” – are given the opportunity to explore and create technology in a safe environment, and to become truly immersed in the world of coding and programming.

With Europe’s schools still lagging behind on the adoption of impactful computer science courses, after-school activities such as CoderDojo are essential to encouraging digital know-how amongst young people, giving them skills they can bring back into the classroom and apply to their broader learning experiences. Microsoft has just announced that it will be supporting the CoderDojo Foundation through its YouthSpark initiative. A key part of Microsoft YouthSpark, our company-wide initiative which aims to create opportunities for 300 million youth worldwide, is partnering with local non-profits who understand the digital needs of their communities and want to help young people succeed. That aligns with CoderDojo’s mission, whose efforts across the world are forming a new generation of digital natives who not only know how their devices work, but who’ll design them even better in future.

Wider efforts to get more kids excited about computer science have not gone unnoticed. Whether it’s clubs like CoderDojo harnessing children’s creativity, DebatingEurope’s efforts to drive a broader conversation about the role of computer science in society, or initiatives such as EU Code Week and the upcoming Girls in ICT day; all of these are driven by a great deal of passion, enthusiasm and dedication. But this needs to be matched with real, tangible policy change. Both European and national policymakers must commit to placing as much emphasis on computer science in schools as they currently do on reading, writing, maths or science. Industry, policymakers and educators must form greater links to bridge the education-to-work gap. And ICT competence must be seen as a core skill for every single European.

Coding might be cool now, but enabling an essential shift in how we value technology in education is more than a passing fad. It is not just about transforming Europe’s classrooms; it’s about transforming European society. When compulsory primary education was introduced across Europe, it was hailed as a watershed moment. We now have the opportunity to make another transformative leap in preparing Europe’s children for the future – let’s not leave them stranded in the past.

This article was first published on POLITICO.eu

About the Author

Director Philanthropies Europe

Sylvie Laffarge is Director of Citizenship Europe. She joined Microsoft in 2006 and currently leads Microsoft's YouthSpark and Technology for Good efforts across Europe, driving alignment with European public policy priorities around issues related to youth, employment, digital skills, entrepreneurship, Read more »