As "digital natives", our children are proficient users of technology – but what we really need to do is help them to become future creators of technology.
A recent report by the Social Market Foundation concluded that Scotland’s education system is "stagnating". While I believe the Scottish curriculum offers young minds a wide range of learning opportunities, I think the report’s suggestion that an injection of outside expertise would reinforce learning outcomes for pupils has merit.
Think back, for example, to March, when the Scottish government launched its AI (artificial intelligence) Strategy, marking a new era in the country’s digital evolution. It seems timely, therefore, to explore how digital industries and collaborative research organisations, such as the National Robotarium, can inspire and engage with learners, supporting schools as they enter a new phase in education, post-pandemic.
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During the past year and more of Covid we have witnessed the increasing presence of digital technology in children’s learning, and at an ever-younger age. It is a reasonable assumption that this immersion in IT and technology is preparing young people for a digital future and teaching them the skills they will need.
Digital skills: The importance of teaching coding in schools
However, there is a largely unrecognised digital difference between the users of technology and the creators. Therefore, it is vital that we equip as many young people as possible with the skills they need to become the tech creators of tomorrow – it is these creators who will shape the future of technology and the world within which it operates. The wider and more diverse the pool of skilled young people feeding into tomorrow’s digital workforce, the better for society as a whole.
Consider the three Cs: collaboration, creativity and critical thinking – these are essential skills for education and for roles that design technology and develop digital solutions. These higher-order skills can be nurtured through an additional layer of learning (for example, teaching children about "thinking about thinking") when applied to traditional subjects within the curriculum, but with increased emphasis on process rather than outcome.
Coding develops cognitive skills, problem solving and analytical thinking ("computational thinking"). By introducing and developing these abilities from primary school onwards, we create the building blocks and thought processes necessary for robotics and AI. This is not about displacing traditional subjects but, rather, changing the emphasis. Coding can comfortably sit alongside other subjects, especially those with a creative slant, reinforcing the development of key skills through multiple channels.
The benefits of introducing coding skills earlier in the curriculum extend beyond upskilling the future workforce. We need to offer the opportunity to be creators and not just users of technology to as many young people as possible, and teach them vital skills for life. By raising the bar for higher-order cognitive skills for everyone, young people will reap the benefits, whether ultimately they enter the digital workforce or not.
The pandemic highlighted many social inequalities, including a digital divide. As a nation, it is vitally important that we nurture as wide a pool of digital designers and decision makers as possible, in order to continue to compete at a global level, as Scotland currently does within the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence and space.
As we reimagine education and rebuild our economy, incorporating coding skills within the curriculum for younger learners will benefit not only young people but also Scotland’s future workforce and wider society.
Professor Thusha Rajendran is a developmental psychologist within the National Robotarium, a world leading facility for robotics and artificial intelligence based at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh