Why Kiwi kids should learn to code

Code academy: Schools are slowly learning the benefits of teaching pupils to code.

Code academy: Schools are slowly learning the benefits of teaching pupils to code.

The three Rs may soon have a C next to them as the move toward teaching coding in New Zealand schools gathers pace.

In Britain, children as young as five in Britain are being taught simple computer programming and now industry experts here want it to be a bigger part of our education curriculum.

In a nutshell, learning to code enables pupils to learn the step-by-step commands to make websites, games, and apps. Common coding languages include HTML, Python, CSS and JavaScript: all of which are widespread and versatile.

At the moment, coding is optional in New Zealand schools and the uptake is limited since it was introduced at NCEA level in 2011.

"A lot of students still think coding is just for the greasy-haired geek at the back of the class," says Renea Mackie, who introduced coding as part of the UPT Digital class at Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti in 2009.

"In reality, learning to code today is what learning to use a pen used to be. There are not many industries left that don't rely on technology, so coding is essential in being able to communicate. There's something in it for every student."

Like Mackie, Michael Walmsley, the founder of Code Avengers, is trying to tackle resistance around coding in New Zealand schools.

"The current digital technologies course in New Zealand is an optional subject, and the numbers of students taking the subject are low," he says.

"There are a number of reasons for this, including a lack of exposure to coding, a misconception that coding is for 'geeky' guys, and parents don't realise the value of the course. They don't realise that it is much more than learning Microsoft Office."

In a bid to make coding more accessible to New Zealand schools, Code Avengers provides interactive online courses that teach computer programming and web development. These are aligned to the secondary school curriculum.

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"Teachers that don't understanding coding are reluctant to teach the unfamiliar topic," says Walmsley.

UPT Digital is still taught today at the now-named Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery school, and the programming and coding course has become an internationally scalable model called IT Hothouse. "We began by getting requests from other schools about what we were doing – now we're mentoring classes in California at elementary [intermediate] level," says Mackie.

Microsoft is paying particular attention in New Zealand to young coders, and has launched programmes such as YouthSpark and Student Accelerator to allow primary and secondary school students to teach themselves to code. "But learning to code is not a quick fix; it's not something you can learn in a few weeks. It shouldn't be extracurricular," says Mackie.

Various schools, such as St Bede's in Christchurch and Auckland's Avondale College, have realised the value in learning to code and are actively promoting digital technologies under years 11-13 curriculums. "It is crucial that all students receive some early exposure to coding, ideally at primary or intermediate school," says Walmsley.

According to St Bede's, 176 schools in New Zealand are teaching programming at NCEA Level 1.

Mackie says the UPT Digital/IT Hothouse model is about putting processes in place so pupils can teach themselves to code.

"Kids decide what they want to make – usually it's a game – and we create a learning module to support them," she says. "It's something any teacher could do. We hook the kids up with mentors in the IT industry who give them feedback on the coding. Kids have amazing ideas, and this is the enabler to bring them to fruition."

It is suggested a lack of confidence from teachers impedes coding from becoming more popular in New Zealand schools (despite a $75 million investment by the Ministry of Education in teacher professional development).

What New Zealand really needs, industry professionals say, is IT experts going into teaching.

"I believe that the limiting factor is qualified teachers," says former IT writer Matt Purcell, who is now a teacher in Australia. "With so many more lucrative options for jobs for skilled software engineers, it's a tough sell getting great programmers into teaching and education."


Coding teaches students how to think logically and solve complex problems, says teacher Matt Purcell, who started writing the column "The Silicon Kid" for the Canberra Times when he was in Year 9.

"Many people think that learning to code is just learning how to write programming syntax, but it's much more," he explains. "When you learn to code you also learn how to write algorithms – essentially, step-by-step instructions for solving a particular problem or task."

This skill is vital not just to the creation of websites and apps, but to industries like farming, where algorithms are used to decide where and when to plant crops; and finance, where markets follow rules that can be comprehended using procedural analysis.

"It can be applied in far more fields than simply computer programming," Purcell adds.

 - The Press

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