Programmed to Learn
Kids Code Jeunesse Teaches Computation Literacy to Elementary School Children
With an ever-growing number of eyes glued to screens and a seemingly ubiquitous Internet connection, no one can deny the impact computer technology is having on our daily lives.
But that reality doesn’t necessarily doom a child to a life of endless scrolling.
Kids Code Jeunesse, a Montreal-based non-profit, is going into classrooms in two English Montreal School Board elementary schools this week, teaching students in Grades 3 to 6 the basis of computation and web design.
“We want this to be within the school system, accessible to all kids free of charge, to become a tool like reading and writing is,” said Kate Arthur, the co-founder of Kids Code Jeunesse. The organization’s long-term goal is to bring coding into the curriculum of Quebec elementary schools.
In the program’s pilot session last fall at the Commission scolaire de Montréal’s École au Pied-de-la-Montagne, volunteer teachers showed the students the basics of using programming as a medium.
Instead of presenting their geography project on a Bristol board or with PowerPoint, they built a website to hold the information, including all the writing and research elements required in the teachers’ grading criteria.
For their English class the students could create an “About Me” webpage that included the skills they needed to display to be evaluated by their teacher.
“They’re learning in the school system how to turn a computer on, how to use a Word document, how to use the Internet. Kids already know how to do that,” said Arthur.
“We’re trying to help with the gap in learning. They should be learning, above all, security and safety, and how it all works.”
More Than User-Friendly
When the Kids Code Jeunesse teachers at École au Pied-de-la-Montagne asked students what a computer was, most answered “Google.” Despite spending hours in front of screens every week, there’s no guarantee these children get a better understanding of how the technology really works just by using search engines and social media.
The course material created by Kids Code Jeunesse provides the young students a glimpse into how much control they can have over the information displayed on a web page—a medium in which they do so much consuming.
“We’re giving them the ABCs, and they start to create words, create sentences and write phrases,” said Arthur. “For us the younger you teach them, the more power they have to communicate in that language. It’s a tool for them to express what’s going on in their head.”
For some students, it offered a whole new take on learning. Arthur recalled being approached by a mother just before the winter break, who asked if she was the one who had brought coding to the school.
The mother went on to say it had changed her son’s life, that before he didn’t want to be in school but that he loved computers and technology.
“She said, ‘He was failing everything, and [then] you introduced programming,’” said Arthur. “It’s what keeps him going.”
Kids Code Jeunesse was started in the fall of 2012 by Arthur and Gersande La Flèche, who works as a programmer at DMCS Canada, a Montreal-based IT firm owned by Arthur and her husband. La Flèche, a creative writing student at Concordia, is one of the volunteer teachers who go into classes to show kids what coding can do for them.
La Flèche’s interest in computers began with unblocking music websites in her school’s computer labs and storing algorithms in T-83 graphing calculators to cheat on exams at age 14.
“I didn’t realize I was doing something called computer science at the time, and that people do this for a living,” she said.
Arthur and La Flèche have designed two programming courses, one for Grades 3-4 and another for Grades 5-6. The younger class learns on Scratch, a visual programming interface developed by MIT, and the older class works in pure HTML—the foundation of web design today.
The first months of the project started with convincing school directors that coding was a skill worth learning. LEARN Quebec, a non-profit educational foundation that supports English education in the province, was the first to show an interest, and La Flèche taught the two courses made available to Quebec students online.
“They’re learning in the school system how to turn a computer on, how to use a Word document, how to use the Internet. Kids already know how to do that. We’re trying to help with the gap in learning. They should be learning, above all, security and safety, and how it all works.”
—Kate Arthur, Kids Code Jeunesse co-founder
And now, after a successful semester at the École au Pied-de-la-Montagne, the eight-class courses will be taught at the Merton Elementary School in Côte St-Luc and the General Vanier Elementary School in St-Leonard.
Arthur also noted that video game developer Ubisoft and simulation technologies manufacturer CAE have recently volunteered programmers to come into classes.
Such partnerships will be important for the project going forward, as Kids Code Jeunesse is not currently receiving any government funding. Arthur has taken time off from her job at DMCS to work on Kids Code Jeunesse full-time until the organization can hire an administrator.
Kids Code Jeunesse is currently running an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, which is just past the halfway mark of their $5,000 goal, to be raised before Jan. 19. The funds will help produce learning materials such as posters and cheat sheets, and pay for transportation for the teachers, who are student volunteers from Concordia and McGill University.
This semester’s curriculum builds on what the group learned during their pilot project, and this time will include a lesson on copyright and a tutorial on safe surfing before their coding classes begin.
“Teaching something like computer science is definitely a challenge for elementary kids, but at the same time it’s something they get really excited about,” said La Flèche.
“It’s an interesting combination of learning a lot of very complex spelling and syntax and not make spelling errors, but it’s also like a puzzle where you’re looking for the mistake.”
Beyond being a different approach to getting kids interested in math and science, Arthur said the exercises also help the students pay attention to detail—since a little error could break the entire program. Students would also debug their peers’ work.
“You go to Ubisoft’s offices and it’s completely wide open, everyone’s working in teams. You have to work with programmers, designers and story editors,” said Arthur. “Computer programming is not sitting alone in your own little world and we try to break that [preconception].”
La Flèche noted that programming feeds into children’s love of building things and showing what they’ve made to their friends.
“At one point, one kid learned how to create iframes [frames embedding another HTML document] in a web page, and all of a sudden his site had his favourite Pokémon profiles, his favourite hockey player,” said La Flèche.
“[And] then suddenly all the other kids are copying the iframe code from each other.”
Despite the elementary school teachers often not having any background in computation, École au Pied-de-la-Montagne is still using Scratch.
“One of the large hurdles at the moment is the schools not having the educators who can teach computer programming,” said Arthur. “That’s why we have university students coming in, so [the teachers] do the ‘teaching,’ and we do the programming.”
This semester the organization is working to better equip the teachers to continue using code after the eight-class course is completed.
“What we’re trying to do is create a talented pool of future employees,” said Arthur. “Just like how we teach people to read and write, we’re not expecting the next James Joyce—but you’re going to need to know how to read and write to get many jobs.”
To learn how to volunteer with Kids Code Jeunesse or to contribute to their fundraising campaign, visit kidscodejeunesse.org.