Coding, robotics, and the new curriculum

22 January 2017

Ushering Queensland schools into the future.

Queensland is leading the charge into the future and 2017 with the introduction of two new mandatory subjects—Digital Technologies and Design and Technologies—to Queensland State Schools from the start of this school year. Other Australian States are expected to follow in the next few years.

The new Technologies subjects, for Prep to Year 10, are designed to empower students by providing them with a capacity to take action, a toolkit of thinking skills, and enthusiasm to create a better world. The two new subjects are based on creating digital solutions. Digital Technologies covers digital systems, abstraction, algorithms, and processing data while Design and Technologies focuses on empathy with users, authentic needs and opportunities, and creating a better future.

Media coverage of the new curriculum has focused on introducing coding and robotics into the schools; however, this is not quite an accurate depiction. Coding and robotics play a part, but the key element is introducing new modes of thinking: computational thinking, design thinking, and systems thinking. This suite of approaches to problem solving does not always need to be explored through technology, it can also be experienced through unplugged activities—that is, activities that do not require technology.

The Technologies subjects will enable children to develop critical and creative thinking skills and produce creative digital solutions for authentic community needs. These subjects will also help children to shape the world we live in. In addition, the Technologies outcomes encourage children to become change makers, innovators, and creators.

The Technologies subjects have evolved from the traditional Information and Communications Technology (ICT) subject by shifting the focus from technology consumption to technology creation. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull emphasised, “It is important that we move beyond only teaching students how to consume technology and instead focus on technology creation.”

Technology is intrinsically integrated into all aspects of life. The Technologies subjects are not bolt-on subjects. Rather, the Technologies outcomes are integrated with current subjects
such as English, Science, and Humanities and Social Sciences. An example of class activity that integrates Digital Technologies and Australian History is a project where students can build an online game that teaches others students about a particular time in Australian history.

A significant difference between the existing curriculum and the new curriculum will be the experience of learning from trial and error. Children who are new to developing digital solution projects often build something or write code and then ask, “Is this correct?” In the Technologies subjects, however, being correct is no longer important; instead, the focus is on the ability to test assumptions, adapt, and move towards a workable solution. Developing a digital solution requires making educated guesses, testing various ideas and hypotheses, and learning from mistakes. Errors are just feedback that guide students towards a solution, of which there are many variations. Trial and error is the norm in technology development. This approach is used throughout Silicon Valley, technology start-ups, corporate research and development departments, and universities.

Change is inevitable, and the rate of change is accelerating with technological innovation. We are already experiencing dramatic change in terms of digital disruption, automation, and artificial intelligence, and these changes impact communities, businesses, the nature of jobs, and industries. As Marc Andreessen, co-founder of both Netscape and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, says, “Software is eating the world.”

Innovation means progress, and now is the most exciting time to be alive. Technology is a resource-liberating force and is accelerating humanity towards abundance: a world where everyone has access to clean water, food, healthcare, education, and all other aspects of a first world standard of living. It won’t necessarily be governments or corporations solving world issues. Around the world, a swarm of independent innovators will achieve startling advances in many areas of technology. Some of them will be our students.

2016 saw some incredible inventions from Brisbane students. At the Young ICT Explorers competition, a group of four Year 5 students demonstrated their project, a device that tests water turbidity; the device was built using an Arduino, a microcontroller board. The students carefully considered the practicalities of the device, which would be used near rivers in rural areas, so they developed a design that would be sufficiently robust for use in that environment.

Another exciting innovation came from a student team at Bulimba State School’s MicroMakers Hackathon, an invention that they called “TED.” TED, an acronym for “Talking Entertainment Droid,”
is a companion robot. TED tells jokes and stories and is designed to provide companionship to lonely people.

The new curriculum will provide many benefits, but schools and teachers may initially experience challenges as they implement the changes. However, there are many ways to make the transition easier. A few tips are listed below:

  1. Obtain support from school community members with IT experience. They can assist their school and teachers with professional development and after-school coding and robotics clubs.
  2. Focus on outcomes first. It is easy to get distracted by shiny tech gadgets, but choosing the tools before identifying the learning outcomes often results in gaps between actual learning and the intended outcomes. Technology creation is about thinking skills, approaches to problem solving, and feeling empowered to invent and create change, so it is important to focus on these concepts before deciding which technology to implement.
  3. Apply the principles of the Technology subjects: design for a better future, have empathy for users, identify authentic needs and opportunities, learn from trial and error, and be openly forgiving of failed attempts.

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Written by

Emily de la Pena

Emily de la Pena is the founder of Coding Kids. Coding Kids is developing the next generation of coders, creators, innovators and change makers. They are striving for: All Australian children coding by 2020! They run after-school coding clubs, school holiday code camps and professional development workshops for educators. Children build their own computer games, animation movies and digital solutions. Through fun and play children discover computational thinking, design thinking and entrepreneurship.

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