Today’s students are growing up in a world very different from the one their teachers did, and there are fascinating opportunities awaiting this generation. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for educators and schools to anticipate the future workplace and the skills that students will need to successfully negotiate these new environments.

The changing nature of the global market and the development of the knowledge economy was the focus of a OECD report which suggested that in the 21st Century:

“… the success of individuals, firms, regions, and countries will reflect more than anything else their ability to learn’ which in turn raises ‘profound questions for the kinds of knowledge pupils are being equipped with and ought to be equipped with, by schools.”

One American initiative, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, identified four skills which have become widely accepted as essential for 21st Century learners; communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking – the 4Cs. I like this concept, and when possible I create opportunities for my students to develop these ‘timeless’ skills. Furthermore, my students seem to genuinely enjoy participating in projects and activities which support the development of the 4Cs.

But despite being an advocate of the 4Cs, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that there is a 5th skill which all 21st Century learners should be introduced to. Furthermore, the development of this 5th skill requires students to collaborate and communicate effectively while thinking critically and creatively. It is the quintessential 21st Century skill – computer coding.

Many people still think that learning to write computer code is something that is only useful for tech geeks and teens who spend too much time online, but it’s about time that stereotype was overhauled. Today’s students — Generation Y, Millennials and Generation Z, Digital Natives — need to be introduced to the basics of computer coding so they can understand how computer programs work and so they can begin developing the skills that will enable them to write their own programs, create their own websites and develop their own apps in the future. Simply learning how to use popular software applications such as MS Word and MS Excel may have been sufficient for previous generations, but it is no longer enough for today’s learners.

The global challenges of the 21st Century – climate change, depleted natural resources, environmental destruction, pollution, health epidemics, human trafficking, terrorism, armed-conflict and economic instability – will only be successfully overcome with human ingenuity aided by technology and computers. Chances are, today’s young programmers will be the individuals creating solutions for the challenges of tomorrow.

In England and Wales, the Department for Education has realized that it is essential for all students to learn the basics of computer science and in September 2014 implemented one of the largest curriculum changes in decades by replaced the subject Information and Communication Technology (ICT) with Computing. One of the core components of this new subject is computer coding.

The decision to teach computer coding at all schools in England and Wales highlights just how vital these skills are for individuals, communities and the economy in the 21st Century. There are signs that other countries are waking up to this new reality and before long many more school systems will be following the UK’s lead and begin introducing computer science to school students. Eventually, coding will become as commonplace in the school curriculum as biology, physics and foreign languages.

As classroom teachers, it’s important to keep abreast of such important developments. For those educators who are interested to learn more, there is a great initiative called the Hour of Code, which has everything you need to understand the fundamentals of computer programming.

The ‘Hour of Code’, was first introduced in the US in response to the lack of opportunities for school students to learn basic programming skills. The initiative has the support of a diverse range of public figures that includes Bill Gates, Snoop Dogg, Malala Yousafzai, Richard Branson, Aston Kutcher and Mark Zuckerberg while aiming to ‘demystify the art of coding’ and expand student participation in computer science.

The 2016 Hour of Code takes place between 5th-11th December, and there are some great online tutorials which have everything students and teachers need to get their first taste of coding. Last year the Hour of Code teamed up with Minecraft and Star Wars to create tutorials that engaged and inspired.

The Minecraft tutorial is a great place to start. It uses Blocky to introduce learners to the basics of computer code. Learners use these blocks to program a Minecraft character to complete various tasks. Under each block is a line of Java code so that students can ‘look under the hood’ to see the actual code that is being used. Not only is the tutorial easy to follow and engaging, but it also introduces learners to ‘commands’, ‘repeat loops’ and ‘if statements’ — concepts which lie at the very foundations of computer programming. Once students have come to grips with the Minecraft tutorial, they can move on to the Star Wars tutorial which allows students to actually begin writing lines of Java code.

The benefits of learning the basics of computer science are immense and all students should have this opportunity — not only because it can be a path to a rewarding career but because, as Steve Jobs famously explained, “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer… because it teaches you how to think.”

If you are interested in getting involved with the Hour of Code, you can get started by visiting the Hour of Code’s website Code.org. There are lots of great resources to inspire future programmers and you also download certificates and stickers for students who successfully complete the programme.

Happy coding!

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