Where’s the creativity in code education?

As I grew up, it seemed to me that people who understood (really understood) computers had a different brain to me. They may as well have been a different species.

I liked to think of myself as creative , and computing couldn’t have seemed further away from subjects I thought were creative and interesting at school. As a consequence, I imagined that the whole world of computer sciences and creating on the web would forever be lost to me.

My experience isn’t unusual — for more than four decades, computer science has been taught in a way that only a tiny percentage of students have been inspired by.

However, after realising how essential computers are to our daily lives, code education has become a significant part of the UK national curriculum — since 2014 all schools have been required to teach computer science to children aged five to 16. The intention was to teach students how to problem solve, and empower them to become creators of digital media, rather than consumers, in preparation for life beyond school.

Although the curriculum was transformed to become more relevant to 21st century students, the perception of technology and coding amongst most children and adults hasn’t really changed. Learning to code and create on the web is still generally perceived as being ‘difficult’ and ‘dull’, and is considered to be more appealing to students who are better at maths and science and not those with an interest in languages and the arts.

We love to categorise, but the truth is, there’s not much point in a student learning to code if they can’t think creatively. Contrary to what most people think, coding isn’t really a subject like maths or science meant for computer geniuses — it’s simply a tool with which to deliver creativity.

At Erase All Kittens, my co-founders and I have spent the last two years trying to devise a solution to this problem.

Finding such a solution has involved research with hundreds of students where we came up against the same issue time and again: the huge misconception that coding ‘isn’t creative’. And that means there is still a ‘self-selection’ bias: many of the students learning to code outside of school have chosen to do so, and the majority of them are boys. We also learnt that the biggest drop-off in interest for students is after the age of twelve.

One likely reason for this is that most coding tools only adhere to the curriculum, without taking into account the influx of digital technology or focusing on applying practical, creative skills.

So, how do we keep students interested and engage more of them — girls in particular? Creating tools and lesson plans which are engaging to students and specifically designed to harness new skillsets effectively for life after school, would be a good start.

As one answer, Ian Livingstone , founding father of the UK games industry and the driving force behind the UK Computing Curriculum, will be opening two free schools in 2019, with the purpose of ‘embedding digital creativity in future generations of our society’. These schools will offer an education rooted in science, technology, engineering, arts and maths, and promise the latest in technology and creative thinking, to prepare students more effectively for our new digital era.

Our objective shouldn’t just be to deliver instructions on how to code or think computationally, as this on its own won’t achieve much. Instead, we should be working on ways to combine practical code education with creativity so that students are developing personal learning and thinking skills (PLTS) — since this is a far more accurate representation of being a professional developer. New approaches to code education will inspire more students and give them an advantage in our hyper-competitive and increasingly digital world.

We could also treat coding less like a standalone subject, which would eventually result in people thinking of it more like a literacy that spans the entire curriculum — much like reading and writing. A far more creative and practical approach to code education won’t just engage more students, it will help to prepare them for their future.

Dee Saigal is the CEO and Creative Director of Erase All Kittens, a story-driven game that provides children with knowledge of both computational thinking and professional coding languages, to effectively prepare them for 21st Century degrees and careers.