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How Singapore Is Introducing Coding to Early Learners

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By Adrian Lim

KIBO Liondance.jpg

My country, Singapore, is perhaps best known to American educators for its innovative approaches to mathematics, which have kept it near the top of international rankings for years. But here in Singapore--a country about the size of New York City, with a population of 5.6 million--we're focused on more than just math. We're preparing for a globalized future where technology will play an important role in nearly every aspect of life.

I spent much of my career as a teacher and administrator before taking a position at the government infocomm media technology agency where I now work as a director. Our overarching goal is to turn Singapore into a "Smart Nation," where every citizen has the technological competency to succeed in a digital-first world.

For children, this is especially important, as the skills they gain now will help them keep pace with the rapid pace of technology growth they will undoubtedly experience. The last thing we want is for our dream of a Smart Nation to come to fruition while there exists a great digital divide, where some are more adept at integrating technology into their jobs and lives than others. In order avoid the digital divide, we must introduce technology as early as possible--preferably before students begin school.

Choosing Age-Appropriate Technology

Here in Singapore, we recognize a concept informally thought of as "different strokes for different folks." Basically, it means technologies that are right for some age groups aren't necessarily the best fit for others. When you look at preschool kids, for example, they're not quite ready to dive into big technologies like the internet of things or artificial intelligence. At that age, they're still working on their fine motor skills, and research has suggested capping screentime. Instead, we introduce technology that is both age-appropriate and what we think of as developmentally-appropriate.

When we started looking at how to strategically implement technology to four- and five-year-olds, we found that at that age kids still play a lot, and play is fundamental for facilitating learning. We also noticed that these students are oftentimes building and making things as a by-product of their play. So, in turn, we created a national program called (naturally) PlayMaker, where early learners begin to explore technology through technology-enabled toys.

Fundamentally, the paradigm shift we are trying to create is to shift kids away from a screen-based approach to technology education and toward something more tactile and play-centric. To this end, we've introduced toys that focus mainly on problem-solving, sequencing, planning, and social interaction. Kids are still stacking blocks and matching shapes, but they're doing it in ways that will set them up to build and advance these skills as they get older. Research supports the idea that when young children are good at sequencing, it has a lasting impact on their math and reading comprehension abilities later in life. Some of the tech toys we use are marketed as early coding or robotics tools, and to adults they are. But to kids, it's just an extension of natural play.

Creative Confidence

When we launched PlayMaker in 2016 in 160 kindergarten classes, we were clear that we wanted our kids to have what we affectionately call "creative confidence," meaning they have both the capacity to create new ideas and the courage to act on them. There is a lot of problem-solving baked into the program, as well as collaboration and creative thinking. We don't claim these as original ideas--many American educators know them as 21st-century skills--and they coincide nicely with the World Economic Forum's recent list of the top 10 skills students will need by 2020, which featured all three skills, with complex problem-solving in the No. 1 spot.

Although we've had a lot of confidence in the PlayMaker program from the beginning, it was still a relatively untested concept in the scheme of things. We thought it would be a good idea if we could perform some research at the same time in the hopes of securing some early feedback. We began working with Marina Bers, a professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University, and created a 98-student sample for a study of students using the KIBO robotics kits. The KIBO kits are great, in part because they appeal to students who like to tinker, as well as those that are interested in design and physical activity.

Kids in kindergarten are accustomed to lots of "show and tell" and physical activities like singing songs and dancing, so we chose a curriculum for the study that centered on dances from around the world. Using KIBO, the kids were introduced to simple engineering concepts: What is a robot? What is a machine? They were then instructed on how the kit pieces fit together block-by-block to create a fully functional, moving, dancing robot, which they could make spin or turn left or right to the rhythm of the music--mainly folk songs from around the world. Later, they got a chance to creatively decorate their robots with scraps of tissue paper, paper plates, and googly eyes.

The curriculum culminated in a final performance where teachers, students, grandparents, and parents all gathered to witness the students' creations. The ones that impressed me the most were the groups that dressed their robots up like lions to re-create the movements of the lion dance present in many Chinese New Year celebrations.

Among other things, the study measured whether students were able to understand simple coding concepts like sequencing. Students were given simple two-line commands, such as, "KIBO is crossing the road. The light turns red and KIBO goes straight." They then pasted stickers that resembled the blocks on a piece of paper to show the sequence involved. Overall, the kids did very well. We measured students on a scale of 0-6, and on average students scored  above a 5.

Using Play as PD

The other thing we wanted to study was how teachers took to this curriculum, since it was new to them as well. One of the reasons we believe students performed so well in the study and on their dance project was due to the professional development we gave teachers. Before students ever saw a robot, teachers got together for trainings and had time to check out the technology toys themselves. We encouraged them to explore. We got them to ideate. And in turn, they expressed their concerns, their fears, and their joys when they realized the potential for their students. We also encouraged them to brainstorm other ways they could incorporate coding and robotics into their everyday curriculum, beyond one-off projects.

That last point in particular was important to us because we know that every one of the 160 schools in the PlayMaker program has an individualized curriculum, and teachers are busy. We think if it's important enough to introduce a new idea like coding, it has to be relevant to the existing curriculum. That's always the challenging part when you want to bring new ideas and make them relevant to the school.

So far, we've been thrilled with what our schools have done. To see teachers now introducing sequencing and robotics concepts into their numeracy and literacy lessons, as well as their cultural studies, is by far the biggest measure of success to us. It instills in us policymakers the creative confidence we need to realize our Smart Nation goals for every student.  

Adrian Lim is a director at the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore, which oversees the PlayMaker program.

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