Codeschule: Taking a Finnish idea to Germany

Martin Richter • Software Craftsman

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”
— Unknown

Whoever first said this, it may just be true for kids, too. Have you ever been asked by your (or somebody else’s) child what you do when you’re at work? Would you be able to explain it to them in a few simple sentences? Unless you are a doctor or firefighter, chances are that you wouldn’t. Perhaps this is what led Finnish father and programmer Juha Paananen to first create a piece of software that lets kids explore the concept of programming in a playful way. By typing in simple commands that move a little creature called Turtle Roy on the screen, the children can draw lines and figures.

Turtle Roy givin’ it a spin​​ Turtle Roy givin’ it a spin​​

During the past year, that idea has really taken off. Numerous code schools were organized and hosted in Finland by various companies, including Futurice. Many of our employees have children of their own (heck, one of them just won Finland’s “Father of the Year” award!), so finding participants wasn’t too hard. And it certainly wasn’t for the second edition, which was open to the public and filled up within a few minutes.

Soon Finland was not enough anymore, and together with Kaasa Health we decided to take the concept to the international stage. The first German “Codeschule” took place in Düsseldorf in August 2014, and a few months later we finally brought it to the capital. The first event at our Berlin office was a great success and generated lots of valuable feedback. For instance, it turned out that many kids had difficulties typing commands such as fd from their instruction guide, because the letters are only shown in uppercase on the keyboard. This beautifully demonstrates how we can learn even from 4-year-olds by just watching them use software!

A boy and his robot​ A boy and his robot​

For the second Berlin event, kindly hosted by Finnland-Institut, we adjusted the material based on the feedback. Soon the room was filled with over 20 kids, who were handed colored stickers based on their language (German, Finnish or English). Before getting started with the actual coding, we did a little warm-up exercise to explain that a computer understands only very well-defined instructions: One of us was dressed in a reptile costume that somewhat resembled a turtle. (You don’t get to see your colleagues like that very often!) We then asked the children to guide this creature to a specific point in the room by shouting simple commands. After some time, they realized that shouting “turn” is not enough; one also needs to specify by how much. Shouting “Three steps!” and then “No, four!” made her walk seven steps. When she finally reached the goal, the coding could begin.

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Good programming skills are in high demand, and so it didn’t come as a surprise when a German reporter asked me, perhaps half-jokingly, whether Codeschule is our attempt to ease the shortage of world-class software professionals. Well…

The truth is, we really love what we do and want to get rid of the old cliché of programming being dull, solitary work that is out of touch with the real world. We want to show kids that programming is not only a lot of fun, but also profoundly creative work. They learn that there are times when attention to detail is paramount, but also times when it’s totally okay to go wild and try out new stuff – to move fast and break things, as that famous motto goes. But above all, they have heaps of fun! So yes, in a way this hopefully contributes to more young people choosing a software career in the future – because they love it, not because they are pushed to. We were particularly happy about the fact that almost half of our participants were girls.

Our youngest participant, only 4 years old​ Our youngest participant, only 4 years old​

Our lives are increasingly affected by software. Whether we’re browsing music, booking flights or comparing car insurance, there are algorithms at work behind the scenes that follow and influence our decision-making. To actively navigate such a world, instead of being a passive consumer, every one of us needs at least a basic understanding of how software works on the inside. It is, as some have remarked, the literacy of the 21st century.

Many of our developers, while still considering themselves digital natives, only took their first steps in programming in high school or even university. In 2016, Finland will make it part of the primary school curriculum. Some countries like Estonia and the UK have already introduced such classes. A deeper change is happening in education, and we are proud and happy to play a part in it!

(Photos by Dhyana Scarano)

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