Teaching coding in Canadian schools: How do the provinces measure up?

File photo.
File photo. AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

As Canada’s tech industry grows, people with coding skills are in increasingly higher demand, which means young people entering the workforce are concentrating more on computers and how to master the code and manipulate the data they run on.

A 2016 study by the Information and Communications Technology Council predicts 182,000 skilled information and communications technology (ICT) workers will be needed in 2019, with another 36,000 required in 2020.

Caroline Burgess, a STEM education and career consultant in Hamilton, Ont., says a bidding war has erupted amongst companies searching for computer-savvy employees.

She says coding has become an “essential skill.”

LISTEN: STEM Education and career counsellor on why coding is an essential skill

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Morgan Rodwell, a chemical engineer with the Alberta firm Fluor, said that’s true of his industry.

“You can’t just rely on a bunch of computer scientists, who understand how the computer works, but don’t understand the domain and the problem you’re really trying to solve outside the code,” he said.

Burgess argues that to set children up for success, coding should be taught early in Canadian schools along with core curriculum such as math, English and science.

“This is something that should be accessible to everybody because we know it’s essential, we know it’s important. So, let’s make it mandatory. Let’s put it in the school system.”

So, how is coding taught in Canadian schools?

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and BC: Making coding mandatory

As of August 2017, coding is already a mandatory part of the curriculum in Nova Scotia up to Grade 6.  In a statement, the education ministry says primary to Grade 3 students “use floor robots to learn sequencing and programming,” while students from grades 4 to 6 work with “invention kits.”

A spokesperson for the ministry says coding is optional through grades 7 to 12, as the province works to further renew its curriculum with coding in mind. There are also activities like the Hour of Code that allow students to take part in maker-spaces and robotic competitions, which is a program that New Brunswick also participates in.

In a statement, a spokesperson for New Brunswick’s education ministry said coding has been made mandatory as part of its Middle School Technology Education course for Grades 6 to 8. Outside of those grades, the province has introduced it as an elective.

Students can also take part in a “virtual co-op” with information and communications technology (ICT) businesses that have partnered with the government.

“We are providing training to interested teachers to foster more technology-related teaching, including the use of coding, in all areas of instruction,” said Kelly Cormier, communications officer with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

“Our strategy for growth depends strongly on teachers sharing, with other teachers, their successes using coding in classes.”

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The B.C. government has also announced plans to make coding mandatory in schools across the province. That decision was made in 2016, by the then-Liberal government led by Christy Clark.

In June 2016, the ministry provided school districts with a $6-million injection to “support coding and curriculum implementation.”

The current NDP government plans to keep that promise, saying it plans to introduce coding as a core part of the curriculum in the 2018-19 school year for students in Grades 6 to 9.

“The skills coding teaches can be used in almost any field and basic coding can be the launch pad to a career in the tech sector,” a spokesperson from the B.C. Education Ministry said in a statement.

WATCH BELOW: B.C. teachers get ready for mandatory coding classes

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Alberta and Manitoba: Looking at their options

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen said in a statement the ministry is meeting with Albertans on the topic and has also sat down with researchers to discuss the importance of “including coding in the curriculum.”

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“We know that the world is changing and just like critical thinking, computational thinking prepares students to address real-world problems and provides more economic opportunities after graduation,” the statement read.

Manitoba, meanwhile, has said it is “studying the approach taken in other provinces.”

In the meantime, it is examining the effects of a pilot program called Coding Quest, which was launched in cooperation with The Learning Partnership, to create a more “systematic approach to teaching coding in elementary schools.” Four provinces are taking part, including Ontario.

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The superintendent of education at Pembina Trails School division in Manitoba, which is one of the school boards included in the pilot, suggested his students have become more engaged in their own learning after being taught these skills.

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“We believe strongly in giving our students an advantage – a leg up, if you will – on advancements, on innovation, on creativity,” Ted Fransen said, “and coding is something that, I believe, every student should have at least a rudimentary awareness or knowledge of, because we live in a digital society – and their real world is digital.”

LISTEN: What is Coding Quest?

Ontario and Saskatchewan: an optional part of the curriculum

Ontario and Saskatchewan have both included coding as an optional part of the curriculum to varying degrees.

Ontario said in a statement that as of August 2017, coding is not a mandatory part of the curriculum but that teachers are encouraged to “use information and technology tools in their teaching practice.” It says resources are available to teachers and that the Teach Ontario program is there to help educators find “innovative ways” to engage with students through coding and programming.

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High school students also have the option to take computer science classes that include lessons on engineering and programming.

Susan Nedelcov-Anderson, executive director of the Student Achievement and Supports Branch of Saskatchewan’s Education Ministry, said in her province, teachers of all levels are encouraged to go beyond the curriculum.

“Teachers have a flexibility to incorporate a variety of instructional techniques and a variety of resources,” Nedelcov-Anderson said. “So, definitely coding, bringing in robots, would be an example of the flexibility that exists.”

She says computer science classes, which include coding as part of the lesson plan, are optional for high school students but that they have “not had any conversations about mandatory coding in Saskatchewan.”

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Global News reached out to the governments of Quebec and The Northwest Territories but did not receive a response by publication time.

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