Ode to Code

Tuesday, 14.03.2017

Kids World speaks with Foo Yong Ning, Founder and CEO of Coding Lab, a coding school that runs classes in Japan, Perth and Singapore.

In today’s digital society, children are exposed to technology at a young age. Similarly, their parents, although familiar with tech giants such as Facebook and Apple, often wonder what coding is about and how important it is for their children to begin learning to code. 

Previously a Regional Director at a Fortune 500 Multinational, Yong Ning, a Master’s Degree holder from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), left his high-flying job in the corporate world to pursue his passion to found a school that teaches children coding and computational thinking. 

Now, Yong Ning’s coding school for junior learners, Coding Lab, is part of that diverse and vibrant landscape that is grooming young minds to maximise their potential.

At Coding Lab, children begin their journey into digital literacy and computational thinking, enabling them to become confident creators of technology. With an MIT-inspired curriculum, tech-immersive environment and small class sizes, their workshops cultivate logical problem-solving skills and foster creativity of expression in children.

Kids World (KW): Tell us more about Coding Lab and what your motivation was behind its conception. 
Foo Yong Ning (YN): At Coding Lab, we created an environment where students are challenged while having fun

I have the habit of watching TED videos on my morning drive to work, and one morning I saw the video “Let’s teach kids to code” by Mitchel Resnick of MIT Media Lab. I first started coding in university and had enjoyed coding ever since. As a father of two, I often indulge myself in imagining what my children will be like when they are older, the hobbies they will have, and the enrichment classes (yes, I’m a typical Singaporean parent) they may enjoy. As a parent who wants the best for their children, I started researching about teaching children coding with the intent of ensuring that both my kids are “future-proof”. It was almost like doing a thesis by the time I was done with the research and I was satisfied that I could utilise my strength (in computers, coding and logical thinking) to prepare my kids for the future. 

The next thought of teaching other kids to code came when I ran into difficulties coaching a few members of my team at work on how they could automate some of the analytical work they were doing. I realised that if the team had known the fundamental concepts of coding, they would have been far better off. The seed got planted in my mind, and I started working on Coding Lab. Today, we are currently present in three countries (Japan, Perth and Singapore) and impacting the lives of hundreds of children (aged between 4-16), helping them to gain technological literacy.  

KW: What is coding? Why do children need to learn programming? 
YN: Coding is simply giving instructions to a computer to make it do what we want. There are many reasons for children to learn programming and three reasons really stand out. 

The first is that it makes you smarter. How so? In a well-designed curriculum, children pick up computational thinking and logical thinking skills through learning to code. Computational thinking is a way of thinking with a well-developed set of tools which allows you to solve problems and arrive at a solution which can be easily and accurately executed by a computer (or another human). It is critical that children learn this powerful strategy early in life.

The second is that coding is the new literacy. Most future managers, professionals and consultants will need to be able to communicate with developers (be it to specify the requirements of the program they are designing, or to explain the issues they are experiencing). This is a useful skill in day-to-day communication; whether at school when you are explaining your concept to your project group, or at work, where you have to structure your presentation to gain the understanding and approval of clients, subordinates and senior management. 

The third is that computational thinking is practically getting into every single traditional discipline of Science, Math, Engineering and Finance. We use computational thinking to expedite sequencing of human genome in Biology, analyse fMRI images in Medicine, model chemical reactions in Chemistry, perform weather forecasting in geology, provide the four-colour theorem proof in mathematics, perform aerodynamics tests of aircrafts with computer simulation in Aeronautics and perform quantitative trading in Finance. The list goes on.

KW: Bring us through a typical day in a coding class. 
YN: The Coding Lab curriculum allows the brightest to stretch themselves with the additional challenges while allowing the average students the time to fully understand the basic concepts. The curriculum also requires students to generously apply what they have learnt in mathematics, to coding, which enables them to appreciate the practical application of mathematical concepts from school to their very own app or their favourite game.

We would have maybe two to three students humming Pokémon Go tunes throughout the class, another two coding their favourite PPAP meme, and three or so talking about Star Wars and planning how to do a project with their favourite characters. It really builds up a collaborative and creative environment: students get to interact, do pair work and present to each other on top of learning to code. Great fun! 

KW: Isn’t a 4yo pre-schooler a little too young to be introduced to coding? 
YN: Children at this age are developing their capabilities in listening to instructions, processing the requirements and finally carrying out the instructions. Teaching and guiding them to give specific instructions, will further develop their skills. For example, a child who says, “I want the cartoon cat to do that” may end up feeling frustrated when no one is able to understand what “that” means. Instead, they are taught to say, “I want the cartoon cat to first move 10 steps to the right, jump to a height of 5 units 2 times, and finally make a meowing sound.” In turn, this helps train their logical thinking capabilities and builds up their foundation in Mathematics before they enter primary school. 

KW: With technology now evolving and updating so fast, is there any danger that the coding programmes and languages that the children are learning now will become obsolete, outdated and irrelevant? 
YN: Programming languages for sure will change with time. Thirty years ago, FORTRAN was all the rage, but nowadays, you hardly hear about it. Today, we know that Python is one of most popular programming languages in the world, but that may or may not be the case 10 years later. 

It is important to recognise that coding is simply a tool with which we impart computational thinking skills. In a well-designed coding curriculum, children learn computational thinking skills which stay relevant for life. 

The Right Stuff
Coding Lab’s Yong Ning identifies curriculum, environment and teaching standard as the three “stand out” points of referral when it comes to choosing a coding enrichment provider that will address your child’s needs best. Here, he breaks down in detail the further points to ponder. 

1. Coding Curriculum: Is the curriculum progressive and clear? What are the credentials of the curriculum team? Do the exercises strike a balance between challenging the stronger students, while giving enough time for the weaker students to understand the fundamentals? Does your child start on a programming language that is suitable for his age? Will the curriculum develop the life skill of computational thinking? 

2. Classroom Environment: Is the space bright and airy, with windows for them to look far out, to rest their eyes in between their work? Are the furnishings comfortable? Is the lighting well designed for computer work? Does the seating allow for close collaboration amongst students? Are there Tinker Zones for kids to play with? 

3. Teaching Quality: Do the teachers have appropriate qualifications? What is their experience in handling children? Are they patient and passionate and love children? 

Check out Coding Lab's Website and Facebook page for more information!

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