How Estonia became E-stonia and how programming is being taught in schools from age 7

In some countries, computer programming might be seen as the realm of the nerd. But not in Estonia, where it is seen as fun, simple and cool. This northernmost of the three Baltic states, a small corner of the Soviet Union until 1991, is now one of the most internet-dependent countries in the world. And Estonian schools are teaching children as young as seven how to programme computers. This is from the BBC…

Estonia’s e-revolution began in the 1990s, not long after independence. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then the country’s ambassador to the United States, now Estonia’s president, takes some of the credit.

There’s a story from his time in the US that he is fond of telling. He read a book whose “Luddite, neo-Marxist” thesis, he says, was that computerisation would be the death of work.

The book cited a Kentucky steel mill where several thousands of workers had been made redundant, because after automatisation, the new owners could produce the same amount of steel with only 100 employees.

“This may be bad if you are an American,” he says. “But from an Estonian point of view, where you have this existential angst about your small size – we were at that time only 1.4 million people – I said this is exactly what we need.

“We need to really computerise, in every possible way, to massively increase our functional size.”

So Estonia became E-stonia – a neat Ilves joke. And with the help of a government-backed technology investment body, called the Tiger Leap Foundation, all Estonian schools were online by the late 1990s.

Through Tiger Leap, they have been teaching programming at secondary level for some time. But their latest project is to introduce the concept to children earlier, when they enter at the age of seven. So far, they have trained 60 teachers to teach the first four year groups.

“By next September, when the new school year begins, I hope every school finds it to be important to integrate programming in their classes,” says Tiger Leap’s Ave Lauringson, who is in charge of the project.

In a newly-built, yellow-painted school in Lagedi, outside the Estonian capital, Tallinn, this can already be seen taking shape. A class of 10-year-olds are designing their own computer games, supervised by information and communications technology (ICT) teacher Hannes Raimets, a slight, quietly-spoken 24-year-old, a child of the first e-generation.

“I think teaching them to program has lots of benefits. It helps the children develop their creativity and logical thinking,” he says. “Also, it’s fun, building your own game. “I think it’s their favourite subject at school,” says Ms Raimets.

What is also evident is that computer programming, at least at a basic level, just isn’t that hard.

President Ilves makes the same point. Born in Stockholm of Estonian parents, he grew up and attended high school in the US. He learned programming at 13, as part of an experimental maths class, and says it helped him to pay his way through college.

“I don’t think programming computers is such a deep, dark secret. I think it’s strictly logic,” he says.

“Here in Estonia, we begin foreign language education either in Grade One or Grade Two. If you’re learning the rules of grammar at seven or eight, then how’s that different from the rules of programming? In fact, programming is far more logical than any language.”

EDUCATION IN ESTONIA

  • Ranked 9th in most recent Pisa tests for science, 16th for maths and 13th for reading
  • This places Estonia alongside countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, ranked 5th in Europe for reading
  • Historically high attainment levels in secondary education, but not rising
  • 88% of three year olds in pre-primary education, which is above average
  • Pupils have some of the lowest numbers of hours in the classroom each year among developed countries
  • Teachers’ pay is relatively low compared with other graduates and OECD average
  • Expenditure on education rose sharply between 2000 and 2009, but restricted by recession
  • 6.3% GDP spent on education, marginally above OECD average
  • Unemployment has risen with recession

Source: OECD 2012 Education at a Glance

More at:  How Estonia became E-stonia

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Comments

    • ClaireAshton

      SchoolsImprove Yes very, maybe it’s the lack of history, and therefore negative associations, in the area of programming and IT…

      • SchoolsImprove

        ClaireAshton Where does the negativity come from now in the uk? Children? Teachers? Elsewhere? And is it decreasing these days?

        • DavidFoale

          @SchoolsImprove ClaireAshton In ICT the biggest problem is the lack of committed qualified teachers. Its 2013 my year 7 child is taught ICT by a teacher qualified in Music, with little actual ICT and no programming knowledge at all. Unfortunately this is a common story across the UK

        • DavidFoale ClaireAshton I wonder if it’s a generation thing? It seems to me (subjectively) that lots of teenagers (and younger) are really into the idea of coding etc these days but that probably wasn’t a case when most teachers were at a similar stage?

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