Estonia teaches coding basics to elementary schoolers

Earlier this year, Linnar Viik, the head of the Estonian IT College, was quoted in The Guardian as saying to his fellow citizens, “The Internet is a manifestation of something more than a service — it’s a symbol of democracy and freedom.” The tiny Baltic nation of 1.3 million people has been known as a technology pioneer. In Estonia, people can vote online, medical prescriptions are delivered over the Internet, you can walk one hundred miles from the capital of Tallinn and never lose an Internet connection, and, starting this year, elementary school students will be learning the basics of computer coding.

A new program, christened ProgeTiiger, is designed to teach students as young as seven years old core concepts of code. This does not mean that students will be creating complex programs in C+ or Java, but they will be learning that computers are not merely tools for consumption. What a person consumes on a computer was constructed and refined. Classes will also focus on introducing underlying ideas like logic, which the program’s creators hope will improve pupils’ skills in mathematics and applied sciences later in their education. As students get older, those who develop a stronger interest in the subject will be provided with classes that scale to their abilities in secondary education. At first, the classes will not be mandatory, but will be augmented by the presence of extracurricular coding clubs as early as primary school.

One of the people responsible for creating this radical new educational venture is Ave Lauringson, who began working on the project after coming off three years of maternity leave. “[Children] can become a kind of IT experts at the age of seven,” she said. She also commented that, in Estonia, “kids are walking around with Pampers and iPads, so we see that there has to be some logical movement with tech.” She is part of a private organization called the Tiger Leap Foundation, which is working with national IT companies and the Estonian government to develop the program.

Microsoft is also involved, as it will be providing some of the software tools teachers will be using to educate their students. The Redmond, Wash. based firm has developed a programming interface called Kodu. It uses either a mouse and keyboard or a game controller as user input, and operates on an entirely icon-based language that is more intuitive than the abstractions associated with more advanced code languages. Engineers at Microsoft took inspiration from robotics to design the system, which displays the results of a user’s creations in brightly colored landscapes.

Teachers are being trained this September in preparation for the information technology classes to start in October. Twenty schools will be piloting the program, which will cost around €70,000 per year in government funds. Though ProgeTiiger is starting small, Lauringson is confident in its potential for success. “We have only 1.3 million people, so it’s very easy for us to develop these kinds of projects. Estonia is like a little model country to start new projects like this.”