Code to Learn, not Learn to Code

24 April 2017

Code to Learn 1


“What if kids are intrinsically motivated to learn?” 

That was the question that John Tan, Founder of Saturday Kids – a digital literacy school that aims to bring out curiosity in kids, found asking himself. Ever since young, John wanted to be a footballer but somehow ended up running a technology school for children. As a proud father of 4, he intends to put all his kids through Saturday Kids’ programmes and secretly hopes at least one will end up in the tech industry. 

The IMDA Lab on Wheels team caught up with John to talk about how jobs of the future are shifting away from being traditional, and how coding plays a big part in it. 

Lab on Wheels: Hi John! Tell us a bit more about yourself and background – how did Saturday Kids start?

John: Four years ago, I started Saturday Kids, a digital literacy school for kids. The emphasis is not “learn to code”, but rather “code to learn”. Our programme takes on a very different approach to education as compared to the conventional local education system, where teachers stand in front of the classroom and students absorb information. The angle where Saturday Kids come from is geared towards the fact that information today is pretty much worthless because anyone can simply search for it online. What is more important is what we can do with the information, and try to get kids into the habit of taking risks, even in very small ways such as being comfortable in making mistakes, picking themselves up and trying again. 

Over the past months, we have seen the growing demand for coding, and I believe a part of this is because of IMDA (Infocomm Media Development Authority), with its Playmaker1, Code for Fun2, and Infocomm Club3 programmes . 

I am not a programmer by training. I did teach myself a little bit here and there, but that is about it. My background is in economics, and if I could go back in time, I would probably study something like Computer Science, where it is more practical and useful in my opinion. Somewhere down the road, my interest in tech sprouted, and before I knew it, Saturday Kids was born. 

Lab on Wheels: What was your motivation to start Saturday Kids? 

John: I just wanted my kids to learn coding, and other kids to learn it as well. Back then, there was not any other coding schools out there. But the tools were already all available, like Scratch for example. If nobody runs a programme to teach the kids, they definitely are not going to teach themselves, and neither will most parents because they simply do not think like that. If no one is going to, who will? 

Lab on Wheels: Why is it important for children to learn coding? 

John: Coding is definitely more than just a useful technical skill, it is also the soft skill of exploring, experimenting, taking risks and finding out solutions for yourself. The whole premise is that coding is a useful skill, and now I think it is more than just useful, it is an essential skill. It is not crucial whether you end up as a software engineer or not. What is important is that you understand how the digital world is created. Take the things you see on your mobile devices as an example, someone has got to code it. Just possessing an understanding of how that works can go a long way. 

Lab on Wheels: How do you think the jobs of tomorrow will be different as compared to now? 

John: I foresee that the jobs of the future are going to be very different from that of today, and learning coding is like an insurance policy. In all likelihood, the majority of us who pick up a thing or two on coding are not going to end up being a software engineer. But there are so many roles out there right now that require knowing the fundamental concepts of coding . For example, traditional marketing sees you working with an agency and coming up with a campaign. Nowadays, it is a lot about performance and technical marketing, how do you install a pixel on a website so that you can track your conversions. If you are not able to read code, how are you going to do that? 

Lab on Wheels: On the topic of jobs in today’s context, there are certain stereotypes of programmers and engineers. In some ways, these stereotypes have influenced the younger generation on how they see these jobs, ultimately affecting their career choices. Many of them think that tech is merely all fun and games. How do you think we can change their perspective on this and spark their interest in tech? 

John: The starting point is that learning has got to be fun for the kids. Take Scratch for example, with it being a very visual approach to learning programming. You can start off with letting a child play a game that another child made, eventually telling them that someone their age did this, challenging them to create something even better. This tends to intrinsically motivate them to take up the challenge because it does not feel like a lesson to them. They do not see it as being taught, but rather being challenged, allowing them to make something for themselves and showing it off to their parents and classmates when they are back home or in school. 

Thus we often emphasize to parents that the entire idea is not simply just learning how to code, but rather, learning how to learn. During the process of learning how to code, we use both soft skills and hard skills. Even if the child does not become a programmer or software developer, it is still a beneficial and useful skill to possess. 

Lab on Wheels: With the increasing involvement of tech in many things, what is your vision with regards to coding in the Singapore environment? 

John: Tech is disrupting the job landscape all around the world. Take a look at traditional print media giants, many of them have had their business models hugely disrupted by Facebook and Google, with advertising shifting towards more online mediums in today’s context. Even the original online players themselves like Yahoo have gotten disrupted by the next generation of tech start-ups. 

As game-changing as tech may be in disrupting the landscape, it is important to understand the necessity of it in creating solutions to solve real-world problems. Take for example Amazon Go, the world’s most advanced shopping technology that uses the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning. By pushing the boundaries of technology, a convenient and fuss-free solution to shopping was created. 

Jobs of the future are going to require some understanding of digital literacy and coding, even if the job itself is not coding. Thus, my vision of a more digitally literate generation. 

Lab on Wheels: With that vision of coding in the Singapore environment, how does Saturday Kids and IMDA Lab on Wheels help in reaching that goal? 

John: Lab on Wheels is great for outreaching to schools and community groups, sparking interest in tech and introducing kids to coding. Kids who are interested can continue and embark on external programmes to further their interest. For families with limited resources, we run programmes for them too. Saturday Kids is in talks with the CDAC (Chinese Development Assistance Council), CDC (Community Development Council) and Mendaki (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay Community) on how we can give back to the community. 

We are also working on a programme with Google to provide coding lessons for underprivileged kids. Previously we were already doing that with them on a quarterly basis, but with the introduction of this new programme, it has scaled up from being quarterly to a weekly programme. The goal is to reach out to 3000 kids in 3 years across all 4 community groups (Mendaki, Sinda, CDAC, and the Eurasian Association).


1The Playmaker programme exposes young children to technology through tactile and more kinaesthetic educational experiences. 
2The Code for Fun Enrichment programme aims to increase students’ exposure to coding and computational thinking through a combination of visual-based programming and robotics. 
3The Infocomm Clubs Programme is a Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) for students with the aim of exciting them about infocomm in a fun and meaningful way by helping them to learn new infocomm skills and to cultivate leadership and entrepreneurship capabilities at an early age.

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