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Hey, teacher, leave those coders alone!

École 42, La piscine. Ph - William Beaucardet 2013

“Teaching to read and write is a very easy thing to do, indeed most people can read and write nowadays. However to become a good writer, an important novelist for instance, is more complicate: in order to have something good to write about, you need to be a creative person. The same concept applies to coding: teaching to code is very easy, to the point that everyone, including 4-year-olds, can learn to code; but if you want to write good code, then you need the ability to think in a creative way”, says French computer scientist Nicolas Sadirac, speaking from his Paris office in a telephone interview with Pirelli World. In 2013 he co-founded École 42, a computer programming school in the French capital, together with telecom billionaire Xavier Niel, and other partners such as Kwame Yamgnane and Florian Bucher. A nonprofit, tuition-free institute, it has been hailed as one of the most innovative coding schools in the world.

There are no teachers, or exams, or fixed schedules at École 42: “We don't need teachers, students can manage themselves,” explains Sadirac. His school follows the pedagogical principle of “peer education”, according to which the best way to teach something is letting pupils learn it by themselves, or by observing other students. The building, moreover, is open 24 hours a day, so that students can come and go when they please – or when they've found inspiration.

To understand this approach, one needs first of all to understand Sadirac's approach to computer programming and his objective in educating coders: “The way I see it, coding is a creative process, perhaps even an art. Sure, one needs to know the language, know how to code –  in other words, that's technique, which is not the most crucial part of the skill, but simply a requirement. Once one masters the technique, he needs to be able to come up with creative solutions in order to solve real problems with it. And that's the hardest part, we need to educate students in a way they can develop problem-solving skills: I want to see more young people who can actually do new, interesting stuff with coding, rather than simply being able to write code.”

Credits: École 42, La piscine. Ph - William Beaucardet 2013

Hence, Sadirac continues, the lack of teachers: “One of the major weakness with traditional education is that it trains people to replicate what the teacher is already doing, and that couldn't be further from what we want do do, which is to train students to find solutions by themselves. When you have a teacher, and students have to solve a problem, it's very hard to get him to restrain himself from giving them the solution: it's a natural human characteristic, and perhaps a bit of an ego thing, deep inside most of us are drawn by the idea of creating replicas of ourselves. The problem with all this is that, once you get in the real world, there's no-one who gives you the solution, so there's a gap between education and reality. So we decided not to have teachers – and, guess what? students ended up learning better and faster”. For instance, he recalls, “we had this student who wanted to come up with a video game, with a lot of complex math involved, and everyone was very good at it”.

Sadirac says one of the reasons behind creating École 42 was that “it has become very hard to find good talents with the capacity to innovate”. He blames this on a wider issue of “archaic education” which is particularly visible in France, but exists across the globe. Simply put, Sadirac believes that education is lagging behind reality: “The world has changed a lot in the past decades: now creativity has much more value that it used to have. For centuries, education has focused on training individuals to be efficient rather than creative, teaching them to replicate what others did before. This model used to work in the past, because humans had to perform a lot of repetitive tasks. But nowadays we have robots who can do that instead of us”.

Therefore, the priority now is to “bring creativity into schools”. Sadirac admits it's a challenging objective, but he is also an optimist, believing that the new generations are already getting more creative: “Kids are smarter these days, software is already changing the way our brains work”. Some, we point out to him, may argue that's not necessarily a good thing. “Whenever the world evolves, we lose something, but there's much more to gain”, replies the computer scientist. “For instance, I believe that soon people will not be able to make a distinction between what they already know and what is easily searchable online: our very idea of knowledge and memory is expanding”.

In the near future, he concludes, the ability to code will become a “basic requireent”. Which leads us to wonder: should we start teaching small children computer programming, the same way we're already teaching them to read and write? Sadirac believes it's a “very difficult question to answer”. Of course, he says, children can, and probably should, learn to code, “but if we teach them in a rigid way or if we force them, it will backlash and they will hate coding for the rest of their lives. So we have to be extremely careful and avoid by all means to impose it or make it look like boring stuff”. Learning to code at a very young age is a good thing, but it should happen naturally and in a fun way, without strict rules or discipline. Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!

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