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How This Start-up is Teaching Kids to Code

Saturday Kids wants to use programming to promote self-motivated learning in youth

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BY Ezra Ferraz - 19 Apr 2018

How This Start-up is Teaching Kids to Code

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

John Tan, the CEO of youth-focused digital literacy school Saturday Kids, founded the company after making his first couple of angel investments in tech start-ups. He noticed a gap: While programming was a useful skill to have, most people did not pick it up until college.

Saturday Kids provides students between the age of 5 and 16 a total of 18 different coding courses that are not typically offered to this age group. Saturday Kids offers these courses in a variety of different formats, including 5-day holiday camps, one-off workshops, and weekly workshops during the school year, hence “Saturday Kids.”  

According to Tan, each course emphasizes learning through play and understanding of real-world problems, as in the case of their most popular class, Start With Scratch: Adventures in Time. Combining coding with archaeology, this block-based programming class tasks kids with solving problems faced by the ancient Incan, Viking, and Mesopotamian civilizations.

Though these courses present programming to students in relevant ways, the ultimate goal is more of an orientation rather than a specific competence.

“While having the technical skills is tremendously useful and empowering, what’s more important is changing kids’ mindset about learning and making them self-motivated learners,” says Tan.

He explains this broader goal prompted Saturday Kids to change its billing from a “coding school” to a “digital literacy school” for kids.

Learning through play

Tan says that the biggest challenge in growing Saturday Kids is changing the mindset of parents — that learning through play, rather than rote memorization, will lead to more self-motivated learners.

“We like to encourage our students to explore our range of courses which has an emphasis on breadth and not just depth — and in a departure from the standard linear course progression, to experiment with different aspects of our curriculum, all of which deliver towards the same goal — to inspire them to become curious, inventive, and resourceful,” he says.

Open to everyone

Some might assume that Saturday Kids is mostly targeted for students who want to become programmers or students from an affluent background. Tan wants to make sure that his digital literacy school is open to everyone.

“We believe in the importance of making learning how to code accessible to a wider community, especially the less well-to-do kids who cannot afford to attend our coding camps, and hence we have partnered with Google for the Code In The Community program,” he says.

Such inclusion is important because Tan believes that programming will be a key part of the future, even if one has no aspirations to work as a programmer. The marketing approach of Saturday Kids thus focuses on how they create value for their target audience.

“Digital literacy education, in general, is a growing field and we think there’s a lot of potential in educating parents on not just the ‘what’ but also the why, the how, and in building a community around that,” says Tan, noting that one of their key refrains is that coding is not the end-goal, but the vehicle for becoming innovative and resourceful.

Since its founding in 2012, over 3,000 students have taken classes at Saturday Kids, but Tan is the first to admit that the skill-based aspect of their curriculum has its limits.

“Programming is a useful skill to have, but programming languages evolve. We will never be able to teach kids everything they need to know. It’s far more important to help your child cultivate a growth mindset of always wanting to learn. Curiosity is a great start,” he says.


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