The Government has announced that it will commit $6 million to the development of a STEM-focused app for pre-schoolers. This follows on from the perceived success of a similar app, Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) aimed at teaching languages. The Minister for Education and Training said:
“We hope the Early Learning STEM Australia app inspires the same curiosity and enthusiasm that the ELLA app has.
Knowing that around 75 per cent of the fastest-growing industries require STEM-related skills, we want to work with Australia’s youngest minds to ensure they develop an interest in those fields.
The skills and opportunities those children participating in these programmes receive are a perfect example of the Innovation Agenda that is at the heart of the Turnbull Government’s vision for Australia’s future.”
On its face this makes a basic mistake about STEM skills – the fact the programming languages have the word ‘languages’ in them is fundamentally misleading. Learning coding is not like learning a language; that’s true for anyone but is especially pertinent when we’re talking about pre-schoolers. The Minister said in his press release:
“When you see pre-schoolers using a language that isn’t their native tongue to bake cakes, to count and even to sing songs, it’s easy to understand why the feedback has been so positive from pre-schools, children, educators and parents.”
It’s great that young kids are exposed to a foreign language; but the capacity to parrot a song or count to ten should not be confused with speaking a foreign language or actually using it, or even becoming enthused about learning it properly later. Exposing young kids to a foreign language is undoubtedly useful in them learning a language later – but only if they actually meaningfully use the language so that it sets up pathways in their brains.
And there’s the problem with a STEM skills app if all it does is have the kids learning STEM songs and parroting facts – it’s not actually developing skills or interest.
Now that’s not to say that it couldn’t do something useful. But, to the extent that it could, you don’t need to spend $6 million developing an app. Given that teachers already teach basic maths and so on to pre-schoolers I can only assume that an STEM app would focus on coding. And there are lots of those apps out there already. Don’t waste $6 million on building an app – just have the kids use Hopscotch or Scratch Jr and spend the $6 million on training teachers so they feel confident guiding the kids through their use.