The Making of a Curriculum - Building a Curriculum the Academy of Code Way

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In 2014, we set out to build the first version of what would ultimately become the Processing curriculum which still forms the backbone of our coding courses for students aged 10+. (You can see a good portion of that curriculum in various forms at theacademyofcode.com/handouts).

In doing so, we were looking to achieve a couple of key things. Most importantly, we wanted a curriculum which would give our students a really rigorous understanding of the building blocks of code. This meant that we didn’t shy away from material which was “too hard”. Rather we went and found ways of introducing it which made it more approachable for younger students, and (hopefully) made them want to understand it.

Secondly we wanted students to enjoy the lessons. It’s easy as a software developer (which all of the founding tutors were) to forget how coding isn’t just a “challenging” or “satisfying” activity. When presented in the right way, making a computer do what you want is really fun! Coding through Processing in particular is great for this, as it strikes such a great balance between letting you really control what’s happening - it is proper Java code we’re playing with, not some artificially easy teaching sandbox - but also not getting in your way where it doesn’t have to.

Finally we wanted to give students a real sense of progression. This last one has proved trickiest in many ways, and those of you who have been with us for a few years will remember various iterations of this, both in naming (“Stages”, “Grades” and more) and in recognition (wristbands, certificates, letters…). A large part of what has proved so tricky here is our determination that we will cater for as wide a range of students as possible, and that we will give plenty of freedom to students who want to power ahead to do just that.

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In many respects the existing curriculum has served us extremely well, and indeed much of it will be rolled into the new curriculum, but there were several areas where we felt it was time for change. Not only that, the past four years have seen new curricula launched for computer science at both junior and senior cycle secondary school level, and the insights incorporated there also seemed worth bringing into our own curriculum as well.

What’s changing

The new curriculum will be organised around 9 grades, each of which will be made up of 5-10 (or more) individual learning units. Some of these learning units will build on previous grades, or other learning units in the same grade, while many others will be standalone or part of shorter series of learning units (such as website development, 3D printing, computer hardware, music tech, etc). Most modules will be completed on an individual basis, but some will involve working in pairs or small groups.

There is a lot more structural detail around this than the previous system, which was more focused on a linear progression through the core curriculum with the occasional unscheduled side-trip into web development, music tech, or something else!

To complete a grade, students will need to complete all the core learning units in that grade, as well as a certain number of the additional units. A given grade may have 5 core learning units and five optional units, and a student might have to complete all 5 core units, plus 3 of the 5 optional units, to progress. While coding remains the core of the curriculum, the overall curriculum will be more holistic than before, including “softer” elements such as web safety and computers in society, as well as technical but non-coding skills like image editing, 3d design and music technology.

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Each module/grade will take approximately a year to get through, but some students may move faster or slower, and this will be catered to. Also catered for will be the completists, who want to collect the full set of grade 1 badges before progressing to grade 2.

Class groups will form around particular learning units, so for example you might have some students who have just started grade 3 working on a web tech unit with others who are almost finished module 3. This will keep things fresh for the students, while allowing us to deliver a varied curriculum with enough changes of pace to keep everyone engaged throughout the year. The flexibility in the curriculum will make it practical for us to provide this wider variety of material to different groups across multiple venues and times.

In terms of progressing through the grades, earlier grades will likely involve a simple teacher sign-off for progression. Later grades will include more formal assessments including capstone projects and formal testing. While the course will remain fun and engaging throughout, the later grades will require significant application on the part of students to progress, and we would envisage that in time an Academy of Code Grade 9 certificate could become a real asset to our students’ CVs!

What’s staying the same

The focus on coding first hasn’t changed - that’s the most important part! While we are introducing more “broad curriculum” topics, and hopefully allowing our students to experience a range of techie-but-not-coding material, our focus has and will always remain coding.

Java Processing will also remain our key language, at least for now, although in the medium term we will be looking at doing more Python and JavaScript with our students, to tie in with the Leaving Certificate programme.

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Many of the lessons and projects which we have developed over the past four years will stay as well, albeit re-packaged into the relevant new learning units.

Most importantly we’re working hard, both in the context of this new curriculum and just in the context of growth more broadly, to keep the in-class atmosphere which makes the Academy of Code so unique. Rigorous without being rigid, intense without being harsh, fun without being frivolous - the atmosphere which our tutors create in class is core to what we’ve been doing since day one, and remains at the heart of our approach.

Who is building the new curriculum?

The new curriculum is being crafted “in-house” in the first instance, by our rapidly expanding team of full time tutors, ably assisted by ongoing feedback from our team of part time staff. We are also taking significant inspiration from the fantastic work which has been done with the new junior cycle Coding and senior cycle Computer Science courses, and will be engaging with a number of partners in both industry and academia as we get closer to a full rollout.

When is it rolling out

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Specific learning modules are being trialled in class currently, and will be again during the summer camps in June, July and August. We expected most of our students to be working under an early version of the programme in Autumn 2018.

While we don’t see this as a curriculum which will ever be “complete” - we will always be looking for ways of improving learning units, or of adding new modules to keep up with technological developments - we expect to be broadly finished implementing it the first draft in approximately 12 months time.

Watch out for updates over that time period, including draft curriculum specifications and all sorts of content around the material we're pulling together!

How can I get my child involved

Send them along to a course! This curriculum is designed to bring kids from total beginners to expert level over the course of 8 years or more, so there’s no time like the present to get started. Go to our homepage at theacademyofcode.com to see details of all courses currently available, or to register for our newsletter to hear about upcoming courses and events.