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Commentary

Thrilling future ahead as Singapore continues Smart Nation journey

Robotic toys have officially been introduced in Ministry of Education schools since June last year as a teaching tool to train kids in "computational thinking", the new catchphrase here.

Computational thinking is essentially logical thinking and is touted to be useful for problem solving. It can be infused by learning programming and building robots, and is said to be the fuel for Singapore's Smart Nation drive.

When the Government makes such a definitive push, you can expect vendors to pull out all the stops to cash in on the trend. Similarly, the response from parents will be nothing less than enthusiastic as they try to give their children a leg-up.

Some parents may even argue that computing language is the language of the future and is as important as a language like English or Mandarin. Some parents, on the other hand, could simply be hoping that their children pick up some analytical skills. Whatever the motivation, striking a balance is important.

Many coding programmes run by private centres have mushroomed in the past year, touting computational thinking curriculum. While many centres cater to children aged seven to 17, one such curriculum - School of Fish - even targets pre-schoolers.

As expected, registrations for some of these lessons have grown by as much as sixfold in the past year.

Coding makes for good training, no doubt. But it is a hard skill and would plunge children into a career space early in life.

I'm sure many us love the convenience that technology offers and would not mind it a bit if our lives could be made better with more innovations.

Imagine having safer roads because every strip of road comes with sensors to warn drivers of approaching vehicles and pedestrians. Or safer homes for the elderly as monitoring systems are able to inform their caretakers immediately when they fall, or send an alert when they forget to take their medication.

These applications are part of Singapore's Smart Nation vision. An army of technologists would be needed to bring this vision to fruition.

Should parents plan that far ahead? It is one thing to send children for ballet, chess, swimming, speech and drama, piano or art enrichment classes. These lessons develop the "softer" speech and motor abilities, which most educators would agree are foundational.

But to have codes hardwired into the brains of little ones before they even have a chance to explore other career options? After all, every child has varying levels of readiness for hard skills.

To be sure, there will be tech prodigies in our midst. Remember Lim Ding Wen, who in 2009 became the world's youngest iPhone app developer at the age of nine? His shot to fame: a drawing app, Doodle Kids, that lets users draw on the touchscreen of the iPhone using their fingers.

There will be many more as more children are exposed to computational thinking.

Some parents may even argue that computing language is the language of the future and is as important as a language like English or Mandarin. Some parents, on the other hand, could simply be hoping that their children pick up some analytical skills.

Whatever the motivation, striking a balance is important.

As a tech reporter, I am thrilled by the opportunities the sector offers. As a mother of a Primary 1 child, I cannot help but feel that sometimes less may be more.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Thrilling future ahead as S'pore continues Smart Nation journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe