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coding for kids

Coding for Kids: Is It as Critical as Everyone Says?

Coding: an education buzzword that quickly captured popular imagination and led to a movement that has initiated a curricular sea change in many of the world’s leading education systems. As parents we know it’s important – so many teachers, academics, tech titans and other parents have told us so – but why? Is coding really as critical to children’s education as we think? Is it the skill of the future?

Probably not – but don’t mistake this for an anti-coding screed. Coding is a fantastic skill for kids, and no child should be discouraged from learning it, nor programs and teachers discouraged from teaching kids to code. Rather, what follows is intended to get us thinking about what our children should learn and why. Let’s starting with the three most common reasons given to justify why kids should learn to code.

“Kids should code because they need to understand how technology works.”

It sounds reasonable, but this argument is akin to saying everyone needs to know the inner workings of an internal combustion engine. That’s hardly common knowledge, and yet most of us manage to drive just fine. We live in an era of hyperspecialization, when knowing the minutiae of a process or machine isn’t necessary to understanding how it works theoretically, or being able to use it. This reason, perhaps, says more about our generation’s feeling of under-preparedness for the rapid technological change we have experienced in our lifetime, than it does about what our children’s lives will be like in the future, or their educational needs now.

“Coding will ensure kids’ success/help them get a good job.”

Coding is often talked about as a sure path to success. And after having witnessed the tech-boom of the last decade, led by coders-turned-billionaire-CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and reading about Silicon Valley’s culture of perks, it’s easy to take this lesson to heart. Coding is, without doubt, a valuable skill – right now. It’s not likely to be so tomorrow.

In fact, there are abundant signs that, by the time our children are adults, programming jobs will be equivalent to today’s few remaining low-level manufacturing jobs. In the US, writes Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian, where 40% of American schools now offer coding classes:

A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the supply of American college graduates with computer science degrees is 50% greater than the number hired into the tech industry each year. For all the talk of a tech worker shortage, many qualified graduates simply can’t find jobs.

More tellingly, wage levels in the tech industry have remained flat since the late 1990s. Adjusting for inflation, the average programmer earns about as much today as in 1998.

While it’s true that India’s tech sector has the opposite problem right now, by the time today’s children are adults, that may well no longer be the case. Not because the industry is expecting a flood of qualified coders in the immediate future, but because technology is already moving toward a point when machines replace programmers, much like machines replaced manufacturing jobs once upon a time. Just earlier this year, it was reported that Microsoft has developed an artificial intelligence, called DeepCoder, that can write unique, original code. While not yet perfected, it heralds the beginning of the end for coding as a human profession.

“Coding teaches kids how to think.”

In a 1995 interview, Steve Jobs made a now-famous statement: “Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer, should learn a computer language, because it teaches you how to think.” What Jobs was referring to is something called computational thinking – literally thinking like a computer, and it generally refers to a problem-solving process that requires logical thinking, algorithmic thinking (if… then… or action/consequence thinking), and recursive thinking, that is, being able to break down a complex problem into smaller parts. For example:

“‘How do you make toast?’ is an interview question for software developers, because it reveals whether you think computationally,” explained Jordan Poulton, marketing manager at Makers Academy. “The ideal answer is a couple of steps away from something a robot could understand.” And for a robot, clarity and precision are everything. “Take four steps forward, open packet of bread, remove one slice of bread”, for example, is a better start than “put bread in toaster”.

These are the skills that underpin coding; they are truly valuable and shouldn’t be discounted. But coding isn’t the only activity or profession to teach these thinking abilities – and Jobs didn’t think so either. His quote is often truncated from the rest of his interview, which continued: “It’s like going to law school. I don’t think anybody should be a lawyer, but going to law school can actually be useful because it teaches you how to think in a certain way.” Complex problem solving that draws on logical, algorithmic and recursive thinking is valuable to many fields – and can be taught in many ways, including through coding. And let’s not forget that complex problem solving is only one of several, predicted high-value skills in the future; most of the others are interpersonal, and while coding is often a very collaborative process, we’re not sending our children to coding classes so they learn to play nicely with others.

And that’s the heart of the problem with the coding for kids craze: Coding, as an experience and as a skill, holds a lot of value for children, as does any literacy, but the most valuable aspects of it are the least discussed. As Marina Umaschi Bers writes in Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom:

In the coding playground, children have fun while learning new things. They can be themselves and playfully explore new concepts and ideas, as well as develop new skills. They can fail and start all over again.

For children in the Indian education system, known for its rote style of learning and unforgiving attitude to failure, any activity that allows creative expression and encourages failure and resilience can only add value.

Yet even these experiences from coding are only as beneficial as their application. We may buy into coding as one of many ways of teaching children how to think, as an activity that provides a safe space to experiment and express, but if we’re not teaching kids how to use their coding ability productively, then at best they are people who can sign their name but not understand the document they are attesting — at worst, they are dangerous; someone’s ability to code has been behind the recent, global waves of fake news, hacking attacks, and computer viruses after all. As New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman said earlier this year:

“Don’t teach your kids coding…. Well – teach it if you want. But before you teach them coding, teach them digital civics: how to talk to one another on the internet, how to understand fact from fiction.”

The internet is a sewer “of untreated, unfiltered information,” he told his audience of teachers and international education leaders at a conference in Dubai on the weekend, “and if we don’t build the values filters so our children can interact in this environment, with real values … we have a real problem.”

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