Is coding for kids “another silly fad”?

As time goes by and there is a glut of articles, and thought-pieces, and movements on the importance of coding for kids, I suppose it becomes inevitable that people in search of something to say will start to take a contrary view. This article arguing that coding for kids is “just another silly fad” is a prime example. It also fundamentally misses the point of teaching coding to kids.

The common problem amongst those arguing against teaching coding to kids is to see it as equivalent to either teaching a language or teaching a mechanical skill – it is neither, it’s teaching a way of thinking.

Computer code is basically a series of instructions that tell a computer to do something. It’s irrelevant for most of us. There are a million apps for that. You don’t have to understand code to understand computers, any more than you have to understand an engine system to drive a car, or indoor plumbing to use a toilet.

To a degree this is true. Most people are not going to end up doing deep, original coding. But our modern world requires us all to be able to handle sequential thinking, to understand the coding processes that lead to the interfaces we see. We may not all use computational thinking to program the next Facebook, but if the author thinks that setting a timer to record a TV program is not a form of coding they are sadly mistaken. Coding teaches how to break a problem up into a sequences that a machine can follow. For some time to come we’re all going to be using those skills to work with the machines that surround us. And that’s just at the most basic level. You only need to go a little beyond that and be the person in the office who can ‘program’ a spreadsheet properly to see the power that coding can bring.

…computer and tech experts are also skeptical. “When the telegraph was invented, there was a push to teach everyone Morse code,” said former tech executive Donald Clark. “This turned out to be a huge waste of time, as the vast majority of people simply needed to write English that was transcribed by a relatively few number of telegraph operators.”

That’s the ‘we can rely upon experts’ argument. But if we want to go back in time for an analogy, I would say learning to code is much more akin to learning to make fire when living in the wilderness. Sure you might be able to rely upon others, but those others are going to wield immense power over you.

Or look at the power held by the medieval church as the only ones able to read and write, and consider why they so jealously guarded that power and resisted it being opened up to everyone. We easily forget that there was a time that teaching reading a writing were considered unnecessary and a waste of time: why learn to read if the priests can do it for you and tell you what’s right and wrong. That’s probably the most apt analogy for the argument.

The telegraph was a single line of technology – our modern society is nothing but technology and every single part of that is under-pinned by code. You may not need to be a full-scale coder to get by in society, but if you leave all understanding of coding to others you are going to view the world you live in as magic and those who can manipulate that world as magicians. That does not strike me as a healthy place to be (unless you’re one of the magicians).

So if you want to teach your kid to code, go for it. Coding can be a lot of fun. But does the future of our children and our nation depend on it? Give me a break.

Actually I think the future does depend on being able to code. The early-mover coders are what has given the USA a competitive advantage in technology. One that’s fast being eroded by other countries as they produce more and better coders. Countries like Canada and Australia don’t have the same early mover advantage and risk being entirely left behind unless we get the current and future generation up to speed with what is a core skill for navigating the modern world.

Should that be at the expense of maths or science (as the article suggest would be the case)? No, of course not – but why should that even be considered to be the case? We teach our kids woodwork and needlework in school – nice, but I entirely struggle to see why they are still considered essential life skills in the modern world. So making space to teach coding could be achieved and not at the expense of maths or science.

Look we haven’t managed to get a real head of steam on getting kids coding yet. So it’s way to early for a backlash other than in the context of finding something different to say. But in that context I imagine we’re going to see more of these sorts of articles, not least because they appeal easily to those who fear change to the status quo. It’s important we don’t let the argument get derailed along simplistic lines like the idea that we didn’t all need to learn Morse code, or that not everyone is going to be a professional programmer.

Coding is only a ‘fad’ in as far as technology is a ‘fad’. Everyone is going to be dealing with technology, swimming in it, and they need to have at least a basic understanding of how it works and the capacity to exercise at least some control over it. When I consider medieval society with the church having a monopoly on reading and writing, that’s not a power structure I want our kids to be at the bottom of.

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