Back-to-school request: Teach the kids to code

It’s one of the key languages we use to communicate. Yet, most of us are illiterate.

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As Canada’s kids embark on a new school year, they will be compelled to read novels, write essays, conjugate French verbs, dodge balls, and develop dozens of other skills that will prove more or less worthless in the job market.

And that’s okay. Whether or not most jobs call for essay writing (as mine anachronistically does) writing an essay is a good thing to know how to do. It teaches you how to reason, how to analyze, how to argue and how to communicate. All of which will help a child upon graduation, and will probably help them do their job, if not find a job. Regardless, an education should be more than 18 years of vocational training.

Yet would it kill our schools to provide a little mandatory job training? Somewhere in K-12 or beyond, shouldn’t someone be making sure that each kid will have a marketable skill or two to fall back on? All of which is to say that I have too many friends in their thirties with B.A.s and M.A.s who still struggle to find work. But I don’t know a single coder who isn’t gainfully employed. Beyond my anecdotal research:  programmers are in constant demand, even as opportunities for youth employment grow incredibly scarce.

The world needs more programmers, and some schools are taking steps to create them at the earliest levels. Estonia has just become the first country in the world to teach first graders how to write computer programs. It’s something Canadian kids will have to wait until high school for, unless they decide to teach themselves, which is how it’s usually done.

This is not to say that our schools are anti-tech, filled with luddite educators who hate and ban electronics. Canadian schools have made remarkable progress. It’s hard to find a school without a computer lab, and more and more institutions are moving beyond this ghettoization of tech by welcoming tablets and phones into classrooms. Yet what do kids do on these computers? Usually, they play with educational apps and games or do online research. In high schools, they may learn how to use popular office programs like Excel or Word. How these programs came to be remains a mystery to most students and teachers alike. Those who do take elective programming courses have usually been coding at home for years. And there are depressingly few girls in these classes (depressing, I’m guessing, to the boys who take these classes as well).

Why the resistance to teaching computer programming earlier? There is still a sense that coding may be too practical, that mandatory programming classes would be like forcing a kid to take auto shop — a clear sign that you’ve thrown in the towel on little Oliver ever becoming a doctor. This prejudice ignores the last thirty years of progress. Kids should be required to learn at least a little bit about programming for the exact same reasons that we require them to learn a little English, a little math and a little French. Code is one of the key languages that we use to communicate with each other.  It’s a basic building block of more and more of our culture and economy. To be totally code illiterate, as most parents and teachers are, is to be troublingly ignorant.

And that may be where the true problem lies: in order to teach kids to code, we need teachers who can code. And coders, again, are in short supply.

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Back-to-school request: Teach the kids to code

  1. Even if the end goal isn’t to end up with legions of highly-skilled programmers, given the increasingly important role that technology will play in students’ lives, how could this not be a good idea? Anything that teaches children to think in a different way will be of some benefit. Much like studying another language.

  2. damn right. Just started volunteering my time to offer the kids in my neighborhood a programming course. One of the best practical skills you can learn, and a hell of a lot of fun too.

    Regarding girls in these classes, frankly they just seem a lot less interested. I’m not sure if that’s sad or just one of the differences between the sexes, but it is what it is. Horses, water, etc.

    • It’s cultural crap, so stop spreading it.

    • My son is eleven years old, he would love to learn codding, mostly for video games.
      Sadly, I am illiterate on this topic. Any advice on a good way to start learning? Thanks

      • Sure, here’s a good start that I find works really well for the kids in my neighbourhood:
        http://justbasic.com/

        From that link you can download a free programming IDE (i.e. a package which your son can install on your pc and will allow him to write simple programs) which includes a good help file, example programs, and even a tutorial.

        Hope that helps.

  3. Ok, I’ll bite: which programming language would you like them to learn? Remember, HTML is NOT a programming language.

    Secondly: given that the skill that is most transportable WRT programming is logical thought and order of operations, which bits do you believe are being missed when the Math teacher gets around to drilling home BEDMAS?

    • While it’s true that logical thought is the key, it’s also true that certain concepts need to be mastered which may not be addressed until much later in math classes: variables, arrays, classes and attributes, boolean logic, etc.

      Any programming language can be used to teach these, just as any spoken language can be used to teach grammatical concepts and logical reasoning. Kids who are exposed to this early on will not only have a fun, practical skill in their repertoire, they’ll also have an advantage in high school math.

  4. I have two university degrees, and I studied programming by myself, in high school, and university. I wish auto shop had been mandatory.

  5. It is nonsensical to assume that you will be teaching children a marketable skill by providing one or more programming courses. I took a course in auto mechanics, welding, drafting and a few others (as add ons to an academic program) and I can assure you that I left high school with no marketable skills in those trades. Given the way the economy is going, better to concentrate on the three R’s (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) and then throw in a few courses like: operating a cash register, driving a truck, meat cutting or produce management. You get the idea.

  6. I’m curious about the use of the term “code” referenced in the article.
    Comparing programming to auto-repair?.. I’m certain I have never seen
    “Mechanic” on the list of top careers.. However, Software Engineer and
    “oodles” of other Computer Science centric careers fill the top 10.. and
    top 100.

    I
    hold a Masters Degree of Computer Science and a Bachelors Degree in
    Math — anyone with knowledge of this field knows that math and computer
    science are one in the same.

    As for those “coders” you know that are all employed — that’s because they earned degrees in fields of study that are in demand. I also know several people with MBA’s who work behind the bar — that’s because it’s a useless degree — shoot, they’ll even tell you that it was a waste of time and money.

    The fact that the average person
    has a “some-what” idea of how a car works — but can’t explain, the
    extremely simple (IMO), math behind processor architecture.. is a good
    indicator that something needs to change in the educational system.

    I
    think Gaunilon makes an excellent point — if not to create new
    “programmers”.. the practice of programming is still an extremely useful tool for teaching common material
    (ie. math) — or rather, from the prospective of the student — for
    being a fun, perhaps practical, way of learning common
    concepts.

    In the meantime — Please stop using the word “coder” and call them computer scientists. I’d bet that a great deal of the “coders” you know are actually highly educated systems / database administrators, software engineers, systems / data analysts……….

  7. There are many causes for the decline of programming instruction in our schools. After the great inrush of ed. tech. funding in the 80′s and 90′s (which came with great promise) came the dot com collapse. The lustre of the industry as a career choice rubbed off as programmers were seen filing for EI. Consider too that very few of todays K-12 educational leaders have competency in software development. It’s difficult to argue for the value of something as technical as coding with people whose educational experience is primarily language arts, social sciences, or PE (eg, many of Canada’s principals and district superintendants). To be somewhat facetious, programming has been demoted from the mystic pinnacle to being a trade or occupation somewhere between plumbing and electrical work (without the mess or equipment).

  8. I’ll take “Skills that will be outdated by the time they graduate” for $100, Alex….

  9. Despite the fact that technology is ubiquitous, especially computer tech., it’s not easy to explain, learn, and especially teach. Anyone that codes knows that it took lots of time to learn at the beginning and lots of time to produce anything exciting beyond some computational programs.

    Perhaps learning this at home by yourself is the best way to do it.

  10. As a teacher I think it bears noting that if I was proficient at coding, to the extent that I could teach my students how to code, I`d likely be working, like your coding friends, in that field… as the hours are shorter and the pay is better. Don`t get me wrong I love teaching and I love working with kids, but I think there are a few flaws with your assertion that teaching kids coding is a universally good idea. The other point that I want to make, is that part of the reason everyone you know who studied coding is gainfully employed is because it is a not a saturated job market. That might change if we start teaching every student coding basics, rendering a once niche field into a hostile, competitive and likely underpaid one….
    I use technology to enrich my lessons and include a lot of online work (including design) for students taking my courses for the same reason that you acknowledge learning to write essays is important: to promote critical thinking, planning, clear self expression, proffessionalism etc…

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