There’s a common assumption, not always helped by the tech industry itself, that kids need to learn coding because we need more computer scientists. More software engineers, the argument goes, would help shape our digital world for the better and, you know, it wouldn’t be so bad for the economy either. (The term ‘workforce-ready’ comes to mind).
To which the obvious response for a parent or educator is: ‘But what if my child or student doesn’t want to be a computer scientist?’
While it’s true that the big tech firms – Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla – are snapping up whizzkid engineers, there are far more exciting and compelling arguments for why children should learn to code, beyond: ‘Because it’s great for GDP.’ Here are five of them:
1 – Coding nurtures creative expression
Coding for kids is a fundamentally creative process. Just like painting or cooking, with coding a child benefits from the satisfaction – even the exhilaration – that comes from starting with nothing and finishing with something.
And it goes further. In the real world, creative acts are often limited by the materials we have at our disposal – like ingredients when we cook, or the canvas when we paint. But with programming, where the virtual world is infinite, the only restriction is the child’s imagination.
Coding for kids is a fundamentally creative process; starting with nothing and finishing with something
2 – It teaches problem solving and persistence
Anyone who’s played with code, from beginners to professionals, will tell you that writing programs can get quite challenging quite quickly. Or put more simply: coding can be frustrating. Really, really frustrating.
This, says computer scientist and educator Sheena Vaidyanathan, is unreservedly a good thing: children ‘learn that something doesn’t work out but you can quickly fix it and try it again in different ways.’
With an introduction to programming, children learn to think laterally when faced with a problem in coding: ‘If A + B didn’t work, then maybe A + C will.’ Coding also equips kids with the ability to stick with a problem and work on finding a solution.
3 – Children learn by thinking about doing
The grandfather of coding education, Seymour Papert (more on him in bit), was a huge advocate of teaching by using programmable robots for kids. He was also a huge advocate of the principle that we learn by doing. As he saw it, the two worked hand in hand: ‘Programming the robot to do something helps a child to think about “doing”.’
However, to this he added an interesting qualification: ‘You learn by doing but you learn better by thinking about what you are doing. I think this is what is most important.’
In essence, thinking about what you want to do, one step at a time, before you do it, enhances the learning process.
4 – But children also learn to think about thinking
Papert (him again) also spoke of the discovery and the sense of wonder that children experience when first introduced to programming. ‘In teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think. The experience can be heady: Thinking about thinking turns the child into an epistemologist, an experience not even shared by most adults.’
For us, this is the argument that is the most exciting. More than anything, computational thinking is an unbelievably valuable thinking tool – perhaps the thinking tool of the 21st century – and one that can be applied throughout our lives to incredible effect.
With programming, children learn to think laterally when faced with a problem
5 – Programming demystifies tech
The University of Oxford forecasts that in the next 20 years as many as 47 per cent of jobs in the United States will become completely automated. Meanwhile, predictions on the number of connected devices that will be in use by 2020 as part of the Internet of Things vary from 20 billion to 75 billion.
Because of this proliferation of devices and computers, there’s a growing anxiety about the increasing role of artificial intelligence and computers, in particular whether machines will make workers obsolete. Understanding what computers can and can’t do is fundamental in addressing these anxieties. If we can teach children how to remodel the technological world around them, we can help them become creators rather than just consumers of technology.
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