Should Students Learn Programming in School?
Are you one of the over ten million people who have seen the viral video created by code.org, the one with high-profile people from the computing world including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, trying to convince younger generations to learn computer programming? The video opens with this quote from Steve Jobs: “Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer... because it teaches you how to think.” I completely agree with this introduction. My one critique of the video is that after the initial quote, they push aside what I see as the biggest payoff of learning how to code: developing one’s thinking and problem-solving skills.
What the video does instead of focusing on thinking skills is make coding seem incredibly exciting and empowering. After some well-known figures explain what got them started coding, they start to talk about how coding is not very difficult. Subsequently, the video jumps to a series of futuristic techie shots which serve to build the drama further.
Code.org: Attracting Kids to Coding
The impetus for code.org and its viral video is a shortage of skilled computer programmers. The website aims to inspire children to learn computer programming in order to fill this need. By teaching kids programming in schools, the American education system can provide skills which will lead to employment opportunities while ensuring that the needs of many industries are met.
While I support the stated goal of the video, the focus seems somewhat misguided. The final segments show workspaces full of cozy chairs, free food, and people hanging out. The message is: If you code you will make tons of money and you will be able to sit in a lounge chair in the sun all day eating fancy food with your laptop at your side. The video also compares those who code to wizards and rock stars and says computer programming is like having super powers.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the way this video is trying to attract kids to coding. However, some kids who are inspired by it might be surprised when they realize how much hard work it actually takes. Hopefully they will realize that when they work hard to learn computer programming, they are developing many important skills. What I know as a teacher is that coding holds incredible potential as a tool to teach problem solving in schools - and that’s something we desperately need more of.
Elementary School: Teaching Computer Programming to Kids
When I learned the programming language Pascal in high school, it was one of the few times in my very good public education that I had to really struggle and persevere to find a solution to a problem. I had to think and problem solve. Teaching kids programming is about much more than computers. We need to learn problem solving in every subject from a young age because a crucial part of problem solving is realizing and understanding that true problems are not easily solved; they require perseverance and creativity.
I will be surprised if within 10 years learning computer programming doesn’t become a regular part of the curriculum starting in elementary school. The next challenge will be making sure standardized tests don’t oversimplify what is supposed to be an activity that stimulates higher-order thinking. I can imagine a horrible standardized test that only asks kids to memorize a specific syntax of a language, and that would be missing the point entirely.
Check out code.org to watch the video and get more information about teaching kids computer programming. Click on the learn tab where you can get started learning how to code today. The sooner teachers begin to learn computer programming, the sooner their students can start benefiting from the critical thinking skills it develops.