Should We Teach Kids To Code?
Coding and computer science have become popular subjects in schools. But why are they on the curriculum? What is their purpose? How should we think about the role of code in education?
A recent ad caught my attention. The University of Adelaide, through EDx, is offering an online code bootcamp. Twenty-four weeks with industry placement. The jolt of FOMO (fear of missing out) I got was unexpected.
I don’t code. Or, as I’ve explained in the past, I can code, but I don’t think of myself as a coder. Mostly this imposter syndrome erupts because coding is something I didn’t formally learn. I taught myself.
My high school had one computer, which spent most of its time locked in a storage cupboard on the second floor of B Block, opposite the maths teacher’s common room. I got to use it a couple of times in Grade 8, when our maths teacher ran a lunchtime computer club for one semester. I never saw it again for the remaining four years of high school.
Code And Its Place In The Classroom Today
The situation is different in most schools now. The politicians like to talk about “a computer in every classroom”. Those politicians also like to treat education as little more than training future workers. So some caution is advised.
Which is why I ask: Should we teach kids to code?
It depends what we think the purpose of education is. If it’s nothing more than preparing little minds to one day be workers, then we almost certainly shouldn’t bother teaching them how to code.
Yes, you read that right.
Why Code Matters
Whatever kids learn today will be out of date by the time they reach the workforce. More and more no-code tools emerge every year, allowing you to build things with little to no coding knowledge. And a lot of today’s coding work will be done in the future by AI, or at least, by the best specialists working with the assistance of AI.
But, but, what about computers? Doesn’t everything run on computers?
Well, sure. Email and websites are ubiquitous in business. But how many office workers can set up an email server or build a website? Using computers is a non-negotiable workplace skill. Understanding how they work isn’t.
Which brings us to the real reason kids should learn coding. Because our world runs on code.
Learning to Code Unlocks a Deeper Understanding of Our Digital World
It’s not just about computers or the internet. Your car, your laundry machine, maybe even your toaster – they all run on code. Understanding how code works is central to understanding how the world works. And perhaps more importantly, understanding how and why it doesn’t work.
Learning to code is like learning a foreign language. If you can speak two or more languages, then you grasp some important truths about people and culture. Some words can’t easily be translated.
And some ideas are understood very differently in different cultures.
When you learn another language, you don’t acquire a second vocabulary. You escape the prison of monolingualism. After that, you will always see the world differently. And understand communication more profoundly.
And here’s the thing. Even if you never use that language again, the insight remains.
Education Is An Investment In Character
Code is a way of turning ideas into action. It teaches us about cause and effect. About processes and systems.
Coding is not easy. It involves trial and error, discipline, practice, and patience. Mistakes happen all the time. Learning to find and correct them is part of the job.
These are not just qualities that make for good coders. They’re qualities that can make for resilient humans.
When we think about the subjects we choose for school curricula, it’s about more than just “skills for work,” especially in a world where the nature of work is changing so fast. What we need are subjects that build coherent ways of understanding and fixing that world. And that build character to face the challenges that the world throws at us.
Coding should not replace art, history, or languages. Understanding how societies got to be the way they are is essential for coming up with solutions for their failures. Being able to navigate the world of language and symbols is key to making sense of our own experiences and the beliefs and perspectives of others.
But coding has a place amongst us as well. Not because it trains future workers. But because coding can help teach future adults how the world works and how to fix it when it breaks.