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Author's profile photo Adam Winfield

The Coding for Kids Debate: Fundamental or Fad?

Let’s teach as many kids as possible to code. Our future depends on it. That’s a statement that not too long ago we took for granted as unambiguously correct and non-controversial. Now, there are some dissenting voices coming out of the woodwork.

Margaret Wente, in her column for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, recently wrote off coding for kids as “another silly fad”. “Next to babies, politicians love innovation more than anything,” she wrote. “And the hottest innovation in education these days is teaching kids to code.”

She’s right, the coding craze is sweeping across Canada – with Ontario, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia all jumping on the bandwagon – and the situation is comparable elsewhere. But with the World Economic Forum prediction that 65% of today’s grade schoolers will work in jobs that don’t yet exist – many expected to be STEM-based – how could that be a bad thing?

Wente quotes consultant Alex Usher, who believes coding is a valuable for “maybe 2 per cent of the labor force”, as well as educational consultant Paul Bennett, who “suspects that coding is just another in a long line of education fads that come and go with depressing regularity”. Former tech executive Donald Clark likens the current coding push to teaching everyone Morse code upon the invention of the telegraph, only for it to turn out that relatively few telegraph operators were needed.

Wente’s chief concern is that putting too much focus on coding could distract schools from “far more important” topics, such as math and science, which help kids “understand the world in which they operate”.

Days after her column was published came the inevitable response piece, coming inevitably from a technologist – founder and CEO of Shopify Inc., Tobi Lütke. “Teaching youth to code is more than just a ‘fad’”, read the headline. “The ability for humans to teach machines entirely new things – coding – is nothing short of a superpower,” he said. “My belief is that whoever figures out how to teach computer literacy first will have, by far, the most prepared work force for the future.”

Who to believe – the hyperbole-fueled technologist or the commentator often regarded as someone who crafts simplified and provocative narratives on current events to sell newspapers? Well, neither. While it’s true that Silicon Valley is pushing technology into classrooms, courting teachers to promote their educational tools, being wary of those self-serving tactics shouldn’t equate to being entirely put off the idea of introducing coding curriculums to schools.

So, where to look for a more nuanced perspective? Lance Bialas, Director of the Ideation Centre at SAP Canada, takes a more measured, reflective stance. “My kids will learn to code, not because I think their future work is coding, but rather their future success depends on having a basic understanding of technology and being able to combine that with social interaction skills.

“I don’t believe there will be massive increases in employment in the Canadian or the American economy for those who are coding – I think the machines will do that. The machines will be better coders. Instead, it’s about reducing fear of the unknown and breaking down barriers. Industries create jargon, and you get people on the outside not understanding the acronyms, which creates fear and distrust. Teaching coding prevents that by giving people at least a basic level of understanding.”

It’s important to realize that the coding for kids craze largely came about not because governments and technologists predicted we’d need more coders in the future, but because they need more right now. A skills gap in the labor market, which in Canada currently means 1.4 million people unemployed and 400,000 jobs unfilled, is made worse by the fact that there just aren’t enough coders to go around. The goal for STEM companies in introducing coding to classrooms goes beyond simply promoting their products and breeding loyalty to brands, like junk food companies do. They genuinely do need more people coming out of the school system with technical skills that will have more and more market value.

The urgency of this issue has STEM companies increasingly taking matters into their own hands. The concept of white-collar apprenticeships is gaining ground, and Templeton STEM, a partnership between Templeton Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia Institute of Technology’s School of Computing and SAP is one example of a program introducing kids to STEM principles.

Kirsten Sutton, managing director of SAP Labs Canada, oversees SAP’s involvement in Templeton STEM. She inhabits a world in which teaching kids to code is light years from being an educational fad. “(Coders) take things that don’t exist and create things that run countries, that produce products, that keep your pacemaker running,” she told the Vancouver Sun last year.

“Kids are exposed to technology so young and the sooner they get interested in picking it apart and figuring out how it works, the more likely they are to build a passion around it”, she continued. “Banking… mining… retail — every business has a digital component to it… and we don’t even know what those digital needs will be in the future,” Kirsten later told CBC.

It’s that unknown future which is making the debate around coding for kids a polarizing topic. Whether it’s Margaret Wente taking the opportunity to be dismissive, Tobi Lütke to exaggerate, or Lance Bialas’ commitment to teaching his kids to code despite thinking they won’t be coders, the uncertainty around the jobs of the future leaves the topic open to a wide range of opinions. Time will tell if we do in fact need all those coders. Meanwhile, we could do without some of the more hysterical commentary propping up coding for kids as humanity’s last hope. But let’s also not forget, they might be right.

Learn more from Lance Bialas about how technology is transforming governments, work and the economy.

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      Author's profile photo Jelena Perfiljeva
      Jelena Perfiljeva

      First of all, we won’t need “coders”, we’ll need software developers and engineers, UI designers, system analytics, etc. ?

      At first I thought of myself to be firmly on the “pro” side but after briefly reading both articles I feel they’re actually arguing two different points. Coding <> computer literacy. The first article was not against the computers in schools. But I have to agree that teaching specifically coding (or rather programming) to everyone and making it part of the mandatory curriculum simply may not be practical.

      While I studied at University, I actually worked at a department that was meant to support the use of computers in education. (Mind you, it was a long time ago and computers were rather primitive at that time.) We had a demo class where groups of kids were brought in for the field trips frequently. And we had one game that was meant to be educational – the goal was to load a cargo onto a ship by using simple, program-like commands. Most kids didn’t like it and usually I could clearly see maximum 1-2 kids (unless it was some special school) who were really into it. Those would likely be your future programmers, for others it was nothing but a boring game.

      But, just like with other subjects, it’s a matter of developing curriculum so that all the kids can learn enough to establish if it’s something they want to do. If we don’t teach computer literacy at all then we won’t give a chance even to those 2%. But at the same time teaching advanced coding to everyone may not be practical either. As always, “truth is out there”.

      P.S. I’d prefer to hear what the actual educators think about it. Also people always tend to complain about education but then don’t want their taxes to go up either. Who will do all the “coding” and how it will be paid for is not a trivial question.

      P.P.S. Good blog, by the way, Unexpected, given the tag. 🙂

      Author's profile photo Adam Winfield
      Adam Winfield
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Interested to know if you have any thoughts on how the education system could help create more of those software developers and engineers, UI designers and system analysts, beyond simply introducing suspect 'coding curriculums'.