Teaching Kids to Code – Is It a Bad Idea?

National
Posted By Terri Williams on November 4, 2016 at 9:50 am
Teaching Kids to Code – Is It a Bad Idea?

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt recently declared that young employees joining the company would learn to code, even if they worked in non-IT areas, such as finance and operations. A recent survey by Burning Glass Technology and Oracle Academy revealed that half of high-paying jobs require coding skills, and these aren’t just IT jobs. That raises the questions: Does everyone need to learn this skill, and should parents rush to find programs to teach kids to code?

At least for now, the answer to the first question is no. As for the second question, some companies and universities offer summer camps, afternoon and weekend coding classes, and even code-a-thons for elementary and high school students. Students as young as 6 are being taught game design and code skills. Some schools are adding coding to their elementary curriculum – although a 2015 Google report revealed that 75 percent of schools do not offer computer science classes that include coding/programming.

GoodCall assembled a group of experts from various backgrounds to discuss the pros and cons of teaching kids to code.

Starting so early is a bad idea

Johnny Castro, a child development expert and teacher preparation faculty member at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch/Dallas, TX, tells GoodCall that he emphatically opposes teaching kids to code. “Let children play and enjoy childhood – we do not need to push down the ‘career’ or interest in computer programming until the child is actually closer to 15 or 16 years old.”

Instead, Castro believes it is more important for children to explore all the various areas and opportunities in math, science, and other fields “before they become experts” in a particular area. “Computer coding is far too advanced and something that sounds like adults externalizing that ‘children can learn to do this and I would have loved to do this as a child.’”

While kids may be interested in computer games and robotics, Castro warns against interpreting this as a signal to get them career ready. “The more open-ended and interactive math, science, and computer technology activities are, the better for the child’s learning and sustained interest,” he says.

But what about the studies that show kids are better able to absorb new information at an early age? Margaret Leary, Ph.D., chair and director of curriculum at the National CyberWatch Center, is a networking cyber person so she does not code as a profession. However, Leary tells GoodCall that typically around the age of 2 and then again around the age of 19 or 20, young brains are more conducive to learning new languages.

Does this mean that children should start learning to code in the crib? Not exactly. Leary continues, “Studies have shown that every 2 years, 60% of our technical skills become obsolete, so any programming languages learned 5 or 6 years ago are unlikely to be in use after that time.”  That’s not the only issue. “I would even contend that some studies show that we are shifting from left-brain functions on which traditional programming has relied, to right-brained functions, so it will be interesting to see how this impacts the discipline,” Leary says.

Jim Taylor, PhD, author of Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Child for a Media-Fueled World, has written on this subject and he’s against coding camps. Taylor tells GoodCall that he is not a big fan of early coding in any setting. “Coding is so popular because parents are afraid that if their kids aren’t on the tech train early, they will be left off of the train forever.” While he does believe that there is a time and place to learn to code, Taylor does not think early coding is the answer. “Coding is a box, in terms of thinking; it is a beautiful box, it is an elegant box, but it is still a box with limited options.”

And contrary to what parents may think, Taylor argues that learning to code at a young age isn’t the key to success. “What will make kids successful in this tech-driven world is whether they can think – creatively, innovatively, and expansively – and that is accomplished through free, unstructured play.”

Taylor also shares Leary’s sentiment that what might be good now in terms of coding may not be relevant in the future since technology is advancing so rapidly. “And because kids grow up in a tech-dominated world, they’re going to have tech skills,” Taylor says. “It’s not that complicated; a lot of great coders learned as adults.”

Screen time is another issue that Taylor has with teaching kids to code. He believes that they already spend too much time in front of computer screens, and coding camps add additional screen time that takes away from other activities.

“It’s a matter of opportunity costs – time spent in one area is time not spent in a better area,” Taylor explains. “ If kids are coding, they’re not exercising, interacting with other people, doing their math, and any number of other more beneficial activities.”

So what’s driving the “teach kids to code” trend?

As Castro alluded to above, sometimes the parents get carried away when their small children express interest in technology, and they don’t want their kids to get left behind in the technical revolution. Taylor believes parents are fearful that if their kids don’t learn to code, they will not be able to support themselves. But he also believes there are other driving forces. “There is a coding industrial complex where it’s a way to make money for companies,” Taylor says. “Technology is the solution du jour for our education ails, even though there’s no research that it improves learning.”

And that’s why Taylor believes that parents are putting tablets and technology in the hands of 5-year-olds. “The kids are learning a simple language that has no relation to the type of skills they will need when they grow up.”

But isn’t earlier always better? Apparently not, at least not to Taylor. If kids have a desire to learn coding when they get to high school, he says that is plenty of time. “Brain surgeons don’t start learning as children, neither do lawyers or astrophysicists – and if it’s not necessary for kids to attend brain surgery camps, why is coding different?”

Taylor’s advice: “Parents should just step back, take a deep breath, get perspective, and send their kids outside.”

Teaching kids to code is a good idea

Regarding young adults, GoodCall has covered coding and code schools extensively. App Academy, Code School, and Viking Code School offer share agreements and reasonable fees to help students avoid costly student loans. Holberton School of Software Engineering also features no upfront fees and uses an automated enrollment process that is impressively close to reaching gender parity with 40% women students.

But teaching kids to code is another matter.

Jeff Gray, Ph.D., a professor in the department of computer science at the University of Alabama, a Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year, and an education advisory council member for Code.org, tells GoodCall that there are many benefits to teaching kids to code.

Using pictorial symbols

One of the complaints leveled against this practice is the use of pictorial symbols as a substitution for actual commands. However, Gray says, “For first-learners of any age, even college freshmen, there has been deep research that shows using a block/visual language offers many benefits over a traditional textual programming language.” Gray says this serves two purposes:

  • Preventing errors: Students learning programming for the first time are often frustrated with traditional textual languages because of the challenges of syntax errors, which are similar to learning the grammar of a new written language (like diagramming English sentences). The new block languages that are more visual eliminate the problem of syntax errors – a student is forced to place a block in the correct place, often snapping together like a Lego brick. This allows the new student to concentrate on the core idea of programming, and not be concerned about the frustrations of proper syntax. The topic of syntax can be learned later with a traditional text language after they have learned the more fundamental coding constructs.
  • Reducing cognitive load and favoring recognition over recall: The new block languages help reduce the amount of assumed knowledge that is needed to program. In block-based environments, the students do not need to memorize a large amount of programming vocabulary – the environments provide a context that helps the students to understand what are valid and appropriate constructs to use when programming.

And Gray says there’s a new trend to use programming platforms that can switch between the block/visual languages and the traditional text languages.

Another complaint is that kids aren’t really learning useful skills, just completing repetitive tasks. But Gray says this view misses the point, which isn’t just to teach coding, but to introduce kids to computational thinking. “For example, in the new College Board AP exam called CS Principles, coding/programming is only one of 7 Big Ideas of computer science.”

Gray says that students are learning creative expression, principles of problem solving and logic, collaboration, and communication with peers through computation. “People often say, ‘I wish I had an app for that,’ and by teaching students about coding, our goal is for them to develop computational solutions that are contextually important to the social and daily needs of their community.”

Won’t teaching kids to code now give them outdated skills?

Gray doesn’t think so. “There is strong evidence that computational skills will be required for the most desirable jobs of the future – which will require problem-solving skills. Computer science is the discipline that drives the future needs of technology spaces in almost any domain, from finance to medicine, entertainment, education and many other areas.”

Training teachers 

Some teachers have complained that they feel ill-equipped to teach coding. Gray admits that this has been the most challenging part, since most K-12 teachers were not trained in areas related to computer science. But he says that training efforts are underway. “For example, in Alabama we currently are training 70 high school teachers on the new College Board AP exam called CS Principles,” says Gray. “We just completed our 35th Code.org K5 workshop that has trained over 1,100 elementary school teachers on how to introduce the core concepts of computation in grades K-5.”

In addition, Gray says that the National Science Foundation, and non-profits such as Code.org and Project Lead the Way, have helped to train teachers. Efforts are also underway to train teachers while they’re still students in college.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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