Sunday, 26 February 2017

Should all Children Learn to Code?

That is a good question—one I am commonly asked by both parents and teachers, but mainly parents.

The answer is no; not all. Should all children have the opportunity to experience coding, and possible discover they have a gift for it? Yes.

Via "Please don't learn to code'. 

I'm not convinced that encouraging kids to become coders (actually computer programmers—coding is more of a slang term) is a great idea, I think they should learn to code, if they're keen, but only so they can understand it better, so they can be creative with it. You see you can employ coders, they are a dime a dozen, they're all over the web. It's the creative 'big picture' aspect that is lacking, ie what to code, not so much how.

That said... It's hard to know what you can do if you don't know how. Basically you don't need to be the best coder, you need to be good enough to really know what its potential is.
"Someday, the understanding of computational processes may be indispensable for people in all occupations. But it’s not yet clear when we’ll cross that bridge from nice-to-know to must-know."

"But is it really crucial to be able to code? Many content producers use technology virtually every waking hour of their life, and they don't know a variable from an identifier, or an integer from a string. Personally, I'm conflicted: I have a technical background, but for most people I just don't see how being able to compile code is going to prove useful."
"Coding is not a goal. It’s a tool for solving problems. [...] However, much of the “learn to code” frenzy seems to spring from the idea that you can achieve fame and riches by starting a tech company and you need to actually code something first. Programming is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Even if you do hit the jackpot, the CEOs of successful tech companies do not spend a lot of time coding, even if they started out behind a keyboard. There are simply too many other tasks involved in running a company. So if coding is what you really love to do, you probably wouldn't want to be a CEO in the first place.."

Please don't advocate learning to code just for the sake of learning how to code. Or worse, because of the fat paychecks. Instead, I humbly suggest that we spend our time learning how to …
• Research voraciously, and understand how the things around us work at a basic level.
• Communicate effectively with other human beings.
These are skills that extend far beyond mere coding and will help you in every aspect of your life. 

..."engineering and programming are important skills. But only in the right context, and only for the type of person willing to put in the necessary blood, sweat and tears to succeed. The same could be said of many other skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn to program than I would urge everyone to learn to plumb." 

Clearly there is no shortage of people that want to code, and those that have the predilection will. I mean, the point is it's not hard to act on it, to make it happen, and ... if you can't, then coding is probably not an option for you.

Compare that to say … learning the oboe, well that's not quite so easy to learn if you only have a computer and an internet connection. But there are millions of people out there who do, and are honing their abilities every day, and they don't expect to be paid as much for it as you might think.

So - how do we learn this stuff?

All the people I know who are competent users of IT and ICTs (yes, there is a difference) are those who basically taught themselves (including myself). It's almost a rite of passage. My instinct tells me that the kind of kids who can code WILL code, and if they can't find ways to teach themselves using the plethora of resources online, then... they probably haven’t got what it takes to code. Despite the glowing 'FUN, FUN, FUN!' messages that proliferate from some quarters of the web, the truth is, if you want to code, really code, you will need to work hard, you will need to persevere, nothing that is worth having comes easy, and coding is no exception. It is as simple as that.

"Top companies expect you to know what a recent comp-sci graduate would know, which could include SQL vs. NoSQL databases, the time complexity of some algorithm, or how to implement binary search. ... opportunities are few and far between."

"While there are some excellent companies willing to hire driven and intelligent self-taught engineers, they lie in the minority. Many companies pass over candidates without a formal degree in computer science before reading on; the stigma of low experience is a hard one to break in any industry but especially in those involving technical abilities."

I have never been taught 'IT' but I had to teach myself HTML to design web pages, and ActionScript to create Flash animations—at its best, that is what things like coding 'computer science' and subjects like DT teaches kids - YOU can solve your own problems, and you can teach yourself how to do it. It's all about the WWWHWW of getting from A to B, even if it means going through D, H and X to get there. The first time.

That's another argument for coding, not so much as a skills for the workplace, but the process, the rationale it demands, here's a quote from my colleague Helen Leeming who teaches IT in MS and HS, from an email exchange we had on this subject: This point about developing critical/analytical thinking through coding is powerful - (my emphasis)

"It isn't the coding… it's the critical thinking… they don't need to code any more than they need to be able to do quadratic equations - for most people either would be redundant the minute they walk out of school. But they do need to have stretched their minds, to have made their thoughts work in a different way, which both of those will. Almost none of them need to code (or indeed use a lot of what we teach them in school - oxbow lakes for example), but the ability to problem solve is essential. It could be taught through other things, it simply isn't in many cases… And people rarely choose to learn critical thinking unless they are an 'IT geek' and they are the ones that probably can already do it."

I don't understand why people question that this needs to be taught as people won't be coders, while we still do teach algebra and the periodic table to kids that will not be mathematicians or chemists. Education is not about learning a set of knowledge or practical skills that you can use later, it is about teaching you to think, to think in many different ways, to play with ideas in many different ways and to have a toolbox of techniques to address puzzles or problems you meet later. Abstract, critical thinking is one of the tools…"
It should be remembered that one the best ways to get to grips with the kind of logistical thinking skills demanded by coding is by using spreadsheet functions, such as google spreadsheets, right there in the browser, and then move on to writing your own formulae, to solve basic mathematical problems, that right there is the basis of writing code. Starting with a formula as simple as =A1+B1 to things like IF functions:

=IF(A1<B1, "awesome",IF(B1<A1,"amazing"))

So, my advice to potential coders would be learn to walk before you run, or more precisely, learn to walk (scratch) run (stencyl) jump (alice) then you can really get creative 'dance' with the source code:

All of the the tools below are free, come with great support materials, tutorials, and communities to get you from A to B, even if you have to travel via N and X.

Coding for kids

Some of the iPad Apps we use to introduce kids to coding

Here's a great set of Apps you can use to introduce our child to coding, even from Kindergarten, this is my suggested sequence of progression, from games that teach the kind of logical thinking needed for coding, to Apps that allow free form creation:

  1. Daisy the Dinosaur
  2. Tynker
  3. Lightbot
  4. Move the Turtle
  5. Hopscotch
  6. Scratch Jr 

Do it yourself...

  1. Start with iPads to learn the basics of control, computer programming thinking, Apps like Daisy the Dinosaur, Hopscotch, Move the Turtle. Apps like these use a drag and drop interface will intuitively grasp the basics of objects, sequencing, loops and events by solving app challenges. 
  2. Move to,  Scratch, or 
  3. Progress to Stencyl for iOS App coding using a similar 'block' interface, or alternatively App Inventor.

Coding vs Programming

Despite the hype that is common around this area, the fact is that no matter what you may have been told, the block interface that is at heart of most, if not all the apps that purport to be teaching coding, are not really. This article from Quartz clarifies this issue:
"The light and fluffy version of computer science—which is proliferating as a superficial response to the increased need for coders in the workplace—is a phenomenon I refer to as “pop computing.” ... This accessible attraction can be catchy, it may not lead to harder projects that deepen understanding.
... an important distinction must be drawn between learning “coding tutorials” and learning “computer science.” I think of it as playing with coding apps as compared to learning to design an app using code. Building an app takes time and requires multi-dimensional learning contexts, pathways and projects. One thing is for sure, it can’t be done in an hour or two, with a few simple drags, drops and clicks." 
American schools are teaching our kids how to code all wrong - Quartz

So to avoid any confusion, I refer to the control activities that rely on blocks as 'coding'—the blocks act as a code that represents the actual syntax you would normally use with a programming language. So let's call programming, programming; and while the block 'pop computing' 'coding' interface serves as a useful preliminary experience, the actual skill of programming is very different. When a student feels ready, here's a path they could take:
  1. Khan Academy has a great online course for introducing kids to programming (not coding), the introduction to JavaScript is a great place to begin.
  2. Apple have a fantastic app that teaches Swift coding, called Swift Playgrounds, but it only runs on recent gen iPads
  3. For developing apps, you can download the Xcode App for free from the App store if they feel they are ready to actually use Xcode, there are many online tutorials that can help with this, such as this one.
  4. Try for learning a range of programming languages. 
  5. Then possibly Alice 
By then you should be ready for the source code, this site hackerbuddies will help with this final stage... One-on-one mentoring for startup hackers.

… but even then, which language?


or Xcode for coding iOS Apps

And there are many more ...

But I would imagine for most kids the biggest motivator would be to create an app, using xCode (a free App from the App store). Which you can port to from Stencyl, but you have to pay $150 to enable that feature, so you can learn for free, you only need to pay when/if you're ready to put into the market place. Clearly it is the desire to create 'Apps' that is driving the current resurgence in interest in coding. For more on this phenomenon, read this article.

We now also facilitate the UWCSEA coding community through our ECA programme, for MS and HS students. If your child is in Primary and impatient to get going, learning Scratch and Stencyl will ensure they are more than ready by Grade 6, and of course from Grade 9 students have the option of choosing to follow a course in Computing, all the way through to grade 12 if they so choose. Middle school includes a module of coding through Lego Mindstorms in DT and we offer IGCSE Computing and IGCSE IT, and IB Computer Science in High School.