The notion that mastering code is as necessary to a successful start in life as basic numeracy and literacy has taken a hold of parents across the world. Christmas stockings this year will no doubt be filled with “Smart toys” – board games, robots and apps that promise your children a head start on computer programming. Once an obscure art, exclusively reserved for the narrow domain of the “geek”, learning to code is now a mandate for the broader world to act on. We’re taking steps to have as many children as possible, as early as possible, engage with the subject.
Three years have gone since President Obama’s endorsement of mandatory computer programming education in schools across the USA, and countries like the UK, France and more have followed suit. We’ve all seen the viral video from code.org encouraging students to learn programming, and for those of us in the tech industry, it is especially clear that learning to code is of an unprecedented level of importance.
The popularity of programming is neither a coincidence or a fad. We’re finally beginning to understand how knowing to program is essential, especially for younger generations. I’m 29, coming from a world where learning was optimised around memorising facts, with polarised outcomes of their right or wrong, good or bad, left brain or right brain.
What I believe children should be taught instead, is creative problem solving, critical thinking, and meaningful interaction with the digital world that surrounds them. Learning computer programming accomplishes exactly that, and below are 4 key reasons why we feel strongly about children learning this essential, 21st century literacy.
Programming is a new literacy.
Like it or loath it, cellphones, computers, Youtube, Netflix, and Facebook are embedded in our daily lives. Even toys are digital, and many are programmable. Many adult programmers today fondly remember playing with LOGO. As a matter of fact some of the best coding toys for children were invented in the 80’s and 90’s, but the rest of us likely got to play with “pretend” technology only. By comparison, a 2013 study found that 2 in 5 children today have used a tablet or smartphone before they could speak, with 38% of children under the age of 2 using a mobile device for playing games, watching videos or other media-related purposes. In 2011, only 10% had. Our reliance on technology is on the rise, so it’s no wonder we’ve all become obsessed with monitoring, quantifying and controlling our children’s screen time, a subject we explored in a previous article.
It is one thing for our children to consume these technologies. It is another to understand the logic behind them, how they work and why. When learning to program, kids understand and tinker with the world they inhabit. They learn to communicate with the ubiquitous machines we interact with everyday, and understand the process that makes them function. By understanding the logic and science that controls the digital realm – children also embark on a journey of self discovery. “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” It has been more than 20 years since Steve Jobs said those words, in an interview unearthed two years after his death. Children today must be able to understand and control technology, becoming an active part of this shift. Software is becoming a critical layer in all our lives. It is the language of our world. In the future, not knowing the language of computers will be as challenging as being illiterate or innumerate is today.
Programming is changing the world.
Written words have allowed humans to convey and record important information, pass on knowledge, and communicate new ideas. From cave paintings to Qwerty, our ability to create change is intrinsically linked to our ability to write. Increasingly faster ways to communicate have brought about increasingly faster change. Take the Arab Spring for example. A revolutionary wave of protests and demonstrations empowered by a social network that forever changed the course of Middle Eastern politics.
You don’t have to be a political activist to appreciate how computers and programming have changed the world though. Outside of the “tech industry” almost every aspect of our workplace has been disrupted in one way or another by digital technology. Accounting, payroll, banking, travel… businesses today are irreversibly faster, more efficient, and better in every way thanks to the above mentioned “software layer”.
Programming helps you think logically.
The bed-rock of programming is actually computational thinking. Computational thinking teaches you how to approach large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, manageable ones. It allows you to engage with complex tasks, in efficient ways, at any scale. When you think computationally, you create problem solving models for the real world with a suitable level of abstraction, while focusing on the most relevant aspects in the right sequence. It helps you go from specific solutions to high level ones.
This sort of thinking can be applied to just about any field of industry. Mechanical engineering, fluid mechanics, physics, biology, archeology, music, cooking, stock markets, medicine. The benefits of computational thinking clearly stretch beyond software. Computational thinking is the art of logical problem solving. You don’t have to be a professional software engineer to benefit from it.
Learning to program is simple.
In fact it can be fun, and sometimes even adorable. One of the beliefs which led the development of Cubetto as the simple way for children to learn programming, is that children learn best through physical play. Combining Maria Montessori’s hands-on learning principles with those of Seymour Papert’s LOGO Turtle, allowed us to create a truly tangible, screenless programming system that plays like a fun adventure, but works like real code that children can touch and manipulate. Cubetto focuses on making coding accessible for children of ages 3 and up, without screens or literacy, and is today an early learning standard in 96 countries, but the world of modern, fun and effective coding toys for older children is vast, and full of great resources you should look into!
At the end of the day, learning to program is like learning a language. Begin early, and it’ll become second nature. Languages will allow your child to communicate with people, programming will give your child the ability to communicate with machines, and actively shape the world they live in, as opposed to passively consuming it. If your kids aren’t learning how to program, now’s the time to get started!