Back in college, I had a programmer friend who would stay up all night writing lines and lines of code. As I watched him bang out strange symbols on his keyboard, I had a hard time understanding why he would spend so much time writing and rewriting, staring at a blank screen. Later, he would show me what his symbols created. It was then that I realized what he was doing. He was talking to his computer and telling it what to do—and his computer was listening. Today he is the co-owner of a successful tech company.
As technology impacts more and more of the world’s top industries and careers—from politics to education to the hardware and software companies developing the phones, computers, tablets, and applications we have come to depend on in our everyday lives—technical skills such as coding become more and more valuable.
In a recent post on Edudemic, writer Katie Lepi offered several statistics about coding and computer science jobs in order to support her argument for why coding should become a more integral part of our learning. She says:
- It is estimated that by 2020, computer related employment will increase by 22%; this will mean about 1.4 million jobs in computer science.
- The strongest demand will be for software developers.
- Computer programming jobs are growing at a rate estimated to be 2x faster than other types of jobs.
- Less than 2.4% of graduates graduate with a computer science degree.
- If current job trends continue, U.S. citizens will only fill 30% of our country’s computer science jobs.
- According to one CEO, an employee who understands how to code is worth $500,000 to $1M toward a company’s acquisition price.
But beyond being a valuable career tool, many argue that coding represents not only gaining important technical skills, but also learning an entirely new language, which fires off neurons and opens up new pathways for learning. In an era when foreign language programs are being cut, coding might be the answer to developing new language skills in students—the language of computers.
Mitch Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT who developed the programming language Scratch, compared learning to code with learning to read and write. “When you learn to read, you can then read to learn. And it’s the same thing with coding. If you learn to code, you can code to learn.”
Indeed, Resnick’s philosophy is already resounding with legislatures in the U.S. and the UK. Beginning in September 2014, England will be implementing mandatory computer coding in schools at all grade levels. And U.S. Representative Tony Cardenas has introduced a bill which would qualify computer coding as a foreign language, and allocate grants for schools to teach coding as early as kindergarten.
While programming is already being offered at some high schools as a computer science elective, there’s an argument to be made that the course should become a central part of students’ learning.
In an article for Mind/Shift, writer Ian Quillen asserts that if schools offer computer science courses, they should count toward core credits, and not just electives. Quillen says, “That’s because computer programming is a study of languages more than of technology or mechanics. And command of those languages allows programmers to control the functionality of anything that is driven by a computer.”
Nonprofit companies have already started to fill the gap. Dozens of organizations are dedicated to raising awareness of the value of programming and providing platforms for children to practice. Some are even targeting groups that are currently underrepresented in the tech sector. For example, CodeNow is raising funds to run summer programming camps for minority high school students, and Girls Who Code is “working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sectors” by drumming up interest in coding for middle school and high school girls.
So far, most of the focus of programming in education has been on older students. However, since language acquisition, specifically reading and writing, is taught at the grade school level, it would make sense that programming also be introduced while young minds are processing and firming up their literacy skills. In fact, two schools in Silicon Valley are already experimenting with coding for elementary school students. Feedback from both schools indicates that the programs were met with high levels of enthusiasm and a quick grasp of the programming concepts. In addition, the team who built Resnick’s Scratch, which is already aimed at students ages 8–13, is currently working on ScratchJr, a new version for kids in pre-school through second grade.
Teaching coding at schools represents transforming a generation of students from passive consumers of technology to active creators. It encourages their creativity and prepares them for a future in which programmers will be in even greater demand. If students can adopt the language of coding at an early age, they will have laid the foundation for a greater understanding of the tools they utilize in their everyday lives. And who knows—introducing coding to a group of kindergartners may just help unearth a whole new legion of tech CEOs who could change our world as we know it.