Alarm clock, digital coffee maker, smartphone, car, elevator, email: Whether you know it or not, your life revolves around code. That’s why K–12 schools devoted to arming kids with valuable 21st century skills are building the computer programmer’s skill into the curriculum.
Thanks to new applications from Microsoft® and Apple® it’s easier than ever to start teaching coding early. Apple just updated its program Swift Playgrounds®, an iPad® app that allows kids to practice learning commands. The software now functions with robotics and drones.
Microsoft has added free subscriptions to Minecraft Education to Windows 10 OS. Players use code-learning tools like ScratchX, Tynker and MakeCode to develop skills through the wildly-popular Minecraft game, which has been lauded as a gateway to computer science study.
Last year, Apple donated 54,500 iPads to students and teachers nationwide. It launched coding camps in its retail stores and inspired at least 100 schools to integrate Swift Playgrounds into their curricula. Microsoft, meanwhile, has recently made the Windows 10 OS available on inexpensive computers, which will give it — and Minecraft Education — potential for greater dominance in the K–12 market.
Because these programs are designed for kids as young as 6, teachers need not be experts in code — or even familiar with it— in order to bring these educational programs into their classrooms.
There’s one problem: Integrating something new into a curriculum requires pushing something else out. Some educators might wonder whether coding could possibly be as important as fundamentals like mathematics, reading and writing. Given trends in recent years, the most likely subjects to hit the chopping block would be spelling and arithmetic, which some view as more disposable aspects of numeracy and literacy instruction (arts would also take a hit, if they hadn’t already been eliminated).
As a one-time K—12 English teacher and writing tutor, I would face a dilemma. On the one hand, I’d feel reluctant to trade training in fundamentals for instruction in coding. On the other, the statistics on job-demand for coding skills are so compelling I’d wonder if coding has not become a new kind of fundamental.
Fast Company recently named coding the most important job skill of the future. In 2015, there were 7 million job openings in occupations that require coding skills, according to the job analytics firm Burning Glass. Those jobs are growing 12% faster than the market average. A whopping 49% of jobs paying more than $58,000 annually require some coding skill.
The industries for coding jobs vary, too. Not all programmers are destined for high tech. Half of all coding jobs are available in finance, manufacturing and health care.
With numbers like that, some might say it’s time to dispense with antiquated subjects like arithmetic and spelling, which our ever-present mobile computers can handle for us anyway. Why not teach kids how calculators and auto-corrections work instead? Indeed, many schools started dropping basics decades ago for the sake of updating curricula.
I see long-term drawbacks to such curriculum cuts. Spelling and arithmetic are not isolated subjects. Knowing how words come together to form particular sounds helps build higher-level literacy skills, which require recognition of similarities among words — especially in a homophone-ridden language like ours. I’ve tutored high school students who weren’t trained in spelling and they struggle with vocabulary and reading because they don’t know words like prefix, premature and predate have parts that look alike. Forget knowing the Latin. They haven’t committed the shape of common words to memory. Spell check remembers for them.
The ability to add, multiply and divide quickly in your head, meanwhile, makes thornier mathematics easier to take on later. It also has tremendous importance when it comes to daily tasks like keeping track of finances. People don’t whip out calculators every time they drop something in their cart at a big-box store. If we’re reasonably skilled with arithmetic, we’re less likely to encounter a nasty surprise at the register — or worse, a hole in our monthly budget.
That said, there is a good argument for incorporating coding into the curriculum early, even if it involves sacrifices (and it always involves sacrifices). Beyond expanding students’ potential for employment down the road, supporters also say it helps kids develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. What’s more, it gives students a tool for understanding how the machines we depend on so dearly actually work. This can help them navigate the world with more empowerment. Who am I to say that we won’t have better ways — better codes — for things like spelling and arithmetic in the future than we do now. Maybe my reservations are based on a limited grasp of how mobile technology and AI will change our experience of future realities.
Some nay-sayers contend computer science classes are a better way to teach problem-solving and critical thinking. They say focusing on coding alone is like teaching students how to fly a particular kind of airplane instead of teaching them, say, how gravity works.
However, hands-on learning offers more than one-dimensional skill development — provided it’s taught the right way. Students experimenting with programs like Minecraft Coder or Swift Playgrounds would have to learn to find the connection between one programming language and another, but that’s yet another reason to introduce the subject in lower grades. Kids who learn French early, for instance, tend to be stronger language-learners down the road, even if they forget the French.
Maybe the biggest selling point for code instruction is engagement. Spelling can be a snoozer. But you’re likely to find kids awake and absorbed in a class devoted to making a robot gnash its teeth with Swift Playgrounds or building a treasure-trap labyrinth in Minecraft. Perhaps our digital dinosaurs will drive spelling and arithmetic to extinction.