The week of August 17, 2014

Your kid needs to learn to code

By Caitlin Sharp

This month, the class of 2027 will pose on their doorsteps and in front of their mantles for photos on the first day of school. This year’s kindergartners are beginning a school experience that, belying the tablet or laptop likely packed in their backpack or awaiting them at school, will be largely the same as their parents’.

The world and workforce waiting to receive them in 2027 will be vastly different, however. Today’s high school and college graduates are already behind in a world that puts a premium on technical understanding. Students need to learn new skills to be productive workers, and they deserve to learn those skills in school guided by a skilled teacher—or to at least get credit for the skills they obtain through extracurricular activities.

Technology has enormous potential to personalize learning. Armed with a connection to the Internet and a tablet, a student can reach nearly any resource in the world. Teachers can more easily differentiate for their students by accessing related content on tailored reading levels, and students are engaged in learning by video games that resemble those they play at home. All of this is meant to engage this generation of so-called “digital natives,” capitalizing on their comfort consuming information digitally.

But do not be fooled by how high-tech this all seems. These are simply new delivery methods for the same things taught for decades. It may be an ebook, but it’s still To Kill a Mockingbird. Today’s kindergarten students will learn algebra and about Abraham Lincoln, perhaps online or through a game, but not to code or create that game. It’s as if we’re teaching a generation to read but not to write.

Coding is creativity and logic, design and problem-solving. Digital fluency, like literacy, enables other learning.

Students’ current curriculum does not reflect the needs of the workforce in 2027. It doesn’t even reflect the workforce needs of 2014. The students of the 1990s may have played Oregon Trail during the class period reserved for the computer lab, but the majority did not learn coding skills in K-12. They may have in college—only about 4 percent of 25-34 year olds hold a degree in computer science—but most adults are now looking to learn the skills they need for the job market today through online courses, Web-based tutorials, and immersive boot-camps for coding.

These programs are touted as open, democratic disruptions that allow students to earn certifiable proof of their skills. The problem is that those options exist outside of the traditional realm and don’t transfer particularly well to K-12 education. Online courses (massive or average-sized) are disappointing in their outcomes. Lectures delivered by remote video are not particularly engaging, and it’s hard to imagine elementary students persisting under conditions in which Ivy League students did not.

By contrast, immersive coding academies are succeeding because they’re emphasizing quality instruction and a communal experience. There is a clear focus on the benefits of finishing. But the model is inherently more corrective than proactive. It’s only an option for young adults who can risk the tuition’s return on investment on top of their existing student loan debt.

Of course, younger students that are interested in learning to code can participate in extracurricular activities or begin personal learning at home through progressive online tutorials like Codecademy. There are wonderful programs built to target young girls specifically in STEM fields both online and in summer and weekend camps. Scratch is an age-appropriate programming language that also contains support for parents and lessons for teachers.

But these experiences remain mostly outside of the school building and isolated from the rest of learning. The micro-credentials students can earn are not yet incorporated into credits for science, math, or even arts.The industry term for these credits, “badges,” implies an amateur hobby—not the foundation of a future career. More problematically, these options for learning are limited to those who can access and afford it.

This is an issue of equity. Only one in 10 25-year-olds from low-income families holds a bachelor’s degree. Less than 2 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 34 hold computer science degrees.

Children spend approximately 16,000 hours in schools in the span of their K-12 education. Students can and should complete that education ready for college or a career (ideally both), which in this day and age means producing information digitally. The goal of K-12 education is not to guarantee any specific post-secondary path or vocation, but to ensure they are all still possible.

Schools should be part of the solution. They are the original, free, democratic innovation for learning.  They do more than dispense knowledge; they combine individual achievement with communal learning. Students learn from their teachers as well as their peers. The building itself provides structure and motivation.

If our schools become little more than glorified internet cafés, then students will have little reason to go.

Imagine if students were taught JavaScript, HTML/CSS, and C# to become digitally fluent the same way they’re first taught to write, building words and sentences and then the conventions of different styles. Imagine if coding was integrated into all other subjects and inspired by fresh perspectives, beginning in kindergarten and spiralling forward each year with enhanced vocabularies. The critical thinking skills we agonize about teaching students are embedded in the production of information.

Coding is creativity and logic, design and problem-solving. Digital fluency, like literacy, enables other learning. As Mitch Resnik argued in a recent talk for TEDx, “When you learn to read and write, it opens up opportunities for you to learn so many other things. When you learn to read, you can then read to learn. And it’s the same thing with coding.”

Setting or enhancing expectations for what students learn in K-12 is not easy. A bit of perspective: The much-debated Common Core State Standards are only for mathematics and reading (not science, social studies, technology, or the arts). So far it has taken five years to develop, adopt, prepare for, (selectively) abandon, and (potentially) replace them. At this rate, if we were to decide today that computer and information sciences were a crucial component of our core curriculum, 5-year-olds across America will be in fourth grade before they might expect to begin learning coding in class. At the same rate, this year’s eighth graders can have only sparse hope of learning such skills before college—unless they do so on their own.

In the meantime, we can integrate the meaningful independent experiences students seek with other learning. First, operationally, we can use common data standards to connect the data between external badges and official transcripts. This can be a digital backpack that serves as a more representative portfolio of student learning. And by legitimizing alternative credentials for course credit, students may more frequently persist through difficult challenges in what was before merely a hobby or diversion.

That’s something state and local education policymakers should consider when supporting blended learning programs for more sophisticated content delivery.

In essence, schools need to change enough about the current experience to protect what should remain the same. Lowering the student-to-device ratio is not enough. Learning the same material through games is not enough. Sitting them in front of a computer to learn programming independently is not enough.

If our schools become little more than glorified internet cafes, then students will have little reason to go.


Caitlin Sharp is the education strategist for Double Line Partners. As a former teacher, she is committed to building tools that help educators improve their students’ performance.  

Photo via Corey Leopold/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman