They carry colorful names such as Ruby, Perl, and Python, but they neither gleam nor bite. These computer programming languages are often cited as the next need-to-know thing. But where are they really being taught to the next generation? Is code the most important thing we are not teaching our kids?
Until recently, I perceived the language of computer programming as the modern equivalent to hieroglyphics. A row of indecipherable signs, but no clue where to put the sphinx, or in this case, the parenthesis.
Lately I’ve noticed code coming into the conversation around education, though, and I wonder, will the next generation know PHP, HTML5, Java, and other code languages the way I know my ABCs?
To find out, I started researching how code is being taught to K-12 aged kids. What popped out was a variety of summer school programs, online courses, and articles proclaiming code as an essential.
But at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, the one place it seems to be missing is in the public school curriculum. Is code the most important thing we are not teaching our kids?
Where kids can learn code
Sites such as Help Kids Code (a magazine for coding), Code.org, and iD Tech, which features courses offered by Stanford University and UC Berkeley, promise that knowing code will not only open doors to jobs and riches, but also give youth a new form of expression, endless creativity, and logical thinking skills.
Mountain View-based Tynker, a playful site for children featuring basic visual drag-and-drop games, uses LEGO-like code blocks to teach programming without having to know the syntax. Tynker claims to “empower the next generation of innovators.”
Scratch is another tool for creating stories, games, and animations and sharing them with the online community. Scratch, which is available free of charge and targeted to children eight-years-old and up, is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab.
Most courses I found online appeal to children through playfulness and storytelling. For example, construct commands that drive an Angry Birds character to catch a pig: move forward, turn left, move forward, etc. The aim is to teach programming logic by training users to code basic elemental commands like repeat, loop, if-then, and gradually lead them toward more complex sequences.
In fact, the sheer variety and quantity of resources I found out there make it seem like every kid is a potential coder—and that’s true. But with a little more digging I soon realized that, while these resources are technically for everyone, they seem to speak loudest to tech-savvy Silicon Valley parents who already buy into the idea that coding should be a basic life skill.
And while some of these online tools are free, it kind of seems like the parents getting their kids access to coding curricula are the parents who can pay. Widespread public school adoption of programming as a subject alongside English and Math might take parents everywhere speaking up.
“Parents need to realize that this is an intellectual gap in the elementary school curriculum that’s going to be useful no matter what their kids are going to do,” said UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor Armando Fox in an interview with ReadWrite about the importance of teaching code.
Opportunity, but not for all—yet
Considering that most after-school and summer school courses offered by the likes of iDTech Camps, Wizbots (they combine robotics with programming), and The Tech Summer Camps cost up to $1,500 per week, one wonders if only wealthy families and those attending private schools benefit from this trend.
A few non-profit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area are successfully trying to bridge the gap between public and private, relieving some of the socioeconomic pressure standing between kids and code.
Code For Fun, for example, teaches computer programming to underrepresented high school youth. MissionBit in San Francisco facilitates developers from industry teaching pro-bono classes. Only in its second semester, MissionBit already has more voluntary teachers and students than it can handle—most of them digital illiterates and 40 percent of them female.
And what about elementary and middle schools? One of the largest online campaigns to respond to digital illiteracy for all ages is led by Code.org. The website includes quotes from Steve Jobs (“Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer…because it teaches you how to think.”) alongside educational videos featuring Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Will.I.am giving instructions on how code works and how to make your own apps.
Code has moved from geeky to glamorous.
Code.org has made it their mission (with a project called “The Hour of Code”) to spread code nationally and globally to students and teachers at every level. The organization provides both online or “unplugged” paper tutorials and materials designed to assist teachers with the education process. Their services are reputable, free, and can be taught with a simple sheet of paper and a pencil if no other means are available.
What Code.org, Tynker, iD Tech, and other sites have in common is not only their emphasis on developing learning and innovation skills, but also communication and collaboration skills. Coding is not mastered nor done alone, but in groups, with peers, thus preparing kids for work in the real world.
Will code become a new school subject?
Code is vigorously treading its path from mere summer school program to a future school subject in San Francisco and beyond. This still may take some time, but the pillars are being set.
Learning code gives you an enriching insight on how programs, apps, and games function and what you can actually do with seemingly simple commands.
Like any other school subject, code will have its fans and its enemies in the classroom. But even if you don’t like coding, you should know how those bricks are holding our 2.0 world together.
I just started to play around with Tynker and Code.org. Schools (and perhaps parents, too) should have started long ago. It’s never too late, though. “Move forward.”
Featured image credit: Michael Short, The Chronicle