Get with the programming: why all kids will be coders


Coding is the new literacy. To thrive in tomorrow’s society, young people must learn to design, create and express themselves with digital technologies.” —Mitchel Resnick, media arts and sciences professor at the MIT Media Lab.

While not every primary-school-aged kid will be a computer programmer of the future, every one of them will need computational fluency—the ability to think and structure thinking in a way that a computer will understand it—to succeed not just at work, but in life. Computational thinking involves logic, the ability to spot mistakes and the understanding of how code can be used to solve a smorgasbord of problems. Right now, for many kids, it’s still new (and heaps of fun!). In the future, coding will be a natural part of human language and computational thinking will be an extension of our thought processes.

GE is walking the talk with its coding-for-kids programs. GEreports asked four people who are passionate about coding education to answer three fundamental questions.

Joanne Jacobs, managing partner, Disruptor’s Handbook, board member Code Club Australia

How can we make Coding as important as the Three Rs in our schools?
Perhaps rather than thinking of coding as being ‘as important as’ Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, we should see it as being a component of all three.  We teach children to read signs and to write sentences, and we teach them mathematics. Coding uses commands and processes (reading), is produced with a clear linguistic syntax (writing) and follows basic rules of logic (computational thinking; a subset of mathematics). So coding is effectively an application of the three Rs and enables improvement in understanding of each of the traditional subjects, accordingly.

How might a 10-year-old expect to use their coding skills 10 years from now?
The funny thing is we assume it takes until adulthood for young programmers to reach their intended careers. But the likelihood is that young coders today will be inventing products and solving problems much sooner than at the ripe old age of 20. We’ve already seen primary school children building robots and drones to help manage natural disasters, the environment and improve lifestyles (see the First Lego League history). Increasingly, programmers will be turning their skills to solving some of the biggest problems facing the world today. And they’ll be creating in their teens, solutions that have never before been considered. I see great futures for young programmers in robotics, data modelling, biotechnology and energy.

But I also see futures for young coders in quite different professions. The skills learned in coding are associated with problem solving. The skills learned apply to everything from theatrical design to game design, urban planning, architecture, communication and instructional design, and even movie making. By learning to code, children have the scope to create experiences. This is the greatest power of coding education: design capabilities across a range of industries are developed.

What’s beautiful about code?
Beautiful? Code itself is a tool; an output. There can certainly be elegance in code, when a function is executed simply. But I think the real beauty is in the things made with coding. These entities generate experiences, have the potential to improve quality of life, and act as a context for decidedly human communication. These experiences are outcomes, not outputs.  And where we equip children to help create those experiences, we are facilitating development of the next generation’s culture. I see great beauty in that august ambition.

James Oliver, Digital Learning Manager, Museum of Applied Arts and Science

Kids coding at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences: image provided by Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences 

How can we make Coding as important as the Three Rs in our schools?

We need to embed it into our problem-solving skills. Coding is really just problem solving and logic. It should be used to solve problems in a wide array of curriculum areas. We also need to make computer science a core part of the curriculum alongside other STEM areas such as math and science. It is also important to add the A to STEM to create STEAM, so the arts are included. This helps to give many ways in, to create ‘learner buy-in’, which really defines how effective any teaching is.

How might a 10-year-old expect to use their coding skills 10 years from now?
A 10-year-old can expect to have a job that doesn’t exist yet. Teachers are preparing students with skill sets rather than preparing for particular jobs because of this. We are starting to see a boom in the internet of things, so I expect automation of our homes to be key to consumer-level programming.

On a professional front, connecting people to make geographic location less important is key to Australia, due to our population being spread out and the remote nature of Australia to some of our key markets. Creating applications to make this efficient and increase collaboration will have profound impact on our economy. I also see a space industry ready to explode in Australia. We already rely on the space industry far more than people are aware of, with our reliance on satellites. Manned space exploration will be within the lifetimes of those 10-year-olds, and in fact they will be prime candidates to be our space explorers.

What’s beautiful about code?
As a doctor you help one person at time. As a teacher you can help 30 people at a time. As a coder you can potentially help millions of people at a time. It allows you to solve real world problems efficiently, connect people, entertain people and give artistic expression.

David Parkinson instructing a GE employee’s son during a session of the company’s Coding for Kids initiative.

Mark Sheppard, CIO, GE Australia and New Zealand

How can we make Coding as important as the Three Rs in our schools?
By getting to kids early enough we can help shape the choices they make for elective courses later. The younger we go with STEM education, the better, and it helps with the gender balance, too. The earlier we can get to children, the more we can shape that equality in terms of the gender split in STEM.

Teaching coding is less about the specifics of the programming language, it’s more about the concepts and the mindset that it introduces. In writing code, there’s a need to be methodical, there’s a need to think through step-by-step how to make something happen—say, to make a computer program work.

How might a 10-year-old expect to use their coding skills 10 years from now?
In a knowledge economy, the need for that type of critical thinking is increasing. There’s a whole generation that has learned how to use computers but they haven’t necessarily learned how to build and program the next generation of technology, so it’s important to keep those foundation skills alive. For example, the drive to use the Raspberry Pi has rekindled that kind of learning. That kind of creative, structured thinking is the foundation for a lot of engineering disciplines.

It’s equally important that kids learn debugging. They write their software, and inevitably there are mistakes in it.  That critical thinking skill—of being able to look at their code, find the mistakes and correct it—is a set of fundamental skills that are going to be the same, no matter where the technology is going to go, no matter where the programming language is going to go, no matter where the way we make machines work in the future is going to go. If we instill those skills early, they’ll set the foundation.

What’s beautiful about code?
When I was 10, I would sit and write a computer program to play a rudimentary chess game and get excited about it. Today, the challenge is that the sophistication of the technology is so far advanced, compared to when I was 10, that there’s a need to get children excited in a different way. But when you sit with a kid writing a little computer program to move a cat around, the fact that they do it is what’s different. What they typed in—what they programmed—made something happen, and that’s a different type of interaction to any type of usage or game-playing that they might do on their computers or iPads. It’s a different kind of experience, and exciting to see that spark in children, that they can take back control, that they can use their creativity to get their computers to do different things.

Tracey Mu Sung, Ruby on Rails developer and coding blogger

How can we make Coding as important as the Three Rs in our schools?
It’s about the level of coding you teach—not everyone needs to be able to write elaborate programs, but knowing how to get your own site up, and understand how the internet works, these basic things will help remove barriers and allow everyone to contribute democratically to the internet.

Everyone uses the internet, or at least if they don’t now, they will in the future, and it shouldn’t be kept only in the hands of the tech-savvy few. It should be a resource that anyone and everyone can feel comfortable using and contributing to.

How might a 10-year-old expect to use their coding skills 10 years from now?
Coding gives you problem-solving skills, and teaches logic, which would be useful in almost any professional career. Apart from that, having knowledge about what is possible with coding could also help them do jobs better, if it helps them come up with tech concepts to improve the way their jobs are done: for example, improving efficiency, communication, and so on.

These days, most people don’t even know what their industries need tech-wise, but if kids are brought up learning about code and the possibilities available, they can walk into their jobs in the future as, for example, nurses, and be ready to identify changes to improve the way things are done.

I think it’s totally feasible that in 10 years’ time many jobs will have either a big technical component, or be completely done online.

What’s beautiful about code?
Writing code is a creative process—with the right skills you can create music, images, online worlds. While some people would argue that code itself can be beautiful, if we’re talking about teaching people code, I think it’s important to tie it back to the awesome things you can create with it. For example, check out this awesome performance.


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