Why every school student should be taught to code

Poor teaching and a lack of inspiration: art and 'soft sciences' are left out to fallow and children today are not given the opportunities to expand their horizons intellectually.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

All but every child in the Western world has used a computer at some point in their lives. Some are fortunate enough to have them at school, let alone in their bedroom at home. But what strikes me as odd, is that these kids have no idea how their applications are made, or how they even work.

It's boring, to the outside observer. On the inside track, however, it's fascinating and commands respect from problem solvers and wide-ranging thinkers alike. But switching sides is a particularly difficult thing to do.

I, for one, hate mathematics -- often a core part of developing. But, I can appreciate maths as a language; Nature's language in fact. It correlates to everything in the universe, from star constellation patterns to the very heart of our DNA. It is everywhere, and numbers make up everything that we see, breathe, feel, touch and even love.

As a young person's sport, so many younger people focus on online technologies and -- particularly using 'fun' subjects and hobbies to keep their minds busy, from Photoshop skills to web design. Like being an "actor" working in a wine bar or a pub, looking for their big break, everyone can call themselves a designer or a website maker.

Combined with the vast array of MySpace customisation experience and the free tools available on the web, it is practically an innate skill for the Generation Y.

(Source: Flickr)

College students, particularly psychology and social science students, need analytics. Unfortunately for most, the only analytical tool available is SPSS -- a programming software used to create graphs and understand statistics.

These college students are taught to code in a limited, strict environment to control a complex program to produce output, based on the needs for understanding a series of statistics from a research project. They huff and puff and moan about it, because they are 'thinkers' rather than 'engineers'. It is forcing upon a skill necessary for a task at hand, rather than building up a skill innate to many of the younger Generation Y.

Kids today seem to be either 'red pill' or 'blue pill'. Pick either one as the ones who could go onto become programmer, developer types, because frankly colour does not matter. But it is clear to me that there are at least two camps of kids: computer literate and socially minded, and those who could be a core developer demographic.

When I was a very young lad, I vaguely remember a programming robot, for which we would spend hours at a time pushing blocks on-screen using an Acorn computer. The trick was to make rotating squares and coloured blocks to visually direct the robot to move in a particular direction.

At the age of seven, going back at least sixteen years, this was cutting edge stuff for a small school in rural England.

But with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had developed the skills further, but developing the 'way of thinking' necessary for creating applications and complex programs. Besides anything else, it is an additional skill to learn.

We teach our kids how to understand mathematics, and we teach English and other various languages. A sentence or an equation is very much like a basic application. There are inputs, a middle bit where processes or the important bit happens, and the output. The same applies in scientific experiments or even writing music, or playing an instrument.

So what makes computing programming so different? In short, it isn't. We just don't have the teaching staff with the core skills to teach, nor do we have that inspiration to want to learn.

Google's chairman Eric Schmidt was right to call out particularly the British model of education. Frankly, it is poor and lagging behind the rest of the world. But more importantly, the Western model of education where strict core subjects are taught and optional 'arty' subjects are left to fallow is not allowing many of today's children, pupils and students to intellectually blossom.

Take twenty minutes and watch this never to be forgotten TED talk. It will change how you think about your own schooling experience, and how your own children's future could be shaped by outside-the-box education.


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