Through the Education Lens

Should Schools Teach Students How-to-Code + Lessons Beyond

CJ Westerberg, February 28, 2013 11:01 PM


The videos below do an excellent job bringing all the non-coders,
adult and young,
into a touchier-feelier world of code.

-C.J. Westerberg

The Marketing of Learning

Viral Video Below
via Code.Org

DSC_0163-1_2.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

Should kids learn how to code?  The simple answer, yes.  This meme seems to be everywhere of late in case you've missed it yet this post addresses a somewhat different angle on this super-viral video and topic.

Whether schools should and can teach it without making it a soul-sucking exercise and adding yet another list of required to-dos through the Common Core for teachers is another thing. Just ask Paul Lockhart, author of A Mathematician's Lament or John Taylor Gatto.  So let's just talk in terms of whether and why kids should learn how to code . . . or at least have the opportunity to get started since it is the most universal foreign language - a virtual STEAM mash-up.

I've been trying to convince our 15-year old daughter about how great learning how to code would be and the message has always fallen on deaf ears. She's a self-directed learner in many areas but in this case, no cigar.

Until I showed her this new viral video below (#1). 

Her response?  "I get it, Mom.  It's given me a completely different impression about coding - You can actually do some cool stuff.  Plus, I would love to work at Valve - they actually do real story-telling, not just shoot 'em up scenes (she is a fan of Portal)."  I used her as a test case not only because she has the right-age sense of skepticism when it comes to sales pitches especially when they come from adults (as most teenagers do with their acute b.s. detectors seemingly always in operation), but because she is equally happy spending time with very low tech toys such as "outside" or her sketchbook and colored pencils.  Whether she actually becomes a coder is not the point. At all.

The videos below do an excellent job bringing all the non-coders, adult and young, into a touchier-feelier world of code.  Yet video #1 does something more.  It inspires but also alludes to the realities - albeit somewhat sugar-coated - that learning how to code can be initially intimidating comparing it to the work needed to get good at something, like sports or playing
an instrument.  

Daughter "saw" the end game. What coding could produce. What her potential workplace could look like. Why can't we do more of this in education?  Instead, we rely on adults - parents, teachers, the President - TELLING students they need this and that to get into college or for a job which is so vague and amorphous it becomes white noise in students' lives.  Video #1 answers the question "Why do I need to learn this stuff anyway?" better than we are doing now about most subjects that students are required to learn.  More concerning is that if we can't portray what is taught in school as compelling, maybe it's not as relevant as we think.

More concerning is that if we can't portray what is taught in school
as compelling,
maybe it's not as relevant as we think.

Maybe we view education as being off-limits to marketing and branding because then all those corporate greed-types will come in and sell students an empty promise for the almighty buck. That is a true concern.  Educational institutions must be citadels unto themselves to remain lily pure of intent, if you buy that one.  So instead, we have textbook companies, non-profits like the test companies and administrative bureaucracies creating a student, parent and teacher "sell," like they are without flaws and agendas, hidden and not.  

Or, we end up having pop media and other cultural cues set the bar to inspire our kids. And we all know how many kids want to be movie or sport stars. Not athletes or actors, but stars.  On a more positive note, remember when All the President's Men came out with Bernstein and Woodward sleuthing and reporting their way through Watergate and seemingly everyone wanted to be a journalist or how surprisingly CSI and other crime-sniffing dramas influence students' interest in criminology? 

Point being is that schooling has a case of elementitus and aboutitus creating the divide between the meaning of school and education.

Check out the two videos below - let us know what you think:

#1 Viral video featuring uber-successful Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others - not exactly a surprise BUT also featuring other points of view, such as women involved with stylish venues and humanity - not exactly a first impression of coding, along with sports and music personalities and video game creators. It was hard to resist the correlation of coding to the having of super powers - sure plenty of kid hot buttons were pushed there.  Plus we only had to endure one short bit by Zuck being gushy about creating a billion dollar company . . . doesn't he know we all saw the movie and that example is kind of yesterday? 

#2 features a TED talk with Mitch Reznick from MIT Media Lab which gets more into the mechanics with Scratch and the over-arching reason for learning how to code - Kids should create with new media, not just consume. Bravo.

What I have noticed in my conversations with parents and educators is that when the subject of coding is brought up, there is a certain nervousness or fear(?) that seems to appear.  Nothing stops a conversation faster than asking if coding is part of the curriculum or if it is important. Try it sometime. You'll either get the blood-drained-from-face look or a quick little dance of avoidance. Maybe it was that college computer science course we took back in the day with that ugly grey screen and clunky keyboard spitting out symbols with no immediate gratification or maybe it's because coding won't be on the SAT, so who cares, or maybe it's just the fear of the unknown.      

Having founded and developed several web initiatives, I wish I could code. I'm not a coder although I've directed developers including a virtual world prototype for tweens and the thinking process involved is staggering.  What happens when avatar #1 opens the door?  He or she can go through the tunnel or through another door  . . .  loops and flows and and plot twists and character and design . . .  so many choices to be made.  Maybe it's time to learn myself.  I would simply like to be able to tinker and know a bit more about what's under the hood, not to be the developer.  Being someone who is usually in an always learning mode, I admit that I am slower to jump in with this one. I am one of the fearful. 

Hey, Mayor Bloomberg made learning how to code his New Year resolution and he's busy too.
Related articles-
10 Places Where Anyone Can Learn to Code - via TED

Related The Daily Riff:
Life As a Learning Lab by Mitchel Reznick
Can Your Middle Schoolers Build Video Games?
Does Your School Know Scratch, Squeak or Alice?
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