Teaching coding to kids
More schools are starting to teach forms of computer science to kids at a young age so they can benefit from the skills it helps them develop.
We all depend on technology every day, but most of us probably don’t know exactly how our computers or smartphones work. That won’t be the case for students today who learn coding in school as early as kindergarten.
“Coding is a subset of a larger set of skills called computer science,” explains Josh Caldwell, K-12 curriculum lead for Code.org based in Seattle, WA. “Kids who are coding are typically writing programs to solve problems.”
That’s important, he says, because, regardless of the career path, the world is built on technology. “In the same way I wouldn’t be comfortable with a student not knowing how her body works — she’s going to live with that body the rest of her life — she needs to know how computers work and how they’re a tool for solving problems,” says Caldwell.
Coding is basic literacy in a digital age
While the goal in coding is to tell a computer how to function, coding education teaches students many skills. “It’s a new language,” says Tyler Gaspich, director of academic technology at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in Villanova, PA. “Students learn how to organize, express and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.”
It is also not geared only to kids with mathematical acumen, since it requires important communication and collaboration skills, creativity and resilience. “Kids think art and music are expressive, but programming coding can be equally expressive,” says Caldwell.
Coding is about how to attack a challenge, says Bernadette Gilmore, director of academics and curriculum at The Independence School in Newark, DE.
“I’ve brainstormed a way, now I’m going to try it,” she explains of the student’s mindet. “Then I have to reflect — did that work? And then when it didn’t, because in all likelihood first tries don’t work, how am I going to go back and rethink my process?
There is a growing job market for coders. “Technology is not going to slow down, it’s only going to continue to permeate every aspect of our culture,” says Gaspich. “The details of coding are significant, but the thought behind how you actually construct code and how to be both direct but also formulaic, is extremely practical beyond the specific computer-science class.”
Coders start young
Coding is a complicated subject that can take many years to master. Students start in early grades with very basic skills, building upon that foundation as they move through later grades. Older students use coding skills in robotics, popular video games, like Minecraft, and art and music programs.
Kids as young as kindergarten learn simple coding skills through animated apps that teach how to program an interactive story or game. A simple drag-and-drop system is easy for young children to understand, especially kids already familiar with technology. For example, a child might be instructed to move a character forward one block and then take a right turn for two blocks.
“Without having to understand the syntax of a more complicated programming language, she can learn the concepts, logic and reasoning behind coding,” says Gilmore.
Coding builds problem-solving skills and logic by “making certain things happen in a consecutive order,” adds Bruce Taylor, director of technology for the Voorhees Township School District.
Should coding be mandatory?
There currently isn’t a mandate to teach coding in schools, though each year more schools add some form of computer science.
“If you look at the workforce, present day and in the future, we’re falling behind as a country,” says Taylor. “It would be great to get kids more interested.”
For students who aren’t able to learn coding in school, parents can take advantage of free apps and programs accessible online.
“As a school, our job is to provide opportunities for every student,” Gaspich says. “Just like teaching history or math, coding is something everyone is going to need some exposure to.”
Terri Akman is a Philadelphia-based contributing writer for MetroKids.