Looking back, I’m not sure if I was more humbled or awed. My experience began when I received an email from the technology teacher at my granddaughters’ elementary school right after the Thanksgiving holiday break. It was an email that was sent out to all families urging us to participate in the upcoming Hour of Code. The school’s goal: to log 1,000 participants in the coding activities during the week of December 7th, Computer Science Education Week.
For those of you that may not be familiar with the Hour of Code, it is a universal drive supported by tech businesses, teachers and educational organizations to inspire kids to learn to code. The tech industry would love to see more coding education take place in schools to better prepare kids for the technological world. You may be tempted at this point to ask (as I was!) “What’s so important about children learning to code when there are so many other things that need to be covered in the classroom?” Admittedly, maybe I was recalling my own years as a classroom teacher when I struggled to cover all of the content within the school district’s curriculum. But back to the obvious question. What is the benefit of teaching students coding skills, and especially at the primary level?
Certainly, not all students will become computer coders or programmers later in life. But I like the observation that I read in a blog recently, “Art is taught in schools with no expectation that the students should become artists.” What we do know is that the technology revolution is not going away; computer programs are crucial in careers including aviation, science, medicine business, and marketing, just to name a few. Introducing students to coding opens their eyes to what can be built or created with technology. Devices controlled by computers are all around us. Coding can aid young students in understanding how such devices work, and envision (and even suggest) possible new devices and services for the future. I found the comment made by Jan Cuny of the National Science Foundation difficult to disagree with, “All of today’s kids will need—along with reading, writing, and arithmetic—a basic understanding of computation and the role that it plays across a wide range of disciplines. Coding is engaging and empowering. It’s a necessary 21st Century skill.”
What I noticed during my time in the computer lab with the students was that coding involves a lot of trial-and-error, a worthwhile problem-solving technique that students learn early on it school. It was amazing to watch how quickly students learned from their initial mistakes, corrected them, and moved on to their next coding task, applying what they learned in the previous task. Kids learn by doing. Many of the coding activities and tasks offered value because they stimulated problem solving while entertaining the students. Similar to concepts and skills taught through gaming, students may not even be aware that they are applying problem solving to new situations. (I won’t tell them, if you won’t!)
I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between the opposing views. By introducing students to coding at a young age, there is always the risk that they will not yet be at a developmental level high enough to allow them to complete the code-related tasks. The key is to provide support when introducing the coding concepts. The technology specialist at my girls’ school made sure to have knowledgeable volunteers as well as facilitators like myself that (though clueless about coding) could work through the coding tasks, learning alongside the student. A big part of learning is making mistakes, correcting them, and learning from the mistakes. During the Hour of Code, that’s exactly what happened—not just for the first graders, but for me as well. I learned about visualizing which way to turn while I was an Angry Bird (after several unsuccessful attempts) so I would select the appropriate arrow command before entering the “walk forward” command.
For those critics that worry about negatively impacting a student’s development, no one is suggesting that children should sit in the house and code for 5 hours a day instead of socializing with peers, playing games to stimulate the imagination, etc. But the reality is that the 21st Century is here to stay, and introducing children to technology building blocks (such as basic coding) at an early age may stimulate a child’s interest, and can help form a solid foundation for the many technology skills that will be a part of their school curriculum for many years to come.