Will Coding Ever Become a Mainstream Skill? Experts Can’t Agree

Programming as we currently know it has only been around for 70 years or so, but it’s had a big impact in that short space of time. From household appliances to artificial intelligence, coding truly has changed the world around us, and we’ll no doubt rely on it more and more as time goes on.

But is the ubiquity of something enough to make the understanding of it an ‘essential’ part of our lives? If we use technology, do we really need to know how it works? Some experts believe that yes, we do, and that coding will one day become an integral life skill for all people. On the flip side, others argue that – while programming will always be around – it won’t ever make it into the mainstream in the same way that literacy or numeracy is.

No matter which side you take, though, you can’t deny that things are already changing.

Teaching kids to code

Computer programming is already taught in some schools, but it’s definitely not considered the norm. Organisations such as Code.org, “a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities,” are working to change this.

On their website, they say their vision “is that every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science, just like biology, chemistry or algebra.” In other words, they want programming to become a mainstream skill – and they’re already making incredible progress. Their website states that more than 1.1 million teachers have signed on to teach coding courses, and more than 40 million students have enrolled to learn.

Code.org has been so influential in their work, in fact, that the USA has introduced legislation designed to improve coding literacy amongst school-age children.

Apple CEO Tim Cook also took matters to an executive level when he discussed coding education with Donald Trump in March of this year. “We believe strongly that it should be a requirement in the United States for every kid to have coding [skills] before they graduate from K–12 and become somewhat proficient at it,” he said.

But others are less convinced.

In an op-ed for Slate, programmer Joe Morgan penned a piece titled, ‘I’m a software Developer. I Won’t Teach My Kids to Code, and Neither Should You.’

“It’s easy to see why parents push coding on their children,” he said. “What better way to prepare our kids for a future ruled by software than by training them how to build it? If everything is going to be automated, it’s much safer to be the one doing the automating. And if learning to code is good, then learning earlier is better.”

There was just one problem: “While these products may teach kids specific coding languages, they actually have very little to do with the work of creating software.”

Morgan argues that “Coding books for kids present coding as a set of problems with ‘correct’ solutions. And [suggest that] if your children can just master the syntax, they’ll be able to make things quickly and easily. But that is not the way programming works. Programming is messy. Programming is a mix of creativity and determination. Being a software developer is about more than syntax, and certain skills can only be taught to the very young.”

Instead, Morgan suggests that parents and teachers should focus on educating kids in creativity and problem-solving. That way, “even if they don’t become coders – most shouldn’t and won’t – the same skills can be used in nearly any career, in every hobby, in every life.”

And if they do want to become coders? “Adults can learn syntax,” Morgan says. “Only kids can learn to embrace curiosity.”

The impact of mainstream lessons

Perhaps part of this resistance towards teaching kids to code comes from a lack of evidence to show what the long-term outcome would be. After all, the lessons have only been available for a few years – nowhere near long enough to see how it would impact children’s future career choices.

Still, even if the practice doesn’t see a huge uptake in people turning to programming careers, is it not still a useful skill to have? Annette Vee, an English professor who’s written a book about programming, argues that it is – and, even more radically, that it should be taught more as a language than a computer science skill.

“Programming is too important to be left just to computer science departments,” she says. “It can be taught effectively outside of computer science. If we assume that those who learn to write need to be English majors, we would be in trouble.”

Her argument is that, even if students don’t continue with the subject in higher education/a career, it’s still a useful thing to know.

The reality

Whether kids learn to code or not, the fact of the matter is that our use of technology is continuing to grow, and – with it – our need for programmers. Maybe coding won’t ever become as mainstream as literacy or numeracy, but it could easily fit alongside the other sciences in the curriculum. Some people will be better at it than others, of course, but even some knowledge of the subject is better than none at all.

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