Nothing is cuter than pictures of kids sitting at their computers, mastering skills their parents never dreamed of. And nothing is more popular than the current idea that all our children should learn to code.
"Most jobs in the future will most likely have some sort of connection to coding," Navdeep Bains, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, told a room full of children assembled for a recent photo op. He was there to announce a $50-million initiative to teach coding to young people. "Some of you may develop incredible apps," he beamed.
Next to babies, politicians love innovation more than anything. Innovation invariably means high tech and computers. And the hottest innovation in education these days is teaching kids to code. Coding skills, we're told, are a fundamental building block of 21st-century literacy – right up there with reading, writing and arithmetic. Coding skills will make people more employable and the nation more competitive.
In Britain, coding classes are now compulsory for every student from age 5 to 14. British Columbia plans to offer coding to any student who wants it, from kindergarten on up. Nova Scotia has jumped on the bandwagon. Ontario is spending $150-million over three years to boost computer education. Meanwhile, coding camps are booming as anxious middle-class parents ensure no child of theirs is left behind. Melissa Sariffodeen, co-founder of an outfit called Ladies Learning Code, says we will need to teach 10 million Canadians to code by 2027. "Canada's ability to retain its position as a significant contributor to the global economy is contingent on our collective willingness to invest in improving digital literacy," she warns.
Coding for kids is wildly popular with educators, politicians, parents, the tech industry, and people who run coding camps. But not everyone is sold. "Coding is a valuable skill – for maybe 2 per cent of the labour force," writes Alex Usher, who runs Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consulting firm. "What the rest of us need is digital literacy and proficiency. Being able to write software is not the issue: Rather, it is the ability to apply and use software productively that is the issue."
Computer code is basically a series of instructions that tell a computer to do something. It's irrelevant for most of us. There are a million apps for that. You don't have to understand code to understand computers, any more than you have to understand an engine system to drive a car, or indoor plumbing to use a toilet.
Paul Bennett is no fan either. He's an educational consultant in Nova Scotia. He suspects that coding is just another in a long line of education fads that come and go with depressing regularity. "Most regular math teachers fear that coding will further erode classroom time for math and do little or nothing to prepare students for true computer programming, AP-level computer science, or a STEM career, " he writes.
As Mr. Bennett points out on his website, computer and tech experts are also skeptical. "When the telegraph was invented, there was a push to teach everyone Morse code," said former tech executive Donald Clark. "This turned out to be a huge waste of time, as the vast majority of people simply needed to write English that was transcribed by a relatively few number of telegraph operators."
Another problem: Progress. The computer industry is always striving for simpler ways to deliver complex technologies. "Coding is going to disappear," computer entrepreneur Emmanuel Straschnov told IBTimes UK. "The vision is that people shouldn't even have to know what a server is. The vision is that people should only know: I want my app to do this, this and that, and then you build it."
There's also the practical matter of finding enough teachers who can teach this stuff. Currently, they don't exist. It's hard enough to find good math teachers. And it's safe to say that delivering on all these lofty intentions through the public-school bureaucracy will be a challenge. The real goal – far more important – should be to teach kids enough math and science to understand the world in which they operate.
So if you want to teach your kid to code, go for it. Coding can be a lot of fun. But does the future of our children and our nation depend on it? Give me a break.