Give a child a laptop and you’ll amuse them for an hour. Teach a child to code and you’ll equip them for life. As the pandemic accelerates the ferocious pace of digital transformation, programming fluency is growing in both value and necessity. Aside from being an excellent learning process for building foundational skills, making coding compulsory provides children from all backgrounds with an equal opportunity to consider a career in technology – an industry plagued by a lack of class, gender and racial diversity.
Programming is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’, but a ‘need-to-have’, particularly for those wishing to enter the digital jobs market. While it might seem absurd to even contemplate a seven year old’s career prospects, teaching children to code from a young age has inbuilt, hugely favourable career ramifications. In the UK, for example, digital jobs earn on average a third more than the national average. At present, the national curriculum suggests that children leaving school have an understanding of at least one coding language. And yet, the nation’s digital skills shortage has revealed that only 48% of employers believe that young people have the digital skill-set required for the modern economy. On top of this, the number of students taking IT for GCSE has dropped by 40% since 2015.
‘The literacy of our generation’
Programming is the literacy of our generation. Useful in almost any business setting, being able to code unlocks a whole host of lucrative career options. Without inclusion on the national syllabus, programming becomes a privileged activity, reserved only for those with access to after school clubs, private tutors or extracurricular courses. As a result, certain children are given an advantage long before careers are even talked about. The seeds of tech’s diversity imbalance are sown well in advance of careers advisors or big tech boardrooms. As such, early and equal exposure to programming should help to pave the way for technology’s employees to better reflect the world’s diversity.
“In place of the knee-jerk “teacher, it’s not working” response, children learn to accept that if something isn’t quite right, then that means they’ve entered something incorrectly. The nature of the learning process requires them to go back, reconsider their decisions, come up with an alternative strategy, and try again“
Aside from training up tech’s budding workforce, teaching children to code has ample positive cognitive effects, including its ability to reinforce a number of core skills. Simultaneously challenging, creative and logical, coding is an exceptional way to practice problem-solving skills. The hands-on nature of learning to programme forces children to try working things out independently. In place of the knee-jerk “teacher, it’s not working” response, children learn to accept that if something isn’t quite right, then that means they’ve entered something incorrectly. The nature of the learning process requires them to go back, reconsider their decisions, come up with an alternative strategy, and try again.
‘There is value in making mistakes’
Too often the dichotomy of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ teaches children to fear failure. And sadly, the significance of green ticks and red crosses is deeply embedded within the fabric of many school systems worldwide. Learning a programming language requires creative thinking and strategic problem-solving in a way that encourages children to think innovatively and understand that – like learning any new language – getting things wrong is a necessary part of the process. Shielding children from the feeling of failure only sets them up to be vulnerable later in life. By learning to code from an early age, children are taught that there is value in making mistakes, and that they should be seen as an opportunity to question, learn and improve. It’s the sense of achievement when challenges are overcome, such as by fixing a stubborn line of code or correcting a bug, that fuels a child’s resilience, motivation and perseverance.
There’s a crucial difference between learning how to use technology (as millennials have done), and learning how technology works (as Gen Z have the ability to do today). Teaching children how code instructs a computer transforms them from ‘passive consumers’ into ‘active producers’, empowering them to understand how best they can benefit from technology. The next generation will grow up in a world more automated than we can imagine. To best equip young people, we must bestow upon them the tools and understanding to make technology enhance, rather than dictate, their lives.
‘A bicycle for your mind”
As well as being practical, coding has ample potential to be sociable, creative and fun. In the words of Steve Jobs, “a computer is a bicycle for your mind”. What better way to encourage children to exercise their abilities and share experiences with friends than by teaching them to code in a classroom setting? At imagiLabs, the company I co-founded to encourage young girls into programming, we refer to the ability to code as a ‘superpower’. Besides being an engaging image for our 9–15-year-old target audience – as though Python could give you wings – we truly believe that coding is now a skill of such relevance and value that its influence can feel like a supernatural ability.
Making coding a cornerstone of the UK’s national syllabus would provide all children with equal access to a digital education; a resource they’d benefit from for life. By reframing programming as a foundational subject, just like maths, science or English, we can actively respond to the emerging demand for digital literacy and better equip our children for the future.
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