This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In 2012, Estonia started on a countrywide program to teach children as young as age 7 how to write computer code. England updated its national curriculum to include coding in September 2014, mandating that every child aged 5 to 16 attending a state primary or secondary school anywhere in the country would be taught coding.
England was the first country in the EU to make coding lessons compulsory for young school children. Over the last few years, a number of other countries, including Finland, Italy, Greece, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Australia, have introduced digital education at the elementary or intermediate school level.
Every child who learns how to write code is not going to become a professional programmer. Some will, but what policymakers really are banking on is that many more will develop fluency in computational thinking, a skill that is applicable in STEM and other disciplines. It will also help them understand technology better and use technology more judiciously.
Technology and innovation are driving the global economy. Digital devices and apps have become a part of our day-to-day life. It's important that people achieve at least base-level digital literacy. This is why policymakers and many educators believe that digital education should be a part of core curriculum in schools.
A growing number of parents are enrolling their kids in coding classes in the hope that developing coding skills will enable them to succeed academically, as well as give them a competitive edge in the job market. Parents, like education experts, also suspect that new career paths will be easier for kids to follows whether or not they opt for software engineering and computer science.
Coding is the process of instructing a computer how to perform tasks, ranging from simple to very complex. So what is it about coding that can prove beneficial for young minds? Steve Jobs famously said that everyone in the United States should learn programming because doing so 'teaches you how to think.' He was likely referring to computational thinking.
Many experts are in favor of young children learning how to code simply because they believe it can help them develop computation thinking, or the ability to approach problem solving in a systematic way. Computational thinking means addressing one large problem as a string of small problems, identifying relevant details, and tackling them step by step.
Another common definition of computational thinking describes it as being a process of decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithms. Programmers solve problems by breaking up a complex problem into a series of small, simpler problems.
This type of approach is both useful and applicable far beyond the computer programming realm. It can be applied to a range of disciplines, and can help one deal effectively with real-world problems, including many that lie far outside the scope of education or scientific research and inquiry.
The benefits of starting young
Learning how to code gets kids started on developing key skills, such as logical reasoning, problem solving, abstraction, creative expression, and building things. As with computational thinking, these are all attributes that are valuable in many spheres of life, beyond the world of computer science and information technology.
Some of the key reasons that experts think learning to code can benefit young children are as follows:
Coding is an enjoyable approach to learning math. It's a great way to get children interested in learning mathematics. More conventional approaches to teaching math don't engage every child. The sad result is that many children quickly lose interest in learning a subject that is vital to success in the fields of engineering, mathematics research, computer science, and software development, as well as being a key building block of many other professional endeavors.
Children are naturally curious and coding using visual block platforms and games incites their curiosity. It introduces them to elementary mathematical and scientific concepts in a stimulating way.
Coding can help improve performance at all levels of formal education. Computational thinking skills can help young students adopt a structured approach to handling assignments, moving step by step, theorizing different possible solutions, trying them out, resolving mistakes, and creating models. This helps not only with STEM subjects, but with the humanities as well.
Learning to code can help children develop creativity. Coding lessons provide ample opportunity for elementary school students to experiment with their own ideas and express their own concepts. If one idea doesn't produce the desired solution, they try another one, and another one, until they solve the given problem.
This process of learning from their mistakes helps kids stay motivated until they come up with positive results. Experiencing success at solving problems helps them develop confidence in their creative ability.
Coding reinforces the value of persistence. Persistence is an important life skill. In the process of learning to write code kids typically lose their fear of failure and learn to keep trying out different options until they get what they are aiming for. As they move on in life, the ability to persist in the face of challenges and not give up easily will serve them well.
Coding can promote teamwork and collaboration. Writing code helps children learn to work together, to act as a team, to give and accept constructive feedback, and to apply positive feedback to the task at hand.
Where to turn for help
The number of institutes and other organizations that teach kids how to code in various ways has increased in recent years. These groups generally offer both online and local classes, some of which are taught by engineers. There are also free courses, programs, games, and apps.
Parents who can afford it can also arrange for one-on-one tutoring at home by a programming tutor. According to David Dodge of CodeaKid, Mark Zuckerberg had a programming tutor beginning in middle school.
Organizations that offer coding courses for children in the United States include Codeacademy, CodeaKid, Khan Academy, and Bitsbox. Some of these academies teach children coding using programming languages and tools that professional programmers use at work. Codemonkey is a games platform that offers coding games and adventures especially designed for beginners.
There are programs, such as Tynker, LightBot, Scratch, and Code.org, which use visual block languages and elementary text-based coding to get children interested in coding. They can then graduate to learning text-based languages and create games and apps.
Help them stick to it
More and more parents want their children to start learning how to code at a young age. Very young children can even begin picking up the basics of coding at home ' and they don't need a computer to start.
Parents can use the numerous coding apps available online, or even a deck of cards to introduce kids to coding. Minecraft and other widely played games offer an educational version that enables kids to learn elementary coding.
It's important to try to keep children engaged while they learn. Parents would do well to identify programs and apps that entertain in addition to providing education. Children should have fun coding. If the lessons are boring, then they will soon lose interest.
If possible, it's best to select an online course or a local group class with live instructor guidance and feedback. Kids will also benefit from being mentored by an experienced professional developer who can interact with the child every now and again and offer expert advice.