Every Child Needs to Learn to Code

Saturday , 6, June 2015 Leave a comment

My current role is Head of Emerging Technologies at brightsolid, the technology and innovation arm of DC Thomson & Co Ltd. For the past ten years I’ve worked in technology-related roles in a number of industries, from financial services and publishing to video games and datacenter hosting. A few years ago I set up the first Code Club in Scotland and ever since have championed the need for coding in our primary and secondary schools, both to the industry and to the educational establishment itself. Through this journey I’ve learned a huge amount about current preconceptions around coding, about how hungry kids are to learn these skills, and critically, just how undervalued said skills still are in some quarters.

I got my first computer at age 4 in 1986, an Amstrad CPC6128 of which I have many fond memories. I was ‘coding’ in Basic by age 6 and haven’t really ever stopped. I spent large portions of my primary school career coming in early each day with my friend to write a new game on the class BBC Micro – it had to be a new game each day because there was no disk drive on which to save our creations, so each day our labours were lost. Much of my spare time in secondary school was in the Computing Studies department, coding and creating features or ‘mods’ for wholly unsuitable video games like Doom and Quake. In sixth form I won the Service to School prize for services rendered in computing. At university while I was ostensibly studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering, I spent much of my time as a volunteer programmer for a popular online multiplayer game using the C programming language, and in this my fourth decade I have written and published a couple of applications into the Microsoft App Store.

With this rich history of coding stretching back throughout my life, it’s completely natural that my career would follow thusly into a programming related field, but the reality was not so. My job has never been as a programmer or software engineer, my roles have never required me to be able to code, however I absolutely and unequivocally state that the skills I have learned through coding have been absolutely critical to my success in my career. Granted I’ve worked in IT fields in systems administration and strategic technology roles, and many would equate those to or drop them under the same umbrella as software engineering, but the reality is that the jobs I have done are as far removed from software engineering as something like medicinal chemistry is from being a surgeon.

The reality of the world that we live in today is that it is a technology-driven society, a fact which only becomes more and more prevalent as time advances. Few industries today are not wholly dependent on technology, not just from an infrastructure perspective, but also their workforce’s ability to effectively utilise and leverage technology to the benefit of themselves and the business. Something I hear time and time again is that children today are a digital generation, grow up with technology, and know everything about how to use it – this is completely and demonstrably false. Children are growing up as content consumers of technology, where computers and tablets and mobile devices are black boxes of mystery into which they enter a search term and a YouTube video pops out for them to watch. This in no way makes them technologically literate any more than me being able to drive a car makes me a mechanic.

Few would argue the benefits of having a core understanding of how a car works – how to check the oil levels, how to change a tyre, how to keep tyre pressure at an appropriate level for fuel economy, how to change a headlamp… yet the equivalent skills in computing are being washed over as unimportant in favour of the ‘driving’ skills such as word processing. Having a core knowledge doesn’t necessitate following that field to completion – becoming a mechanic or software engineer – what it does do is empower the individual with knowledge which they can then use to solve problems on their own, without depending on others.

It’s opening up technology from being a content consumption black box into an open world of content creation that structured curricula like Code Club seek to do. Opening children to the concepts of coding grants them new skills in logic and numeracy, as well as problem solving and analytical thinking. In fact, I’ve always maintained that coding at its most basic teaches strict attention to detail in spelling and grammar, as a single misplaced character in code can prevent it from working at all! I strongly believe that not knowing how to make use of or understand technology will be as detrimental in the future as being illiterate or innumerate are today. Those who treat computers as content creation devices and who are not constrained by the black box mentality of ‘query in, answer out’ have today (and will continue to have tomorrow) a significant advantage across all walks of life and a majority of industries – this is something I see day in and day out through discussions and meetings across many sectors.

Dundee as a city has a rich technology heritage, with our One City, Many Discoveries moniker and vibrant creative and gaming industries standing at the forefront of all that is driving the city forward. This drive for technology has always been within the city, but in modern days harkens back to the Timex factory creating ZX81 computers. Many of those found their ways into the hands of the enterprising Dundee youth which directly gave rise to the city now having a larger per capita population of games developers, designers, and software engineers than any other city in the UK. This is why Minecraft for consoles is made in Dundee at 4J Studios, the four J’s of Dundee now being Jute, Jam, Journalism and Joysticks. It’s this creative and technology industry which fuels our city today, and as caretakers of the future we’re obligated and beholden to not just deliver it in a fit state for the next generation, but also to adequately equip that generation with the skills required to flourish in it.

Coding is not an end unto itself; it’s a tool which can and should be used to teach new ways of thinking, new ways of viewing technology and the world, and as a method to teach other subjects. It affords a window into technology that delivers the skills required to thrive in a digital age, and transforms the plethora of compute devices which litter our lives from being dumb consumption terminals into hugely useful and important problem solving and content creation devices.

Ultimately the greatest misapprehension to have is to believe that coding is a standalone entity which can be set aside during childhood and effectively picked up in later life. This is no more true than it is of literacy and numeracy – technology is woven through the fabric of our society, and the stark reality is that those who are able to best understand and utilise it have will have a significant advantage over those who do not.

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