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Cracking the Code: Should Schools Require Students to Learn How to Write Software?

Students work at computersBy Brian P. Gatens

There’s a part of my personality that naturally keeps an eye out for cultural shifts and trends.

For example, I remember walking through the mall last summer and hearing a group of kids singing “Now here’s my number, so call me maybe” and seeing a Facebook post from a friend about this new song by Carly Rae Jepsen, which in turn led me to predict the booming success of a sing-along hit whose music video has nearly half a billion page views (somewhere the New York Philharmonic curls up quietly in a ball and weeps).

Lately my trend-detection radar has gotten similar signals on the idea of “coding.” I remember seeing characters being celebrated for their programming skills during the rise of Facebook in “The Social Network” and then I noticed companies referring to “releasing new code” when they were updating their iPhone apps.

And then a parent sent me the following links:

Both code.org and codeacademy.com offer anyone who signs up for their free service the ability to learn how to write computer code, hence the “coding” as a verb. Now I know nothing about how to actually program computers, so I did some basic research. It appears that, believe it or not, it isn’t magic that makes our computers, phones and tablets work so smoothly, but rather highly complex computer languages like C++ that enable all these devices to do all that they do for us.

And this leads me to a larger question:

If computer code dominates our modern lives and free services offer anyone (including children) the opportunity to learn to code, should we be considering requiring basic code writing for schools?

I mean, isn’t the point of school to arm our children with both the ability to be able to learn, but also to actually learn things of worth and merit that they can actually do? And wouldn’t the ability to write computer code be an example of that?

As I did my research, I came across the work of Douglas Rushkoff, a social media theorist who highlighted several key points while addressing the U.S. Congress:

  • When humanity as a species learned to speak, we also learned to listen. Similarly, we learned to write as well as to read. Rushkoff maintains that we should not just use code — we should be able to write it.
  • There is a direct connection between computer literacy and the ability to compete in today’s highly technology-centered world. Rushkoff argues the economic impact of inaction will be catastrophic for U.S. business interests.
  • Coding is a natural extension of our current math classes. Rushkoff contends that solving algebraic equations is a form of coding and therefore that same thought should be applied to learning how to code. Why stop when children are already doing it?
  • Writing code is the “making skill” of the 21st century. In the past, workers made physical things (cars, machines, etc.) but it’s essential that we view code in the same way. While software is not something you can hold in your hand and pass around, products created through code writing are as real as the products of last century.

My internal trend-sensor can’t stop ringing about this topic. All signs point to the fact that the ability to write computer code, and by extension create things and control machines, will be a core worker skill as move forward in our rapidly changing world.

I’m signing my own children up tomorrow.

Heck, someone will have to be able to pay for my tickets to the Carly Rae Jepsen Reunion Tour in 2053.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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