Why, exactly, teach coding?

So here we are, in another generation of Let’s teach programming to kids.

We’ve got Scratch, Tynker, Hopscotch, ThimbleMinecraftEdu, Codea, and many, many others — great ways for kids to get their feet wet with programming and building digital things.

Pick up the Education section of any newspaper or magazine these days and you’ll see a profile of someone who’s either teaching kids to code, or building a foundation or a policy to support someone who is. It’s a wave.

But this isn’t the first one. And this time, just as before, it’s worth asking why, exactly, teaching kids to code is so important.

If you’re part of this enterprise, what makes you so sure this is worth it? And how do you convince others they should join in?

Cool idea, but…

What justifies this amount of enthusiasm, press coverage, and investment? What kind of impact — other than fun and — can we expect this to have on the kids who go through a Computer Science curriculum, or who go to Coding Camp, or whose teacher introduces them to the Hour of Code?

Is programming directly useful for kids in some way? Does it build transferable skills that they can use elsewhere? Is it for now, or “to prepare kids for the future?” Is it, more prosaically, to prime the tech employment pipeline?

This is a pretty basic and important question, and I’m not convinced we have a handle on it. Right now we’ve got a potent mix of tech industry excitement, journalistic hype, and pop-psychology common sense. But if we want to succeed, to make Coding a real and lasting part of the educational system, we’ll have to do better than that. Excitement ebbs, and hype wears thin, and common sense is often wrong.

Now, more than ever…

We’ve been through cycles of this before, and you’d be hard-pressed to say that any of them had the lasting impact they claimed they would.

In my lifetime alone: we had Apple IIs and Commodores in the 1980s. Then came the 1990s with Macs and iMacs and Windows clones with mice and CD-ROMs. Then the 2000s with PDAs and one-laptop-per-child.

In each generation there was kids’ programming: Logo, Hypercard, Alice, and their relatives. There were summer camps and charismatic teachers and self-taught programming prodigies, but in the end each wave came and went. None of them managed to embed programming widely in the education system in North America or elsewhere.

But if we want this time to be different, if we want to really get coding into schools in a wide and permanent way, we ought to be able to articulate and justify why it’s important. If we don’t, we won’t be able to motivate the administrators and politicians to green light the changes we want.  We won’t be able to pull off the structural change that’s needed. All we’ll be left with is another aging pile of articles breathlessly proclaiming why, in 2013 and 2014 and 2015, programming was the wave of the future.

Just like it was in 1985. And 1995. And 2005.

This time, it’ll be different.

I’ll leave this as food for thought. In another post I’ll look closely at a great article from a New Jersey newspaper that brilliantly (maybe unwittingly?) captures the many possible reasons we could build our case on.

Which reason will be the most compelling? The most well-substantiated by anecdotes or actual research? We’ll see…

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