The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth
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The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

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Why all children should learn coding

Growing up, my dream was to become a dolphin vet* but a disappointing visit to Sea World put a stop to that. In later years, I often wished for the talent to master a musical instrument, such as the harpsichord. Yet now that I’m older and arguably wiser, I know what I SHOULD have wished for: Kick-ass coding skills.

We all use technology, of course. Try counting how many computers you have around the house — yes, your phone, TV, and even your thermostat probably count — plus the apps and pieces of software you use on any given day. Most of us don’t have a clue about what goes on behind the screen, however. If things work, that’s all that matters, right? Not really.

Try counting how many computers you have around the house

You get a bit sick of hearing about the “skills gap”, but it’s true. As the digital economy exponentially scales up, we just won’t have enough people to produce all this technology we’re so dependent upon. Anybody tasked with recruiting talent for a tech startup knows how difficult it is to attract people with solid technical skills.

Anybody tasked with recruiting talent for a tech startup will tell you how difficult it is to get people with the right skills

Such skills are not just about the nuts and bolts of building computers, but also having a broader understanding of the issues around an information-based economy. Martha Lane Fox (Founder of lastminute.com and UK House of Lords Peer) pointed out that many political and business leaders lack a high level understanding of the network age. Her recently launched project,Doteveryone is a government-backed initiative looking at ways to remedy that.

To really integrate technology into society we need to encourage children to develop digital skills, but that actually involves a seismic cultural shift. I actively encourage my brother’s children in their computer-based interests every chance I get, but that is still considered a bit unusual. Although I concede that buying my nephew a Raspberry Pi for his 5th birthday might have been a tad premature, they do enjoy my tales of workplaces offering all-you-can-eat candy, where they let you play videogames and ping pong whenever you like. They could do worse, I figure, than landing a job at Google when they grow up, and I wouldn’t be lying about the candy either.

Really integrating technology into society requires a seismic cultural shift towards building digital skills from an early age

Even if they take after their aunt and turn out to be crap coding, their efforts will not go to waste though. Like learning a language or taking music lessons, the process itself exercises parts of the brain that would otherwise remain dormant or underdeveloped. It’s a well-known fact that learning coding helps to develop maths abilities, but it also empowers young people to build some seriously cool stuff. At the very least it gives them a deeper understanding and appreciation of technology that can’t fail to be useful in a digital world. Whatever career path they end up choosing, it’s unlikely to be immune to that.

Learning coding helps develop maths abilities, but it also empowers young people to build some seriously cool stuff

Why is it, then, that we don’t see more pushy parents dragging their kids to coding club? These should be springing up in every school! Granted, there are some popular grassroots initiatives out there like CoderDojo, but they still don’t get the massive widespread enthusiasm and support that this problem calls for.

Maybe it would make a difference if more of them sat through the sort of panel I watched at a London tech conference last year. For an hour that made me feel positively ancient, a group of fresh-faced serial entrepreneurs shared their experience of getting rich before hitting puberty. One recalled how, at the age of 10, he had to finally tell his parents about the app he’d developed, since he needed their authorisation to legally sell it.

Perhaps some of the problem lies in the fact that not enough brilliant programmers get involved in teaching, since they’re all too busy working for startups. What we then need is to empower parents and educators to teach children about technology, while learning about it themselves. This learning should definitely be a playful process, because playing with technology comes naturally to children (anybody who has been forced to surrender their phone to a screaming toddler will understand precisely what I’m talking about).

Part of the problem might be that not enough brilliant programmers get involved in teaching

Luckily, we’re seeing a host of emerging EdTech companies stepping up to the plate with hardware and gamified software that get children to interact with technology while having fun. It’s a powerful concept that produces amazing results, so it’s no wonder that gadgets like the Raspberry Pi,Arduino and BBC Micro:BIT are getting people excited. I know what I’ll be buying the children for Christmas this year, that’s for sure.

It’s both urgent and necessary to encourage the next generation to develop a deeper understanding of technology, rather than being content with just consuming it

Barring a Zombiepocalypse, it’s safe to assume that we’ll be living in an increasingly technology-driven world. It’s both urgent and necessary, then, to encourage the next generation to develop a deeper understanding of technology rather than just settling for being consumers. The way I see it, we either prepare our children to run the machines, or leave them vulnerable to being run by them. And just in case we do end up in aWalking-Dead scenario rather than Terminator one, you can always hedge your bets by teaching the little ones some samurai swordsmanship skills. Better safe than sorry.

We either prepare our children to run the machines, or leave them vulnerable to being run by them

*A vet specializing in the treatment of cetaceans, I did not dream of actually becoming a dolphin myself, although that would have been cool.

 

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Also published on Medium.