Coding is an essential language we should be teaching all of our students. Perhaps, you haven’t thought about that lately. Others are. If you think this is a grand premise, look at Estonia. This small Eastern European country has achieved an educational turnaround differently from how we are trying to do it. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia recently commented on the economic success of his country while speaking at the Concordia Summit in New York. He said, “Basically, if you want to transform a society, you have to start with the young people, and give them the kind of education that will allow them to handle the future.” This is wisdom, indeed, and it has taken 15 years.
Estonia teaches coding beginning in the first grade! An article in the Economist, confirms that the country has the most business startups per person. What does ‘the most startups’ reveal? Innovation. One example of an Estonian startup is SKYPE. No matter the innovations that arise from an educated society, the interpersonal skills required to collaborate, negotiate, communicate, and integrate are still essential. We must understand how to learn through discovery and experience and how to share that learning with others. It is important to experience the arts, history, literature, science, mathematics, the social sciences and they should not be excluded. But we continue to fail to value the very subject that made Estonia successful...coding.
The value of teaching of coding is not a new concept. Here, in the United States, Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, writes, “The ability to code allows you to ‘write’ new types of things - interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations. And, as with traditional writing, there are powerful reasons for everyone to learn to code.” Resnick acknowledges that the need for coders is growing faster than we are producing them. He has even more powerful reasons for believing in coding as essential. In the same article he says,
In addition to learning mathematical and computational ideas (such as variables and conditionals), they are also learning strategies for solving problems, designing projects, and communicating ideas. These skills are useful not just for computer scientists but for everyone, regardless of age, background, interests, or occupation.
The problem is, we have an entire generation of educators who, with some outstanding exceptions, are not comfortable using the technology we already have at our disposal, and are even less comfortable thinking about something as seemingly foreign as coding. It is this generation of educators who have been gifted with the opportunity to literally change the future. Are we up to the task? Are we focused on the right things?
Back to Estonia...what did they have in their favor? First, they are small. They are a country the size of Delaware. That should not stop us from paying attention to them. Their size presents us with the results of a good pilot or, as Otto Scharmer would say a prototype. Second, they were released from control by the Soviet Union and had the opportunity to begin newly. The new country embraced technology. While we are still arguing about voting methods and machines, Estonia has 25% of its population voting online. They have mastered a secure Internet with encrypted electronic signature capabilities. They computerized and connected all of their schools. And their president believes, “Teaching kids a programming language is actually easier than teaching kids a human language as it is far more logical.” Let’s claim him as American educated and wonder why those of us who stayed here didn’t learn the same thing.
The Gates Foundation funnels millions of dollars into school reform. What would it have looked like if they simply provided the resources to level the playing field by providing Internet connectivity and computer accessibility to all schools in the nation? What if they gave ave students in poor communities access to the same technology as those in affluent communities be a good beginning? They could have placed technology in the hands of every teacher and child and offered training to the teachers and school leaders in the use of these technologies. They could have done all of this and encouraged the incorporation of coding as a language required along with the others. That would have been a focused leadership step within their area of expertise. Instead, they determined that schools were failing and began dabbling in the field of educational reform, along with the other ‘reformers.’ Perhaps there is still time for them to change their mission to include what they do know about.
If we change what we teach our children, we can do far more than make them ‘college and career ready.’ We can change our nation and its future. It takes the careful thought of people of many perspectives, fields, expertise, patience, and it takes time, but it can be done. We hope the intentions of our reformers are good, but our path is misguided. Overusing standardized measures for students, teachers, and principals simply yields data and results in turmoil and instability. While leading our schools through a change process, we are responsible for maintaining safe, nurturing environments for our students. Stress makes that difficult. Transforming our nation through the education of our students will not be the result of yardstick measures. It will be the result of the recognition of our need to change the structure, the system, upon which our schools are built. Our schools must provide, "...a sound education, with the vocabulary and background knowledge in fields such as history, mathematics, and science, to adapt to a changing world” (Ravitch, p.304). The science of engineering and computers must be included. Schools need to change from silos of subjects into integrated laboratories of investigation.
Leaders must stop feeling uncomfortable with the current technologies and saying so out loud. We can no longer scoff at Facebook or Twitter. They are used to communicate and share by respected professionals, educators, and businesses around the world. We must give ourselves the experience of taking a well-developed online course, a MOOC from a university. And we must face our own discomfort with the fast paced evolutionary technological advantages before us.
Coding is a language. It is curious that in the world, other countries require English as well as their own language - and they are fluent. In this country, we assume English is all we need to know. Perhaps our reluctance to accept coding as a necessary language springs from that attitude. We’d prefer to think that rather than consider the alternative that coding in this country is reserved for the privileged few. No matter the reason, we need to rethink our schools. We cannot continue successfully with the current model. As we struggle to reinvent ourselves, we must include all current technologies, and we must consider the teaching of coding as part of our transformation. Like Estonia, we want to prepare students for their futures.
Ravitch, Diane (2013). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.