We have coding in schools backwards

About 3 min reading time

To hell with the job market: Kids should code because it helps them think.

The premise was simple. In 2013, If you can code, you'll be able to do things no one else can - be a wizard, or a rockstar. Different strokes for different folks - the point is Zuck can't hire enough engineers, so he really needs you to get started quickly.

I have to admit, I was into it. I learned to code as a kid. I started with webpages. With the help of mentorship, I was writing software by the time I started high school. Coding shaped how I thought about everything. I made a database driven website for vocabulary words in English. I made visual history timelines. I modeled physics homework in PHP (side-note: not the best tool for the job).

The idea that coding was coming to the masses and changing education was (and is!) tantalizing.

In the years since, my perspective has changed. The video has it wrong. We should indeed teach kids to code - but it's not about jobs - It's about thought.


Let's play a game. How many trade relationships are there between countries in the world? Let's say there are around 200 countries, and most countries have relationships with most other countries… how many could it be? 1000? 5000? Take a moment to guess - I'll wait.

The actual number is close to 20,000 or 40,000, depending on if you count a bilateral relationship once or twice.

A modern high school student writing a paper about trade would have no practical way to get a sense for the system of global trade. Sure, she could pull up facts about what the United States and China trade with each other. She could quote the White House and congressional Democrats on their opposing views of tariffs. But, she wouldn't be able to answer any of her own questions because of the information bottleneck of tens of thousands of data points.

You may be thinking to yourself that this kind of sophisticated data analysis is beyond the grasp of a high school student - that an economist or statistician should be asking these questions. You may even be correct in 2019, but it doesn't have to be this way. These types of questions are within the intellectual grasp of young adults, and the tools exist to let them interact with them.

It was for this reason that Steve Jobs called computation the Bicycle of the Mind. Computers makes it possible for everyone to play with information, answer their own questions, and discover things about the world.

Let's play another game. Let's compare Drivers' Ed. to actually driving a car for the first time.

In Drivers' Ed., students learn about the speed limit and the dangers of drinking. They learn about state laws and the consequences of breaking them. In a good class, they might learn a little bit about how cars work. Students do not learn how to drive.

Learning how to drive a car is exploratory. You can literally take any road! It's a little scary. You need support and guidance, but at the end of the day, it's the student's job to try something, experience what happens, and learn from it.

Today's conventional high schools are more like Drivers' Ed. than driving. Students are asked to take in and regurgitate a tremendous amount of information - everything from the citric acid cycle to the Pythagorean theorem - in the hopes that this knowledge will expand their intellectual horizons. It even works, to an extent. It just doesn't come anywhere near its potential.

We should be empowering students with the tools to become the next Pythagorus, or the next Albert Szent-Györgyi.

Teaching the process of intellectual exploration is a lot harder than teaching facts. When you teach facts, you can expect a certain hegemony of outcomes. 35 students, 5 outcomes: A, B, C, D, F. Students knew the enzymes required for photosynthesis or they didn't. Student's could "do" the stoichiometry, or they couldn't.

But did their minds expand?

In an exploratory environment every student is expected to have their own unique outcome. The outcomes are hard to compare to one-another, but that's not really the point. Students probably don't have textbooks, workbooks, tests or homework. They have access to the raw tools, and a guide that can help them start to answer their own questions. Topics can be introduced. Teachers can help students get back on track by guiding them away from a line of inquiry, or critiquing how they used a certain tool.

The value of inquiry-based learning is clear when you look at the macro outcomes. Citizens who have a fuzzy memory of how photosynthesis works don't change the world. People who discover the next Photosynthesis change the world.

Of course knowledge is important. Of course facts are important. Hard skills are important, too. But, all knowledge comes from inquiry. All facts start as questions. Schools should be a place where students learn how to inquire, play, and create.

There's no better tool to inquire, play, and create than the computer.

What would STEM education look like if the ability to program a computer was a given?


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