Should Kids Be Learning Coding In the Classroom?

Increasingly, the teaching of computer coding is being pushed to the forefront of debates about what gets taught in schools. This usually happens in the context of discussions about “21st century learning,” often because coding sounds like an exceptionally modern thing to do.  


In movies, on the news, and other digital avatars of ourselves, coders are becoming ever more visible. In Hollywood, computer coders are characterized as aloof and bespectacled geniuses in green army jackets, who solve (narrative) problems in a kind of deus ex machina fashion. Hack the mainframe, change the school grades, save prom, etc.  

In the news, coders are either painted as geniuses with keyboards, or an eclectic mix of cutting-edge vigilante and binary terrorist, with secret documents, scary viral threats, and national security all a part of their tools and struggle.   

Combined with the heightened role digital technology now plays in our lives, coding sits at an awkward intersection—misunderstood by most, but tangent to almost everything. But given what we understand about the all-consuming “digital future,” we should absolutely teach coding in schools, right? 

Well, maybe.   

It’s really more complicated than that.   

Understanding the Limits

Too often in education, new ideas are tacked onto curricula as yet another set of perfectly-reasonable-sounding-things to teach. Character training, drama, speech, debate, art, whole child, and dozens of other skills and topics have all been injected into classrooms in recent decades, but not all have endured.   

These are worthwhile skills to have and things to know. But it is important to acknowledge that schools have limits to what they can teach (limits that may be more modest than we’d like to admit). Even the most incredible school, with the most dedicated teachers, has a limited amount of instructional time during the year.  

Students, too, have a finite capacity for meaningfully investing themselves in what they learn. Taken together, these two issues help explain why curricula—what students study—can often look great on paper, but function awkwardly in the classroom.  

Changing Priorities 

I was taught basic computer coding in the 1980s, in elementary school. It was eventually forced out by a push for foreign language, as I recall—which has since, in some districts, been pushed out for other new ideas like advertising and digital media.

There is nothing wrong with changing priorities. It is a signal of reflection and vitality. But when education—as it tends to do—continues to take a content and skills-focused view of what to teach rather than how students learn, it’s always going to be a maddening game of what gets added in versus what gets taken out—and the voices that usually win are those that appeal to our collective insecurities.   

To try to address this problem, let’s consider a more macro question: What is school? From big picture down, it looks relatively simple.   

  1. Education is, more or less, a system of teaching and learning.    

  2. Teaching and learning are, more or less, concerned with knowledge.   

  3. And that knowledge can be broken down into two separate but connected parts: skills and content.    

Skills are things students can “do”—procedural knowledge that yields the ability to do something. This could be revising an essay, solving a math problem, or decoding words to read.   

Content can be thought of as a second kind of knowledge—a declarative knowledge. Something a student “knows.” In math, this might be the formula to calculate the area of a circle. In composition, it could be a writing strategy to form sound and compelling paragraphs. In history, it may refer to the geographic advantages of one country in a conflict versus another.   

The big question is, should schools focus on content and skills, or are there other possibilities we might consider? And does that answer change as the world changes?    

It's Not About Staying "Current" 

Whether or not schools should teach coding, specifically, is a subject that cannot responsibly be addressed in isolation. Against the backdrop of rapid technological change, mass cultural adoption of technology, and the mediocre performance of our current education system, the question becomes just one of many that deserve our attention.    

Without this kind of critique, coding will soon enough suffer alongside chemistry, music, and other miracles of knowledge that have had the life tortured out of them by a well-intentioned but sterilizing infrastructure. It will be halved, then halved again, diced, packaged, and served at room temperature day after day after day until no one understands what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.   

Deciding whether or not to teach coding can’t be a matter of staying “current.” Rather, decisions about specific additions to the curriculum should be born of evaluations of our education system that consider bigger picture issues like these: 

  • What should schools teach?   

  • How should schools, and curricula, be reconsidered in light of prevailing technology and values? 

  • Can we design both schools and curricula in a way that makes them revisable in parallel with the pace and scale of those changes? 

These are significant questions that are more bothersome to untangle than whether or not we should swap art class for coding -- the kind of piece-meal, feel-good, “update” approach that has given us the hot mess that is public education today. And this time, it’s an “update” that is being considered mostly for the tech-cred (think "street cred") it provides.  

Remember Raising Arizona? There's a scene from the Coen Brothers' '80s hit that perfectly sums up our current approach and the hysteria surrounding it. After hearing a long laundry list of things every baby needs from her friend Dot, Ed (Holly Hunter) turns to Hi (Nicholas Cage) in panic:    

Ed: Who’s our pediatrician anyway? We ain’t exactly fixed on one yet, have we Hi?   

Hi: [stunned silence]   

Ed: No, I guess we don't have one yet.    

Dot: Jesus! Well, you gotta have one this instant!   

Hi: [stunned silence]   

Ed: What if the baby gets sick, honey?    

Dot: Even if he don't, he's gotta have his dip-tet.   

Ed: He's gotta have his dip-tet, honey.   

Dot: You started his bank accounts yet?   

Ed: Have we done that? We gotta do that. What's that for, Dot?    

Dot: His orthodonture and his university!   

Coding! Foreign Language! Technology! Science! Ethics! Egads!!! But to what end? 

Everything is Everything   

Schools don’t exist in vacuums. They are pieces of larger ecologies that are first human and cultural. It isn’t just technology that changes. Technology changes because our collective desire for things changes—and completing the circle, updates to technology change what we desire.   

Mobile learning, digital citizenship, design thinking, collaboration, creativity, and on a larger scale, digital literacy are all useful. So is coding.   

Making decisions about what students learn in school—much less how they learn it—is astoundingly important work that must be done while keeping the design of schools, the skillsets of teachers, and the value system of society in mind. If we don’t see the issue in its full context, we’re not seeing the issue at all.    

How schools are designed and what students learn—and why—must be reviewed as closely and with as much enthusiasm as we scrutinize the gas mileage of our cars, changes to Facebook, or the success of our underachieving favorite sports teams.  

In fact, in this era of incredible information access, smart clouds, and disturbing socioeconomic disparity, we may want to consider whether we should be teaching content at all, instead of actually teaching students to think. 

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