Industries in Depth

How early should kids learn to code?

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Coding is the new lingua franca. Yet, fewer than 20m out of a nearly 3bn-strong global workforce speak the language today, according to IDC. For a few years now, the tech industry has been calling on everyone to spend an hour learning to code, with high-profile figures like US president Barack Obama joining the chorus with the famous line, “Don’t just play on your phone, program it”. The UK has gone so far as to mandate teaching coding at school, while other countries, including Estonia, Finland, Italy and Singapore, are already incorporating coding into classroom instruction. But how early should kids begin to learn how to code?

Many experts agree that coding can and should start young. Younger students tend to be less put off by STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) — coding is a type of language that  young minds are particularly suited to learn. Until recently, however, an age limit had been effectively imposed by the skills, reading and writing among them, required by the most common programming languages (Python, Java, C++).

With that in mind, a new generation of programming languages is being written for kids who are still learning these basic skills. Programs like Lego’s WeDo or Scratch Jr. — which are aimed at kids as young as 5 — rely on visuals, where blocks of code can be sorted into sequences and even looped without the fussy syntax of their grown-up predecessors. Other visual programming languages include Google’s Blockly or Hopscotch — although both do require more advanced reading skills. Scratch Jr. co-developer Mitchel Resnick at MIT says that this way of coding is really a type of storytelling, where kids get to “make their characters come alive in a story”. The source code supports a rich world of games and bots, including block-based Kibo and iPad-based Dash and Dot, that encourage kids to develop basic math skills and sound logic along with acquiring the basics of programming, says Kibo creator and Scratch Jr. co-developer Marina Umaschi Bers at Tufts.

Giving kids the tools to code isn’t just about providing future adults with the skills they will need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy. It could very well transform the way they learn as well. Seymour Papert, the pioneer of early computer literacy and creator of the Logo Turtle who taught both Mr Resnick and Ms Bers, once wrote that many kids are held back because the traditional model of learning focuses on right versus wrong. Programming a computer is, instead, about isolating bugs. “The question … is not whether it is right or wrong, but if it is fixable. If this way of looking at intellectual products were generalised to how the larger culture thinks about knowledge and its acquisition, we might all be less intimidated by our fears of ‘being wrong’”.

Little research has been done on the effects that learning to code has on young children developmentally, and experts disagree about whether kids as young as 5 should learn coding at all. Dr Jim Taylor, psychologist and author of Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children for a Media-fueled World, argues that other activities “are much more elemental to children’s development”, and that this learning-to-code push is “driven by fear within parents that their kids will be left off the technology train and, as a result, will fail in life”. Others, like applied psychologist and parenting expert Lawrence Balter at New York University, see no problem with learning to code young as long as it is done in social settings and doesn’t take the place of other “essential” activities like reading and open-ended play. Still others, including educator Yasmin Kafai, author of Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming, say that while a balance of activities is key, coding can actually be “an alternative to using an iPad”, where kids get to take a more active role, creating content rather than merely consuming it.

While the debate continues, Ms Bers predicts that programming will increasingly be integrated into school curricula worldwide so that young kids will be learning to code in all key disciplines. In early literacy, for instance, kids can create animations where the Very Hungry Caterpillar eats new foods; in math, they can create stories with problems for their classmates to solve; in social studies, they can design interactive maps where clicking on a country produces, say, a flag. Meanwhile, online schools like Codecademy are already teaching multiple programming languages, while companies like Google and GE are offering in- and after-school programmes for kids to learn languages like Scratch Jr.

Like all languages and dialects, programming languages are bound to evolve, becoming more intuitive as time goes by and as computers become smarter. As one of Blockly’s developers told Wired, “Each generation gets to use an even-higher-level interface. Eventually, one will be able to instruct computers with completely natural language.” At which point kids might take their first steps into the world of programming while they are still in diapers.

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is a freelance journalist in Portland. 

Image: A child in first grade uses a laptop.REUTERS/Jorge Silva. 

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