This morning, I came across an article in my LinkedIn news feed posing the question of whether children should learn to code in school, or if it’s just a waste of time. I understand when people pose this question for the same reason I begrudged taking boring math classes during my academic life. When am I ever going to use algebra in my everyday life? This happens to be a topic I’m very passionate about due to my own personal experience.
Learning to code as a kid changed my life, even though I really sucked at it.
During my middle school years, around grade five or six if memory serves, my mother had the foresight to enroll me in BASIC programming classes during the summer. This was at a time before the Internet and likely a time when other kids in the same class were having a similar “why do I have to do this” mindset. We didn’t even have a Commodore or Apple II, or whatever computer it was we were learning on at the time, in our own home.
My mother worked in tech support back then, so I was raised at the keyboard of her blue-glowing monochrome Data General laptop the size of a manual typewriter. Computers have always been a part of my life as long as I can remember, so I was admittedly a prime candidate for a summer school program like this, even if I didn’t realize the utility of it until much later in life.
We learned, no pun intended, the basics of BASIC. We followed along as we programmed a pre-defined set of computer instructions that resulted in a particular game or even just something rudimentary displayed on the screen. Were we building high-level military encryption technologies? No. I never really was that great at it. At best, I created a couple really crude games in the vein of an Encyclopedia Brown book where you get to an ending based on the choices you make.
I’m obviously not a computer programmer at this stage in my life. I had considered computer science as a career path, but other interests like art, multimedia and writing had pull in my decision to major in radio/TV/film. That said, the time I spent during my summer vacations were far from wasteful.
When I went through a career transition program after losing a job for the first time, they talked a lot about “transferrable skills,” or experiences you have in one area that may be able to use in a totally different vocation. My childhood programming classes planted the seeds of a wealth of transferrable skills I use to this day. I learned basic computer skills that gave me firm footing through the really transformative years I grew up in that saw the rise of the personal computer and the birth of the Internet as we know it. I learned valuable troubleshooting methods that made me an ever-curious individual who didn’t always have to rely on others to accomplish tasks.
I can safely say those grade school computer classes were the origin of my creative endeavors. I learned a whole new way to tell stories and entertain. I remember in sixth grade, a group of friends and I formed a little club based around the idea of designing video games. We never actually programmed them or did anything with the ideas, but we derived a lot of fun around coming up with ideas and stories, and fleshing them out into fully formed treatments. Back then, I started thinking more visually and began learning design skills that I use in all aspects of my life – personally and professionally. With the way the economy has changed in the past couple decades, the base-level skills one would learn in a computer programming class will be as important as addition and subtraction.
It drives me batty whenever I hear of a school district coming on hard times that chooses to gut art, theater and music programs to save money. I hate that these kinds of artistic programs are seen by many as expendable, worthless endeavors. Reducing or eliminating arts programs sends the message that creativity isn’t important. I think it’s vital to a child’s success, both in their professional life but also in their character.
So yes, I think every kid should learn to code. They may never go on to become a programmer by vocation, but it plants the seeds of curiosity that can lead to a lifetime love of learning. I certainly grateful that I have that.
Also published on Medium.