Should your child be learning to code?

Coding is the buzzword of the 21st century. Many of the famous business names since 2000 have gained their reputation from creating tech sites, people like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), or Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia).

It’s at the heart of some of the most creative businesses around, stretching from Silicon Valley USA to Silicon Roundabout in London. Most recently Edinburgh has seen huge growth after an influx of new start-ups took off, including Skyscanner. Many of these companies pay eye-watering salaries that rival finance jobs.

The salaries may change over time. But one thing is for certain. The internet is not going away.

Is it worth spending the time on?

For people who haven’t grown up with technology in the same way our children have, the prospect of coding can seem quite daunting. It’s often referred to as a new ‘language’, and beneath that, there are a variety of different ‘dialects’ that can be learnt – from HTML through to Ruby on Rails. This all increases the mystique and confusion surrounding the whole thing.

When your child already has a packed schedule with school, extra tuition, music lessons and ex-curricular activities, learning all of this might appear like the straw that will break the camel’s back.

However coding shouldn’t be overestimated – it may not add too much strain to your child.

Coding is actually initially very easy to learn. Although it does work like a ‘language’, it isn’t like your child is being dropped in the deep end of an Arabic class. In particular, children, who are such fast learners, take to it like a duck to water. Many schools are being given the Raspberry Pi, designed to help children learn about computing.

Why learn?

Understandably, there is quite a debate over whether it is worth it, and there are some strong arguments against children learning to code.

First of all, it is a skill that needs to be kept up to date. It’s not like a sport where you can learn at School, and then come back to playing it in later life. The knowledge can quickly go out of date as the technology changes, so it is important to maintain a constant level of engagement.

Secondly, it is possible to learn to code at any stage of life – unlike like languages in which we benefit by it being ingrained at an early age. It is not essential that your child develop this skill at school.

Thirdly, there is also the danger (as discussed in this persuasive Guardian article) that suggesting children should code is tantamount to predicting the future, and compares it to the demand for Japanese in Schools in the 1980s. It’s very easy to spend a lot of your child’s time on something that could be obsolete by the time they would come to use it.

However, this view fundamentally ignores a key element of child development and education – the process of learning. It overlooks it in a purely results focussed view.

In the same way that people advocate learning a musical instrument as a good way to teach the need to stick at something difficult, learning discipline and organisation, coding can serve the same function. If a child is not so keen on music, it could provide a positive alternative. We may yet see the rise of ‘coding practice’.

There is also a hugely beneficial side to designing websites and platforms. Where some homework can appear unfulfilling because of the nature of the exercises, the best way to learn to code is create something tangible, like a website. The content can be anything that your child is interested in. Where they learn is by going through the process of hard work, getting over setbacks, and finally creating something exciting. The best part is that they will have something to show for it at the end.

I’m interested – how do I get them started?

If this sounds like something that you might be interested for your child then there are a number of options. Some schools run after school clubs, and www.coderdojo.com provides a great space for children to learn within groups. You can also start at home on www.codeacademy.com. This is a fun starter that is very easy to understand, and can be done with your child. Any more than this, it may be worth thinking about getting a tutor.

By Jonathan Coates

@coates_jonathan