CRACKING THE CODE

Coding snobs are not helping our children prepare for the future

Earlier this week, Carmen Fariña, the chancellor of America’s largest school system, announced that the ambitious plan to bring computer science education to New York City’s 1.1 million public school students would expand in September to include elementary schools. The goal is to give all the city’s public school students a computer science education by 2025. “The workforce of today needs people who are problem solvers, analytical thinkers, work well with others, and create new things that we haven’t even begun to imagine,” Fariña said.

As initiatives like New York’s propagate across the nation, critics have been quick to point out that, with scale, comes a potential dumbing-down of computer science. An accusatory finger is directed towards efforts like Code.org as being little more than “pop computing.” Light and fluffy stuff. This criticism is typical of a generation of computer science educators, who want to bring all our children to existing technology, rather than change technology to more effectively engage with children and, for that matter, people. In 2016, the very heart of digital creation—the making of software—has been resistant to change.  

It is a perverse irony that, in 2016, the very heart of digital creation—the making of software—has been so resistant to change. Writing software today is eerily similar to what it was like in the late 1950s, when people sat at terminals and wrote COBOL programs. And like the late 1950s, the stereotype of the coder is largely unchanged: mostly white guys with deep math skills, and minimal extroversion. Back in the Sputnik-era, people thought of programmers as a priesthood in lab coats: the sole keepers of knowledge that ran these exotic, and mysterious room-sized machines. Today the priesthood is a little hipper—lab coats have long given way to a countercultural vibe—but it’s still a priesthood, perhaps more druidic than Jesuitic, but a priesthood nonetheless, largely comprised of white men.

Our efforts at Ready, a platform that enables kids to make games, apps, whatever they want, without knowing a computer language, are designed to offer a new approach to broadening access to code literacy. Others, including the folks at Code.org, Tynker, littleBits, and Hopscotch, to name a few, have similarly pushed to innovate the core experience of how software is made.

Pop computing is connected to real life. It’s where the Minecraft kids go when they’re done mining. And where those who never were into mining can find a place.

In this new world, learning coding is about moving away from computer languages, syntax, and academic exercises towards real world connections: game design and building projects that tie into other subjects like science and social studies. This is a world of software as a form of self-expression. Computer science becomes a medium for storytelling, offering exciting pathways for kids to forge a personal identity and mastery of a powerful technology. This is the inverse of how computer science has been taught, as an impersonal, disconnected, abstracted, mathematical exercise.

This Cambrian explosion of new coding techniques offers the promise of dramatically diversifying a coder monoculture of math-driven white men to include women, minorities, and those without advanced degrees in math. These are people who have long been underrepresented in science, math, and technology fields. From a humanist perspective, society benefits when diverse people can be creators of software instead of just consumer. It’s unacceptable that software creation remains so out of reach for so many.

At Ready, for example, we’ve been told by teachers that our platform is inspiring precisely because it favors a new, visual form of writing code. This version borrows heavily from the successful “remix cultures” powering YouTube, the music industry, online journalism, and photography. Some have even called Ready “a Powerpoint for making software.” Perhaps more importantly,  Instead of luring code-literate teachers away from Silicon Valley, we need to revolutionize the way coding is done.  Ready gives teachers, including those who may not have a background in coding, an effective way to teach students how software is made. Because where, exactly, are we supposed to find tens of thousands of coders willing to potentially take major pay cuts to join the education system?

Instead of attempting to lure code-literate teachers away from Silicon Valley, we need to revolutionize the way coding is done. Rather than fit the person to the tool, let’s fit the tool to the person. Pop computing can help us get there, offering a gloriously diverse array of tools to match our gloriously diverse species. It’s only a matter of time before the process of making software itself is transformed, from one that requires a mastery of syntax—the precise stringing of sentences needed to command a computer—to the mastery of logic. Logic is the essence of software creation, and the second step after mastering syntax.

We know this revolution is possible because it has happened before. For much of its history, photography was an elite pursuit. Twenty years ago, aspiring photographers had to learn to work in a darkroom, something that was expensive and time consuming—not to mention all the hours spent in close proximity to toxic chemicals, stuffy rooms, red lights, and claustrophobia.  Rather than fit the person to the tool, let’s fit the tool to the person. Plus there was the significant personal expense of film and photo paper, which, in the spirit of trial-and-error learning, could quickly become unaffordable. Understandably, many opted out. But today, photographers can use iPhone cameras and Instagram to learn photography skills from their bedrooms. The end result is that many more humans around the world are able to take, edit, and publish photographs. This is the democratizing force of technology at its best, creating tools that widen opportunities for people to become creative.

Resistance to rethinking coding takes us into very familiar territory. It’s a trope that comes up again and again from incumbent interests whenever a creative industry is disrupted by technical innovation: bloggers are not journalists, YouTubers are not film-makers, DJs are not musicians. Yet the public knows otherwise—blogs disrupted the practice of journalism, YouTube led a streaming revolution that’s transforming television and film, and DJs are some of the most marketable music acts today. It’s time for software creation to undergo the same democratizing process. And it begins with how we expose young minds to coding. In this new and exciting world, teaching coding the way we have isn’t going to work. It’s the wrong approach for most of us.

In other words, if “pop computing” means popularizing computing—as in the act of popularizing software creation for all—then count me in!

Follow David on Twitter at @dbennahum. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search