Teaching kids to code: It’s not about fame and fortune.
I’ve been programming since I was seven. I started with Cocoa, the children’s language developed by Apple in 1996 (they recycled the Cocoa brand when they bought NeXT). Then I learned AppleScript, REALBasic, and eventually Objective-C and Java. I have code so old that it’s full of spelling mistakes: I learned to program before I could spell trivial words like “building.” My personal journey as a programmer was propelled by my dad who has been developing Mac shareware for more than 25 years, but it mirrors what might happen if programming is taught in schools. For the most part, that’s really exciting.
This week’s code.org campaign put the power and celebrity of today’s most successful developers behind an effort to teach the world to code. But the reasons they champion for learning to program—namely, fame, fortune, and a great job with free food—seem oddly genderless. When I excitedly played through their latest ad, I was left thinking to myself: “They pulled together our industry’s best and brightest, and that’s all they came up with?”
Over the last few years, I’ve been in more than 30 classrooms—in elite private schools with Macbooks for every student, and in inner city schools on the edge of collapse. My research in educational technology has brought me in touch with the kids code.org is trying to reach, and I think all of them would benefit from learning to code. But when I look at the impact programming has had on my life—especially on my childhood, marked by school transitions, my parent’s divorce, and a fair bit of high school drama, it has done far more for me than provide a steady job.
For kids, programming is about zen. It’s about learning patience. It’s about feeling accomplished when the world around you seems to be rooting for your failure. It’s about being able to sit down at a $250 Chromebook and envelop yourself in a world where known rules apply, where constant input produces constant output. A world you can learn to understand and use to create whatever your heart desires. For kids for whom most of the world makes no goddamn sense, it’s an amazing gift.
I understand why code.org is marketing to students the way it is—you don’t tell inner city kids to play basketball because it’ll keep them in shape and doesn’t require grass, you tell them they can be like Michael Jordan. What upsets me is that the individuals who tell their personal stories in their latest video—people who have a deep, personal affiliation with the art, present it in such an objective way. If I were featured in that video, my cameo would by dramatically different. Programming taught me patience and process, and it’s given me balance when I’ve needed it most.