Sorry, Ivanka. Kindergarteners Don’t Need to Learn to Code

Those who do not read what other people have said about the future are doomed to repeat the same silly ideas. Last week, Ivanka Trump announced that “coding truly is the language of the future” and wrote an op-ed for the New York Post explaining why kids as young as kindergarten need to spend more time with technology.

But the idea that young people need to be more familiar with technology has been driving more schools and parents to give kids access to computers and tablets at younger and younger ages for at least twenty years. Unfortunately, there is little to no evidence that it is making much of a difference in their education. The one-to-one iPad program in Maine, for instance, seems to have had no impact on student achievement.

And that’s not surprising according to Larry Cuban, a Stanford University education professor, who has been looking at the question of technology in the classroom for three decades. He tells me, “I can say pretty categorically that there is no evidence that use of devices and software will improve academic achievement of students.”

In his book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, Cuban attributes the hype for technology despite its poor results to two factors. As he explained to me, “First, there is the novelty effect to explain student engagement with high-tech. New devices—think clickers in an algebra class or iPads for kindergartners—motivate students initially, but as time passes, the effects wear off. Second, major studies have repeatedly shown weak to no linkage between these devices or software and substantial changes in teaching practices or improved test scores.” The decisions about classroom technology are generally made by school boards and superintendents—without much input from teachers, says Cuban. But teachers are the ones who are going to have to integrate the technology into their classrooms.

The problem is clearly not that young people aren’t comfortable with technology. They use it constantly. The vast majority of school-age children in America have access to computers, tablets and smartphones. And while parents are often impressed with how easily they learn new tricks on these devices, the truth is that our devices are actually designed so that anyone—from the age of three to ninety-three—can figure out how to use them.

Ivanka Trump, though, wants kids to learn coding at a young age because she believes that coding is the key to finding people jobs. “As part of my White House portfolio, I’ll be working closely with the Departments of Education and Labor to close the growing gap between the skills our children and workers need to succeed and the education they are getting.”

For adults, this may be true. If you could teach a twenty-five-year-old who is just sitting on his couch playing video games how to write code, there is no doubt he could find gainful employment almost immediately. But is that a reason to teach five-year-olds to do it?

First, obviously, we have no idea what coding will look like fifteen or twenty years from now. Second, and more importantly, all the evidence shows that young children need less time on screens not more. Young children are having more trouble concentrating. Their fine motor skills and gross motor skills are suffering because they spend too little time outside playing and too little time actually trying to do things with their hands.

More and more preschools and kindergartens are moving to a play-based model in order to combat some of these problems. Indeed, it is an interesting confluence of religious conservatives longing for a return to a more traditional, less media-oriented education and liberals who want a more natural, less consumerist focus in the classroom that is fueling some of these trends. But of course the Trumps are not really familiar with either of these worlds.

Instead, the first family is living in a world of bureaucrats and crony capitalists who believe that children are simply future workers and the earlier you can start them on the path to productive employment, the better off they will be. Unfortunately, the facts suggest that such a strategy is doomed to fail.

Image: DonkeyHotey

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  • rodander

    And kindergarteners would write code to do what, exactly?

    • Out of the Blue

      Probably a simple block based system to get the general concepts down. Personally I favor an “in the deep end” approach with C++ later on. If you can get a program to work in that language, you can get it to work in pretty much any language.

      • InklingBooks

        No, not even that until well into high school. This ‘teach them to code’ madness is filled with the same folly as much of Common Core. It fails to recognized what child development specialists know all too well—that a child’s ability to learn and how they learn varies with age.

        Your “simple, block-based system to get the general concepts down” misses the point that kids don’t handle abstractions and simplifying them to be even more abstract does not help. They need ideas to be concrete, meaning what they can see and handle.

        And they’re incredibly good at memorization. That’s the age when they should be learning to locate states and countries on a map. They love to do that because they’re good at it. That is also why the “drill and kill” madness of the 1990s was so awful. It’s why the abstractions of Common Core math are terrible. Don’t teach them a lot of silliness to get 3 x 16. Have them memorize that 3 x 16 is 48. Take it from someone who as learned math well beyond calculus, that memorization is what you end up with anyway.

        Behind much of this lies a professionalized snobbery. Educational fads exists because those with education degrees resent how parents think reading and math should be taught. Different (and bad) ideas appeal because they allow those with education degrees to lord it over the rest of us.

        That’s also true for this nonsense about teaching coding in grade school. The very fact that parents think it’s ridiculous is why it appeals to snobs from Ivanka to Tim Cook and others. They like to lecture us on what we ought to do. We’re too stupid, they assume, to know what is best for our kids.

        • Out of the Blue

          Remember that I said I favored an “in the deep end” approach with C++? That’s either late high school or early college.

        • sosumi idk

          Coding is like music and foreign languages: children learn easily what adults struggle to master.

        • Cathy J

          Can I thumbs up a comment? Memorization gets such a bad rap these days, yet it is an enormously useful skill.

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  • cheyenne1

    Is that a picture of the author

  • InklingBooks

    Quote: Last week, Ivanka Trump announced that “coding truly is the language of the future” and wrote an op-ed for the New York Post explaining why kids as young as kindergarten need to spend more time with technology.”

    The book is a long and dull read, particularly if you’re not British, but Tom Bower’s Broken Vows, which is about Prime Minister Tony Blair’s time in office, illustrates what’s going on here There’s unhealthy loop between our celebrity chattering class (i.e. Blair and Ivanka) and a press that’s as clueless as they. Both want to attract attention. Neither has a clue about life. Bad ideas get hyped and when they fail the blame is covered up because everyone involved is responsible for the failure and these aren’t people who learn by their mistakes. Given their privileged in background, life has never forced on them the cost of their mistakes.

    Does Ivanka really think that conversations of the future will be like this:

    extension String {
    var banana : String {
    let shortName = String(characters.dropFirst(1))
    return “(self) (self) Bo B(shortName) Banana Fana Fo F(shortName)”
    }
    }

    That’s a bit of the Swift code that Apple and others want to foist of kids barely out of kindergarten. And do you think that kids are going to be as excited by that sort of teaching as by a Dr. Seuss story? What follows is part of Apple’s learn Swift propaganda. Whoever wrote it must have never talked to a small child. Heck, most successful, well-employed adults can follow what it is saying. They no more need to know that to do well in life than they need to learn the coagulation cascade that’s taught to physicians.

    QUOTE
    Swift eliminates entire classes of unsafe code. Variables are always initialized before use, arrays and integers are checked for overflow, and memory is managed automatically. Syntax is tuned to make it easy to define your intent — for example, simple three-character keywords define a variable ( var ) or constant ( let ).
    END QUOTE Source: https://developer.apple.com/swift/

    “Variables initialized… arrays, overflow… Syntax” You gotta be as stupid as rock to think little kids will go for that. Give them fun stories to read. Teaching them a love of reading will do them a world of good. Exposing them to code at five will teach them to hate it.

    Kids do go for today’s technology. Taking care of a room filled with one-year-olds, I pulled out my iPad. In an instant, about five of them turned toward it, eager to play. I quickly hid it away, because I did not want a squabble and because there were better things for them to be doing—real toys not a touch screen.

    And yes, part of this celebrity-and-media airhead nonsense is the illogic that thinks gadgetry that a one-year-old can play with is a skill that must be extensively taught in school lest these dim-witted masses in flyover country not master the required skills.

  • sosumi idk

    Teaching kids to code while they’re young is a great gift. I would no sooner wait to teach a kid computer skills than I would make them wait to learn reading, math, or a foreign language: waiting til middle school means waiting til their brains are no longer nearly so receptive.

    Check out MIT’s awesome, awesome free learn-to-code program Scratch https://scratch.mit.edu/

    • Cathy J

      Eh, we live in Mass., my daughter learned Scratch, built robots in middle school, all of that. Now in HS–not so much, she’s not interested. You can bring a horse to water, etc.

      • sosumi idk

        Computer skills are useful for everyone, not just people destined to become IT professionals.

        A generation ago there were special people who did “desktop publishing”. Now any old person can do the things that used to require a special professional. In the same way, I’m guessing our kids will grow up in a world where anyone can (and will be expected to) be able to toss off a database as needed. A lot of things that we now expect professionals to do will become ordinary things that any office worker can do.