The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.
On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.
Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.
Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**
Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.
Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.
There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.
There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.
It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.
There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.
When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****
If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.