Teaching kids to code is self-defence, not a vocational skill

Kids should learn to strangle Python, not just Scratch out a few lines of code

"Week 6 Sport" by Cameron Eye Photography, Creative Commons 2.0

At a glittering reception overlooking Sydney’s Opera House, chatting with the local MD of one of the world’s biggest tech companies, the conversation turned to education.

“At least we’re all talking about the importance of teaching coding,” this exec pronounced. “Better than a year ago.”

Around the world, there’s a growing sense among the political classes that coding should be part of the core curriculum. From Barack Obama to David Cameron to Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, pollies have recently extolled the virtues of coding - though none have been able to articulate exactly why this might be a good thing, beyond a few platitudes about the “jobs of the future”.

What they should be talking about is the need for knowledge of coding as a self-defence skill.

Crazy talk? Not so much. A child entering kindergarten in 2015 will graduate somewhere around 2030. By then connectivity, programmability, interactivity, and responsiveness will be ubiquitous. ?Kids will need the skills needed to operate in that world – and they need to be able to defend themselves from it.

It’s of vital importance that we teach those skills. I’ll go further: we need to make coding the ‘third pillar’ of the curriculum, equal in importance to literacy and maths.

To advocate for anything else is arguing for a functional illiteracy across the entire population. We’ll end up with a generation capable of little more than pressing buttons and watching as the pretty emojis float by. A generation of sheeple ready to be fleeced by every hacker, everywhere.

Whatever its benefits, a connected world is inevitably a more dangerous world. Our culture is becoming little more than an almost inconceivable number of attack surfaces for hackers. If we want our children to thrive in that world, we have to teach them how to protect themselves in that world.

A decent coding-centric curriculum would harness the pervasive computational fabric of the 21st century as a platform for learning-by-doing. Classes could form into teams of ‘white hats’ versus ‘black hats’, one team charged with defending themselves against attacks from the other team. Kids who learn these lessons in the safety of the classroom can develop a visceral sense that connected devices and connected lives need to be properly secured.

Coding a social app need not be just about learning to code. But it can be a way to teach how sharing changes everything. How better to warn kids against the dangers of sexting or any other kind of oversharing? They’ll know that on the Internet, nothing is ever permanently deleted - because that’s the way they’ll write their apps.

Demonstration through practice is more effective than any high-and-mighty preaching from parents and teachers. Eventually, we won’t need to teach ‘privacy by design’ in our engineering classes, because the will say, “Been there, done that -- here’s what’s next.”

What we don’t need - and probably can’t withstand – is another generation of po-faced executives bemoaning the hacks that cost them customers/data/privacy/legitimacy, or our safety. We need a generation unafraid and prepared to engage in the kinds of conflict – both military and commercial – already becoming common.

Education bureaucrats will try to pacify politicians, giving kids a pat on the head and a taste of Scratchor Python (nothing wrong with either of those, mind you) – a bit like teaching someone how to drive without bothering to study the operation of the brake pedal. The kids themselves face a generation of educators who graduated before connected tech crowded into every aspect of our lives. Lacking both the training and the permission to make these skills their own, they can not pass them along.

Back at that reception, the MD concluded with, “The kids are ready to learn, but their parents don’t understand how important this is. They didn’t get coding instruction in school, so they really don’t see why their kids should. We’ve got to convince the parents. Then it all happens.”

Those parents use smartphones and laptops and all sorts of other connected devices every day, without realising how quickly so much of the world has changed – or how vulnerable we have become. That disconnect is fertile ground for ignorance - and a growing, permanent, digital defencelessness. We’ve got to shine a light in, dispel the darkness, and get our kids coding. It’s battle stations, everyone. ®




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