A bunch of stuff in the news about education, from both provincial and federal governments. Both levels purport to be concerned about adapting education for the new millennium and all that. The big solution this week is to teach computer coding in Elementary School. Justin Trudeau muses about it, in spite of the fact that Education is not a federal jurisdiction. He’s a former teacher, so I guess that’s okay. In B. C., it is Christie Clark’s latest “This is going to be so easy, folks,” bandwagon. (Let’s hope it fares better than the LNG treasure hunt.) No-Longer-Great Britain is rolling out a similar program, as are several states in the U. S.
But perhaps a cautioning word is in order from someone who has been involved with the education system at most levels for 60 years or more. What is this computer coding in Elementary School all about?
A Matter of History
Okay, politicos, sorry to steal your wind, but this is nothing new. In 1990 or so, my 10-year old son, working on a Mac Classic computer, designed a game for his school science fair where the player guessed where on earth the point directly opposite Prince George, B. C. was situated. The necessary programming skills were being taught in several schools in the district at that time. This practice has become far more widespread in the last 25 years. So we’re already teaching the stuff. Why the fanfare?
Best Way to Deliver the Learning?
Teaching coding in Elementary School rates on the uselessness scale right down there with teaching the division of fractions. Any computer language kids learn this year will be obsolete by the time they reach the labour force ten or fifteen years from now. If coding is still required at all. Any specific skills I taught in my TechEd classes 15 years ago are gone, along with the programs they worked on. The other skills I taught, such as online manners and Internet safety, are still valid.
What They Develop, Not What They Learn
The value in teaching coding to young children isn’t in the code they learn. It’s in the increase in brain activity and development. The learning of how to learn languages. The learning of how to problem-solve. However, getting hung up on computer coding is a pretty restrictive way to do this. Teaching them French (properly) Mandarin and Music would probably do a better job to expand their little minds.
Thinking Outside the Box?
I find the argument that learning coding teaches them to think outside the box rather weak. It would be quite the opposite. After all, what you’re teaching them is the box to think inside.
And Then There’s Politics
The impetus for this new program is the publicly bemoaned lack of properly educated workers to fill the new hi-tech jobs that are coming up in industry. And here we have to beware a problem as old as the Industrial Revolution. Industry would love to off-load the responsibility for training their workers onto someone else, especially the government. Businessmen are forever complaining that the schools aren’t putting out properly trained little drones for their consumption.
It Won’t Work
This is a rather selfish attitude, if you think about it. Asking a student at, say, Grade 9 to choose an occupation and take training in skills that may become obsolete for a job that may not exist when he reaches the labour force is hardly fair. Nor is it likely to be very successful. These are teenagers we’re talking about, remember. Oh, yes, and isn’t our economy creating most jobs in the service sector?
It is also shortsighted. The job market is a fast-moving target right now, and the time-lag waiting for the education system to teach specific skills is too long
But then business is expected to be shortsighted. The businessman is looking for a right-now solution to his immediate problem. So he should. He has a business to run. The education system, on the other hand…
A Realistic Timeline
Take two years persuading the education system to implement a program you want. Give them another three to put it in practice. Give another five for the whole system to swing into action and start teaching the new skills to a meaningful number of students. Now wait five or ten years for the products of that new education to show up on the labour market. At the entry level. You are now fifteen to twenty years past the point where you thought you needed that skill. If you sat around and waited for those trained workers to appear, you’re not in business any more.
Advice to Business; stop fobbing your job off on other people and then complaining that they don’t do it right. Because they won’t. It ain’t possible.
A Better Timeline:
You need a skilled person. Find a few people with a proven ability to learn. Doesn’t really matter what. Hire them and provide four to six months of specific training. Give another four to six months of gradually working into your business. Presto! Educated workforce in eight to twelve months. This gives them a closer connection with your company and discourages transience. It makes sure that they have the knowledge you want them to have. Yes, it costs you, but control always comes with a price.
And you can’t control the job marketplace.
I’m a writer. I decide that the public really should be reading a certain kind of book. I sit down and write one. Then I try to market it. Guess what? If there isn’t already a market for that kind of book, I’m not going to sell any. Telling the market what it wants is a sure route to failure.
Telling students what kind of jobs they should be trying to get is likewise not going to be very successful. Sure, a few will get interested in computers at an earlier age. But the rest will still keep running off to university to take Anthropology instead of off to a technological institute to take a tech program.
Businesses would be far better off looking for students who have shown their ability and motivation to learn by taking whatever post-secondary degree they wanted. These people can be trained specifically for the tech jobs that need to be filled.
So in general, this new impetus on teaching kids specific job-related skills is a two-edged sword. Any public interest and public money spent on education is a good thing. It ranks right up there with “Any publicity is good publicity.” At least they’re thinking about us.
But we have to be careful that business doesn’t stampede the government into turning the education system into a factory that trains little drones for the factory hive. That’s the surest way to have an education system that is behind the times, playing catch-up. And the deeper you reach into the education system, the longer it lags behind the specific needs of the economy. The younger the students, the more general their education must be.
If you really want to train up a bunch of techies, might I point out that we have any number of high-quality technical colleges in the country? Provide the programs; make it financially easier for students to take the programs. You might get the time lapse down to five years or so.
Or you could just train them yourselves.