Techdirt Podcast Episode 6: Should Kids Be Forced To Learn Coding? Or Economics? Or Stats?

from the education-in-the-information-age dept

There’s been plenty of discussion online about whether or not kids should be taught “coding” as a core curriculum topic like math and reading. And there’s a compelling argument in this technological age that, at least, basic coding concepts are something everyone should know, just to be literate when it comes to many of the key work and life challenges we’ll be facing over the next few decades. But perhaps an equally compelling argument could be made for teaching economics. Or statistics. Or maybe even journalism. Or is it just that everyone wants kids to learn the things that they themselves do on a daily basis, because no one else seems to understand them? Maybe we should just teach problem solving. Or common sense. But how do you teach either of those things? And if we’re adding new subjects, which ones do we take away? Figuring out the education curriculum for the modern age isn’t quite as easy as we originally thought. Hersh, Dennis and I discuss these questions and more in this week’s episode.

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Comments on “Techdirt Podcast Episode 6: Should Kids Be Forced To Learn Coding? Or Economics? Or Stats?”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Stats

Oh, I do understand. In my former professional life I used stats often, and effectively when projecting future performance in the businesses I helped to run.

Unfortunately, many who also understand how they work, work them to some twisted specific end. The real trick will be to teach how to tell the difference, and that might happen in a different class, like basic English for example, or as suggested journalism, or possibly political science, like when the poll asks questions that lead to the wanted result rather than an actual understanding of what the community actually feels about a subject.

And I never had a class in stats, I had to learn it (or what I know) on my own.

Jason says:

Edsger Dijkstra said that “mastery of one’s native tongue” was one of the most vital prerequisites to being a good programmer. (An inclination to math was the other.)

Nearly anybody can learn “to code”. Learning to do it well is entirely different, and one of the best ways to get there is having the ability to think logically and express yourself clearly. That is what should be taught, not just “coding”.

I think you can use programming languages to help with the teaching process, but there’s a huge difference between teaching someone to code and teaching them to write well written software.

The same can be said of economics, statistics, journalism, etc. Inordinate focus on any one of them isn’t going to help in the long run. (That focus will almost certainly keep changing, after all.) But if you teach a child, or anyone else for that matter, the mental discipline that rides underneath so many of those other skills, then they’ll have a much easier path to success in whatever field they end up in later in life.

Jason says:

Re: Re: Re:

Interesting. I hadn’t seen that before.

There may be a nugget or two they describe which could be worth exploring, but based on what I read (at the linked page and in the paper itself) I’m not convinced. It strikes me as a very unscientific experiment, and at best one that would need a lot more study before drawing any conclusions like the ones they do.

I looked around to find out if that paper ever did get published (the link refers only to a draft) and instead found more than a few links discussing the paper’s inaccuracy and, basically, retraction by its author.

Leaving that aside, I don’t think that everyone can learn to program well, but I do think that mostly everyone can learn enough “to code”. I say “to code” in quotes not only to directly quote the author of the original article, but also in the sense of “coding” being different than “programming”. My experience has left me with the firm belief that the two are not the same. This is nothing unique to software: mostly everyone can learn to write but that won’t make them all Shakespeare, mostly everyone can learn to drive but they won’t all be good enough to race NASCAR, and so on. (Yes, I know I’m generalizing pretty heavily.) But even if one is never to grow up to be any of those things, that basic level of education can make the difference between a person who can function—even thrive—in society and one that might not.

My point was only that, even if we’re surrounded by computers in our everyday lives, suddenly deciding that every child needs to endure a “coding” class in school isn’t the answer, any more than arbitrarily focusing on any other subject matter. Exposure is different…by all means introduce some simple programming instruction. But while you’re at it, spend some time on statistics, and economics, and what not, as well. For sure there will be some with a huge natural aptitude and some with little to none, but that’s true of everything.

The most useful skills to learn in school aren’t how to solve this or that problem, but instead how to think about how to solve the problem and that’s what I was trying to get at. Just because we need more skilled programmers doesn’t mean mandatory coding classes are the way to get them. But teach kids how to dig in to a problem, draw on everything they know and think about how to solve it, then bake in a little programming (or statistics, or economics…) on top, and maybe then we’ll have something.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Though a lot of coding doesn’t involve any advanced math, I don’t think that’s the reason people suggest it. It’s about the ordered, structured thinking and the step-by-step approach to problem solving.

The main thing that comes to mind, and that I distinctly remember being a math skill that helped me learn programming as a kid, is taking word problems and translating them into algebra — like the “Billy is twice as old as Sally was when she was half as old as…” problems, or others that require reasonably basic algebra to solve, but only after you’ve broken a seemingly complex problem down into simple steps.

The breaking down process — determining what info you have, assigning it to variables and stating it as equations, figuring out how to arrange those variables and transform those equations to get the info you want — is very similar to the process of writing code to complete a task, even if many of the specific operations you are doing aren’t quite the same. When those problems reach the level where they can’t be solved without experimentation (like “let X be 10 and see if it works…”) or can be solved more rapidly that way, they also begin to train the kind of thinking that you need to write conditional code and consider how it will function with a variety of inputs. There are also skills like working backwards from a result to determine an input/cause, testing a solution with different inputs to make sure it holds true, etc. — all of which are relevant to coding and all of which come up in the course of solving algebra problems.

Anonymous Coward says:

no, yes, yes

Coding no, that is not something everyone can do, even though anyone could do it.

Economics and statistics are important enough to require education because of their societal and historical value. Along with one other class, teaching people critical thinking and how to avoid classic confidence cons and classic dogma crapped out by all of the “organized” religions of which Science has now become! Every day a skit in class (with real examples) should be shown on how the Government deceitfully weave & constructs law to generate a legal quagmire, where “justice” is purchased and the innocent are shackled.

Today’s education system teaches very little of value. Someone should have said wut? wut? when someone said… we need your children for 8 hours a day! But then again… people really do not think of the children despite the constant cry to do just that!

Anonymous Coward says:

All three are worthy topics to be explored in education for basic functions. Not everyone is cut out to be a programmer, a statistician, or an economic adviser. Just the basics would be enough to tell them whether it is something they wish to explore further. Each topic’s prostars take a certain mentality and application to the subject to get recognition. Many will see no need of this as applicable in their life. To some extent they would be correct.

Much of what is wrong with today’s education system is reflected in what they are not taking the time to teach because they have to prep the students to pass all these battery of tests to ensure they continue to have a job as a teacher. Instead of learning topics, they are learning how to take tests, not exactly the purpose of education.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The only thing more pitiful than someone who can’t write their own Greasemonkey scripts is someone living under the delusion that they don’t want or need to.
The next time a web page does something annoying and you wish you could change the way it worked, please remember that you called that ability “an esoteric skill that most people aren’t interested in and don’t need”.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

On the chance that when you said “you” you meant me specifically, I just wanted to point out that I am perfectly capable of writing greasemonkey scripts.

“The next time a web page does something annoying and you wish you could change the way it worked, please remember that you called that ability “an esoteric skill that most people aren’t interested in and don’t need”.”

I don’t see how your example disproves my thesis that it’s an esoteric skill and most people aren’t interested in and don’t need. It is.

athe says:

Why go to specifics?

For the majority of people, teaching the higher level concepts of a field of study should be sufficient to give said peoe an awareness of the field. Delving into the specifics of one part of that area, e.g. the field of IT, does not a lot for the long term.

If people were taught more of the concepts and how these applied, they could then work to understand the deeper parts as needed/desired.

No broad education could hope to encapsulate every concept, but at least peoe can have that broader scope of knowledge. There is no reason for a Judge to know how to code. It’s the entire reason for domain experts. All the judge need know is which domain expert to seek advice from.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: machine learning

Sure, it sounds like a good idea, but it does not work out that way. Teaching people about how statistics and economics work has value because they are far more complex subjects compared to metadata collection. It would take me magnitudes of far less time proving how metadata can be used to uncover your secrets, compared to showing people how a statistical model or economic model is straight up BS!

With metadata I can directly show… but with the other two I have to start working on correlation vs/does not imply causation and explaining how the two are fundamentally different even though the shit Sherlock Holmes whipped up for a good camp file story is essentially a load of very fancy and often fantastic bullshit!

McDoogle says:

Re: Re: machine learning

I was talking about inferential statistics.

Just as spam filters probabilistically identify emails as being “spam” or not according to various combinations of attributes associated with known historical spam emails – so too could web history, communications data, geospacial data, financial data etc be used to classify citizens by almost any group of interest. At the moment this is likely being done to identify “terrorists” but the same data could just as easily be used to identify political dissidents, Jews, homosexuals, “pirates” etc. The only real limit is the quality and quantity of data available – and whichever random monster happens to be in power at any time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Reading and maths

heh, boolean logic does count but math just is not as important to coding as people make it out to be. I write code all the damn time and rarely have to even break past math more advanced than +-/*. Only people working on advanced physics, movement, trajectory, statistics, or dimensional (talking about 3d not sci-fi) tracking/modeling systems need to use advanced math in their programing which is not common programing.

Ninja (profile) says:

Maybe not coding itself but as Leigh suggested some structured thinking. I like the idea of statistics too but not how it’s taught nowadays (omigod I have 50% chance of getting each side of the coin in a toss!). I think some subjects should be more limited to practical knowledge like chemistry, biology and physics so the colleges and other professionalizing courses can further develop. Politics and social studies should be included along with some DIY. Prepare kids to the world, not to some written test.

DannyB (profile) says:

Kids need to learn real life skills

Don’t waste time teaching kids things that they won’t need in adult life.

High School graduation requirements should require knowing how to:
* use a keyboard
* use Google to locate information
* use important applications like photoshop
* ask some geek to fix their computer
* locate the best torrent sites
* update facebook single handed while driving
* encyclopedic knowledge of dancing with the stars

Groaker (profile) says:

This is truly a problem. Elementary statistics courses are almost always centered around the model of the Bell (normal) curve, which has as a similar relationship to the real world as does Disneyland. It is really impossible to gain a significant understanding of the meaning of statistic analysis without a fair amount of calculus. It is not one or the other that is needed, but both. Algebra, Geometry and Trig (though perhaps not in its present form) are necessary for building a base of mathematics, as well as practical everyday use. Prior to retirement I saw well educated individuals believe that having SAS, SPSS, R or S on their PCs allowed them understand statistics. And finding any statistical test that appears to yield p>0.95 is absolute proof of their hypothesis.

People need an understanding of the sciences. It is an embarrassment to the educational system that such a large percentage of people do not understand evolution, believe that the sun rotates around the earth or that the killed flu vaccine can cause flu.

History, and the arts are also grossly neglected. Few graduate college understanding that the US is a violent and aggressor nation, believing instead that our nation is peace loving and a champion of human rights.

Few have any appreciation for the arts, except those which grind out a loud beat approximating the heart rate.

Just where in curricula, is there sufficient time to delve into meaningful studies of the enormous amount of human knowledge?

And as human knowledge expands exponentially, the problem only becomes worse.

T Teshima (profile) says:

Everything old is new again

Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember when there was a huge push to teach kids how to code, using logo and basic. Yes, I’m that old, but the same arguments were used back then as are being used now. Learning to code doesn’t magically teach you how to be more logical or analytical. It just teaches you how to code. Back then they found there really wasn’t any carry over between coding and other forms of analytical thinking. Coding teaches you how to code. Not how to be a better problem solver. Now you can teach problem solving, and many of the things that people are addressing in the comments are addressed in the new common core standards. I just think this emphasis on coding is a big red herring. Teach kids how to problem solve, using math and reading skills, and you come out with a more adaptable, flexible, smarter student.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Everything old is new again

A million times this.

It would be much preferable to teach the underlying, basic concepts that are required to be a software engineer than actual coding, particularly since those concepts are identical to the ones needed for a whole bunch of other fields that have nothing to do with computers. Not to mention that they’re needed in everyday adult life.

These concepts include: critical thinking, symbolic logic, how to structure your thoughts, how to make a plan, etc.

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