Don’t teach your kids to be coders
It won’t save them from the robot apocalypse
Never underestimate the power of a good acronym.
In 2001 the then assistant director of education and human resources at the National Science Foundation put STEM on the map. Previously, the shorthand for all things scientific, mathematical, engineering, and technical was the inelegantly sequenced and exceptionally uninspiring SMET (which, frankly, sounds like the emoji you’d use after eating Tide Pods.)
But since the rebranding, STEM has taken over the education world. During the first ever White House Science Fair, in 2010, President Obama declared, “We ought to celebrate science fair winners at least as much as Super Bowl winners,” and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to improving STEM in U.S. schools. Now, there are oodles of STEM classes, STEM books, podcasts, blogs, YouTube channels, and of course, lots and lots of STEM toys.
These days, everything from wooden stacking toys to deconstructable dinosaur guns gets a STEM sticker. But the toys that get the most attention are the toys that profess to teach kids coding. From CoderBunnyz to Code-A-Pillars, toy companies are producing veritable robot menageries to assuage parental anxiety about the future. Because the one message that seems to have filtered through all the STEM-based noise is that, above all else, we must teach children how to think like coders. It is the literacy of the information age: Without it, your children will be left behind.
I’m here to tell you that’s wrong.
I’m a doctor of anthropology and a mother of two kids. My job as an anthropologist has always been to understand not just what people do but why they do it; to explore what factors constrain or drive the choices people make and how those factors, in turn, drive the kind of world we build for ourselves.
Coding is a useful skill, and for people who do it at the highest levels, it’s an art. But it is not the most important skill we can teach our children. It is not the skill that will protect our children from the uncertainties of an increasingly turbulent future.
So, don’t teach your children how to think like computers. Teach them to think like the people who invented computers in the first place.
Teach them to see beyond their immediate surroundings. Teach them to envision a world that looks nothing like the one they currently inhabit and teach them to imagine what it might take to get there.
In short — teach them curiosity.
Curiosity is what leads to exploration, discovery and knowledge. With sufficient curiosity, and a little grit, our kids will be prepared to take on the world, no matter what the world throws back at them.
Luckily, insatiable curiosity is every kid’s superpower. They’re born with an innate desire to learn and understand why things work the way they do. If you’ve ever had a kid take you down the endless rabbit hole of “Why?” you know it’s true. So, our job as parents and educators is to nurture our kids’ curiosity by giving them the tools they need to explore and create the world around them. What I’ve seen, is that when we give kids better tools, they make better choices.
(This is why, not at all incidentally, I’ve created a toy race car to give kids the best tool I can think of to get them building, playing, exploring and thinking in a hands-on, endlessly customizable way.)
Because, it’s not about getting the right answer; it’s about asking the right questions.
To code is to problem solve. You are trying to get X to happen in Y way using Z constraints. It requires you to see the solution to the problem first. Then conceptually work backwards to reverse engineer that solution. Then build each step on the ladder to reaching that solution. Oh — and do it in an alien language.
When we set out to teach kids coding, too often we set out to teach them the alien language but fail to teach them the critical and abstract thinking skills that will enable them to write poetry in that language.
But when we teach science, technology, engineering, and math as interconnected disciplines that build on and bolster one another, we empower kids to be curious interconnected thinkers. We give them the power to ask the right questions so they can use a whole host of tools to solve a whole host of problems.
Good programmers are, first and foremost, good thinkers.
Good thinkers see the interconnectedness of the world around them. They see how art relates to science relates to history relates to math relates to music. They see how I relate to you and why my actions impact your life. Why the tools I build can radically alter your life for good or ill. And they see why that matters.
So teach your kids to read and sing and dig and dance and explore and build and break and create and, yes, teach them to code. But before all else, teach them to think.
Dr. Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson is an anthropologist, confectionary roboticist, and mother of two. She is a regular speaker on UX design and testing; the challenges for girls in STEM education; the understandings of gender that infuse how we encourage children’s play; and the complexities of crowdfunding and crowd-investing. She and RaceYa have been featured in multiple publications including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Alley Watch, and on Good Morning America, PBS, and Cheddar TV.