The Coding Kids Fallacy

Beta Antunes thinks that children should learn to write programs. Speaking as a professional developer and father of three, I think this is utter nonsense.

I don’t want to pick on Beta specifically, but her article does contain a lot of the silver bullet thinking that makes articles like this so incoherent.

So here goes.

The article starts with the observation that software is everywhere, which is true enough. Beta also makes the obvious point that that coding skills are essential. Clearly, all of this code needs to be maintained, but the next sentence in the article strikes me as a pretty unjustified assertion:

The question that remains should not be “why?” but “how?” How can I inspire my child to learn to code, when should I start, and what are the many benefits?

There’s much to unpick here, starting with: why shouldn’t the question be “why”? Or, more to the point, what do you think you are going to achieve by pushing your kids into coding classes?

Software development is an increasingly specialised set of disciplines and being proficient in one area does not make you even competent in another. For example, I make a living from developing and maintaining interfaces between the large and often unwieldy applications large companies use to run their business, and I think I am pretty good at what I do. But you would not want to let me loose on a self-driving car. Ever.

So the fact that software is everywhere is a bit of a red-herring because most people do not look at most source code. While it is useful to have a broad understanding of how applications and how best to use them, being able to write a specific type of application using a specific set of languages and tools isn’t going to help you.

But it gets worse:

It is the parent’s job to encourage children’s interests and help them develop life skills. My personal philosophy is to start children coding early, and make it fun!

Again with the unjustified jump from the obvious to the nonsense. Of course the parents have a responsibility to encourage children’s interests and develop life skills. Writing programs is not a life skill, and since Beta is making the assertion without any justification, I shall refute it without any justification.

As we all know, learning by doing is much more impactful. Children are innately curious and love to explore. They love discovery… picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them, and asking why?

“Picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them.” Notice how these are all physical ways of interacting with the world and, therefore, completely irrelevant to the point of beta’s article.

Children are curious and it is far better to let them follow their interests. Trying to force them into following your interests is a surefire way of killing stone dead any curiosity they might have had.

And the rest of the article follows much the same pattern: A statement of the obvious followed by an unsupported assertion about the value of coding. My irony meter almost broke when I got to the claim that coding teaches logical thinking — it clearly didn’t for Beta.

I have three sons and, over the years, they have planted and grown fruit and vegetables, helped build a compost bin, chopped wood, built (Lego and Meccano) robots, helped build a chicken run, played games, watched films, talked film, read books, helped care for animals, designed games, built machines, and much more. Whenever we do something, we involve the boys, finding them things that they can and want to do, allowing them to organise tasks among themselves and encouraging them to take pride in their achievements.

By doing this, we are (hopefully) encouraging them to recognise that the world is full of interesting things — both to see and to do — and teaching them to compete gracefully, co-operate effectively and to do things well. These are skills that are transferable to pretty much any walk of life, any career and any hobby.

We are also demonstrating that some things are worth doing for their own sake, and not because there is some monetary reward attached to it.

Children are individuals and each has his or her own interests. The role of the parent is to encourage those interests, not ride roughshod over them in pursuit of some mythical panacea.

2 thoughts on “The Coding Kids Fallacy

  1. That’s well written and analyzed. I agree with you on your points. Honestly, if the kid wants to code he or she will be go there on their own, it doesn’t take the parent to introduce, or encourage, or prompt them toward it. And that goes for everything.

    I noticed my son sometimes looks at source code when fooling around on the web. I told him too that when I was pregnant with him I took a technical writing class and we were taught HTML (this goes back 14 years). My assignment was to create a dentist website using only HTML. I got an A+ (highest grade in Canada) and realized I quite like doing things like that. But beyond that, I didn’t push. And he didn’t want to know more (and I doubt HTML is even used much as anymore…)

    So. We shall see what high school will bring for him. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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