You have probably read articles about how important it is that today’s kids to learn to code. Perhaps you’ve introduced your own children to some of the excellent tutorials from Hour of Code. Maybe they have played with Scratch (the MIT Media Lab’s great platform that makes coding accessible to kids) or Tynker (which offers online coding courses aimed at kids).
But are the coding skills that kids learn from these places really useful? Or are adults kidding themselves—rationalizing the use of screen-based pacifiers in order to assuage parental guilt? Is coding, in fact, the language of the future? Or is it a specialized skill, useful to some people but useless to others?
In today’s economy, we can point to an entire generation of coder-millionaires. Like frontiersmen and early American colonists, those who learned to speak the language of computers beat the rest of us to the gold rush. But remember that while the first generation of gold barons made their fortunes with a pick axe, future speculators soon looked like delusional treasure hunters.
Certainly, computers will remain central to future economies. But will kids who don’t know how to code find themselves at an extreme disadvantage in the economy of the future? I don’t think so. I suspect that writing code will quickly become low-wage labor—first outsourced to underpaid workers in developing countries, and eventually performed by A.I. engines that write all but the most complicated scripts.
I have no doubt, however, that the sophistication with which one understands how computers process digital information will be one of the primary prerequisites for professional success. Therefore, when I think about how to equip my own children with the kind of tech literacy that I think will prepare them to participate in a global information economy, I don’t focus exclusively on coding skills.
Scratch, Tynker, and Hour of Code. They understand how code works. But I’m not pushing them toward comprehensive mastery of Python, Java, or HTML. Instead, I think about their digital futures in precisely the same way that I believe all schools should think about educating our children: equip young people with technological agency; make sure they know how to apply their critical thinking, entrepreneurial, creative, and social skills by wielding digital tools.
To do so, all kids will need an introduction to coding—not so that they are able to code, but rather so that they are capable of truly grasping these five fundamentals.
- Mathematical understanding of algorithms. The world now places its faith in algorithms. Social media, search, education, and entertainment are all determined by algorithms. But algorithms have their strengths and their weaknesses. If tomorrow’s adults don’t understand precisely how algorithms use mathematics to process data, they won’t understand which part of life’s processes are best executed algorithmically and which require human decision makers.
- Understanding Data Analytics. There is hardly an industry left where advanced data analytics hasn’t begun to provide some people with a competitive advantage. But most of us, even when presented with numbers and metrics, have little understanding of how to analyze data—we’re guessing. Meanwhile companies that use predictive algorithms (which utilize complex data) are disrupting entire sectors. Tomorrow’s most successful adults will be the ones who are able to imagine innovative ways to analyze data.
- Global Economics. With digital information technologies we are not only able to interact with people all over the globe, we are required to do so. In order to be prepared for a future in which information is one of the key commodities, our children will need to understand how digital technologies impact a global economy. For example, they need to understand the ramifications of Bitcoin. They need to be able to consider both the economic benefits and drawbacks of services like Uber and AirBnB. They need to be equipped to think critically about revenue models we haven’t even imagined yet.
- Critical Media Literacy. Just like television, the internet is full of advertising, questionable images, sponsored journalism, hidden sales pitches, and more. There are representations of race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. There are memes that present particular narratives about happiness, success, and intelligence. If tomorrow’s adults aren’t able to acquire the necessary distance to think objectively about the ideas promoted by digital media, they won’t have the autonomy to make their own decisions. Of course, this kind of critical literacy is dependent on understanding how algorithms work, how data is analyzed, and how economies influence ideas.
- Entrepreneurship and creativity. If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that we really don’t know much about the economy of the future. We can only guess which skills will be most valuable. Since we can’t train our children so that they are equipped with skills that we still haven’t imagined, we must equip them to be creative and entrepreneurial. They must be flexible and adaptable. They must be able to discover opportunities and learn they must know how to identify and learn the skills necessary to thrive.