The False Choice of Cursive Versus Coding - 1

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The False Choice of Cursive Versus Coding - 1
This opinion is completely devil's advocate for me. As I've been spending the last few months digging down into how we could and should teach entrepreneurism, I've been investigating how we teach coding and technology in both elementary school and high school.

I also have three kids under 10, and I'm teaching all of them how to code.

But I'm beginning to wonder if we're doing it wrong.

To disclaim, I've been on board with calling out the critical need for more STEM education, specifically more technology and coding skills, for years. I'm of the generation where from eighth grade until my junior year, I was the ONLY kid in my high school's computer class.

By the way, do you have any idea how alienating that is? It's a total miracle I'm not more messed up.

Where you lose me is the argument of how pitiful and morally wrong it is that we still teach kids cursive but not coding, a false choice that reached a collective fever pitch with this article in The Week.

The same argument was made with Latin probably 30 years ago, and when Latin fell by the wayside (I remember it was still an elective just before I got to high school), there was still no coding in its wake.

The problem -- namely the dearth of U.S.-bred qualified technical wranglers for hire -- isn't exclusively due to a lack of awareness, nor is it the fact that we can't squeeze coding class into a day filled with the dead languages of cursive, music, art, P.E., and nap time.

If anything, the problem is about the process. We're tripping all over ourselves trying to put kids in front of iPads while we haven't the first idea of how coding should be taught prior to a solid understanding of reading comprehension, basic math, advanced cognitive skills, and, let's face it, basic business.

For the record, I very much believe coding should be taught, as early as first grade, but not by sitting a kid in front of a laptop.

This is akin to teaching a kid music by giving him or her a Beatles record and a tuba and saying, "Here you go. Make something beautiful." Or better yet, considering the Internet, giving a kid a scalpel and an anatomically correct doll and asking them where they think they should make the first incision.

Who would do something like that?

Well, in the name of a skills gap, this is where we're headed. Cursive can't and shouldn't be replaced with Java. Coding is so much more than syntax, and if I tell you that in order for your kid to truly grasp the concepts of coding, you better spend a few weeks with him or her on the concepts of object orientation and relational databases, you might not be so enthused.

It's so much easier to find a tutorial for making a video game or plopping them down on Code Academy.

Believe me, I've been there. That doesn't teach coding.

Teaching coding should not be a cart before the horse (to use a dreadfully dated phrase) situation. There's no need to drastically rewrite core education to get our kids up to speed on tech.

But I will tell you this: Concepts of statistics, economics, finance, and algebra that already exist in the curriculum need to be emphasized and moved up, possibly to third grade or sooner. Softer skills like pattern recognition, communication, language mastery, and recall need to be amplified in all existing subjects.

Coding is a way to use complex language skills to manipulate the binary nature of machines, just like we use language to trigger mutual understanding in our machine-like brains. Computer languages have nouns and verbs, there is context, there are rules to syntax and style.

Which is everything a kid learns when learning cursive.

And maybe Latin wasn't such a waste after all. I don't know. It wasn't available when I got to high school. Ironically, as Blake Callens pointed out in this excellent article about teaching coding at the college level, local computer science curricula still teach dead languages like FORTRAN. I assume for those very same structural reasons.

For over thirty years we've been trying to teach coding via repetition, cause and effect, and "hey-isn't-that-neat" motivation. We don't teach kids to be doctors by taking them on a field trip to an operating theater. We start with basic science and then basic biology and chemistry, and if I'm not mistaken they're still slicing up frogs at some point. Why are we still hacking away at frogs instead of handing kids surgical lasers?


We've learned that there's a lot more to being a doctor than surgery. We need to connect those same dots in technology and apply those advanced concepts to their core counterparts.