Kids don’t need to know how to program computers

My friend Brad Feld has an interesting article on his blog asking Where has BASIC gone? He’s talking specifically about what programming language to use when teaching children how to program, but what I kept thinking about subsequent to reading his article is why most children don’t need to learn programming.
Note that I’m not saying that interested kids shouldn’t learn to program if they’re so inclined, but taking a “left turn” from what Brad wrote and am talking instead about whether all kids need to learn programming or not?
To position this well and state my biases, we are a 99% media free household and our children don’t have their own TVs, own computers, Gameboys, Sony PSP’s etc. In fact, they don’t even have live electrical plugs in their rooms. Just kidding on that last bit!
I’ve often been surprised by what I hear from people both in the tech industry and the general public who seem to believe that all children should learn how to program and that computers should be an integral part of the classroom starting with first grade, if not kindergarten. No surprise, I disagree with that quite strongly!

Let me explain by starting with an analogy…
We all agree that somewhere along their journey children should learn how to drive cars, right? Probably not when they’re eight, but in their mid-teens, children need to learn basic driver’s ed. But what is drivers education? Safety and basic rules of the road. What they don’t need to learn is how an internal combustion engine works or how to tune the engine settings to get more performance from the vehicle.
When we get to computers, however, many parents and educators believe that all children should learn how to program, which is the digital equivalent of learning how the engine works in a car. Where are the “safe computing” courses, the “how to avoid creeps on the Internet” classes, the “rules of the digital road” workshops where children learn how to work with computers, how to run a virus check or install a new piece of software?
My point is that the zeal to learn programming is misguided, just as the desire to wire up all classrooms onto the Internet is misguided. Go and talk with teachers in K-12 schools and you’ll find that precious few of them have any useful training on computers, on how to properly utilize the Web, and – most importantly – how to appropriately integrate computers into the existing school curriculum. The kids enjoy a new toy distraction in the classroom, but does it actually help learning?
What do you think? Do you let your children use computers when they’re young? Do you think that they need to learn how to program the computer so that they’ll be efficient users down the road?

2 comments on “Kids don’t need to know how to program computers

  1. My children are 2 and 4, and they occasionally see their parents use the computer, and rarely as a treat we Google pictures of animals for them.
    But they are way too young to be sitting still in front of a computer. We tell them that computers are for grownups, which they accept. They see kids using computers at the library, but so far they haven’t made a big deal over it.
    We don’t try to demonize technology, we just say it’s not for them. They will be going to Waldorf school where they will not encounter computers, if at all, until high school.
    Programming languages are just another type of foreign language, except you are talking to a computer, not another person. But it’s so abstract that I can’t see how it would help children.
    I took a brief programming glass in grade school as part of a gifted student program. It made no impression on me as far as wanting to use computers or understanding them better.
    I don’t think learning to program would help anyone be a more efficient computer user. The only time I have ever used that kind of knowledge in 15 years of computer use is HTML for my blog! As far as I can tell, using a computer easily and proficiently has almost nothing to do with the code behind the interface.

  2. My kids are all grown now (20, 21 and 24). But my grand daughter turns 2 soon and she and her parents live with me. So I’m interested in seeing how her generation sees computers.
    I did get my oldest a Mac when he started to show some interest in computers. But he learned to use it as a tool to help with writing papers, etc. He learned HTML so he could create a web site for his high school. But when I gave him a programming book, it didn’t take too longer for him to figure out that it wasn’t for him.
    I’ve never even thought about trying to get my younger kids to do that. They started getting exposed to the web in high school and used it to do research. So I did buy them small systems.
    Right now, my youngest is in Iraq. He has a laptop with him and does have access to the internet often. He and his sister chat. He emails his mom and grandma.
    It has been a big help in keeping in touch as he is very restricted as to when he can call home.
    They grew up with the technology and are comfortable with using it as a tool. And that is fine.
    I’ve got three nephews ages 12, 8 and 4. We bought some reference books for them. But my sister-in-law says that they use the web for everything. That is a too bad. They need diversity.
    If I had not been exposed to BASIC while still in high school (no Dave… I didn’t learn on an abacas), I might never have gone into this profession. But very few of the kids who took that course did go this route. It was an elective, not a required course.
    Too much of anything is bad. Moderation is what is needed.
    While my kids are grown now, I help coach an ice hockey team of high school age kids. I often think this is the ONLY exercise some of them get.
    Too many kids spend too much time in front of a TV, computer of game system and not enough time outside or just learning how to play with others.

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