One of the many news sources I read to stay up-to-date on world affairs is The Guardian, a popular newspaper out of England, and this headline caught my eye over the weekend: New national curriculum to introduce fractions to five-year-olds. Read on just a bit more, and reporter Richard Adams explains that the final version of the new UK National Education Curriculum also includes 5yo children writing computer programs.
Now maybe it’s just me, but isn’t that insanely young for these children to start being exposed to this sort of content? Fractions really aren’t that critical even in terms of learning, well, critical thinking and problem solving skills, and requiring children to not only spend time with computers but learn how to program them is something that I don’t think has a place at the lower grades at all, let alone in first grade.
Five year olds programming. Yikes.
Here’s the problem: As computers get more sophisticated, it’s a sign of the industry’s maturity that we don’t need to be programmers to work effectively. Computers are themselves also evolving at a rapid pace, as is immediately obvious if you’ve watched tablet sales , checked out the remarkable range of innovative designs showing up in the Ultrabook family or been watching the rise of fitness monitoring devices and the pending explosion of smart watches to compliment our pocket computers (aka smart phones).
The average computer user can be both productive and effective without ever going near simple scripting tasks in documents, let alone actual software development, and if you project forward even just a few years, by the time these 5yo children are heading off to college, computers will be integrated into our daily existence, wearable, functional, always online, always part of the greater technological web around us. It’ll be the rare person who will need to develop software and if they do? They’ll be using tools and languages that aren’t even invented yet.
Want the analog? How many people program PostScript to make their printers output exactly what they want? None. Right. Because the technology has evolved to the point where we just send our Web pages, our documents, our spreadsheets to the device and it comes out perfect. Every time. Without any programming involved.
But in the UK, education secretary Michael Gove has decided that the little ‘uns need to learn how to program. Meaning that, most likely, instead of being outside running around, playing a quick game of soccer or learning how to be members of a healthy social community, they’ll be required to stare at a computer and learn how to live in a digital world instead. And that’s a win?
One of the primary purposes of public education has always been to create workers (originally factory workers, but that’s changed as manufacturing has slowly moved out to third world nations), and the description of the national curriculum as related to computing really leaves no doubt that’s still front and center:
“Computing: primary school children to design, test and write computer programs, and to organise, store and retrieve data. All pupils to be taught Internet safety from the age of five, including how to keep their personal details private, how to spot danger, and how to communicate safely through the Internet.
“At secondary school, pupils will be taught to use a range of programming languages. They will study networked computer systems, and how hardware and software interact. Pupils interested in pursuing a professional career in computing will be given the opportunity to study in greater depth.”
I think that a more rigorous curriculum is a good idea at any public school, but there are fundamental problems with education that need to be addressed that involve more than what bullet points are in the textbook on today’s standardized lesson, and making school more and more difficult without addressing the other issues is going to backfire, creating a generation of frustrated, unsuccessful drop-outs who rather than taking their place as productive young citizens when they matriculate instead are left wondering why the system didn’t ultimately help them grow up into happy and successful members of society.