What children need

Last night I had dinner with a friend who just comes back from China. He told me: “A few years ago, there were many English tutorial classes for children in China. It seemed every Chinese family wanted their children to learn English. Now, guess what is the most popular class there?” Of course, I could not guess so he explained: “Today, the most popular class for children is programming. It seems every Chinese family wants their children to learn to write code.”

I was surprised: “Why do they want young children to learn to write code?.” He continued: “Today smartphones and mobile apps are very popular, and software jobs are “Hot” so many parents are sending their children to “Coding school” and hope that when they grow up they can get a good job. You can see young children carrying a tablet or laptop everywhere. The spread of coding class is all over China now. There is never been a trend that happens so fast. The threat of Artificial intelligence and robots in the manufacturing sector have created a lot of fear in China today. People saw millions of workers lost their jobs and high unemployment is reaching a critical level. There is a panic all over China about the Fourth Industrial Revolution where robots will take over most of the jobs.”

Image: Internet

I asked: “What programming languages are they teaching? He explained: “The “Coding school” for young children comes with a lot of variations. Some teach Java and Swift and others Python and C++ but it is not clear that learning how to code now could guarantee a better future since technologies change fast. However, most parents do not want to wait, they rather send their children to learn how to code now than live with uncertainty because the picture is clear that the “glory time” of low labor cost in the factories are over. Every day, Chinese newspapers keep mention about the fourth revolution and its impacts. Of course, many Coding schools also take advantage over the fear that without programming skills, there is no job and no future.”

I asked: “How old are these students to begin Coding schools?” He laughed: “Some parents would start their children when they are three or four but it varies depending on the school. Parents love the idea of giving children something to do to keep them busy. Young children are going to English school and Coding school after their regular school so there is a lot of schooling for these children. Today every family is afraid of artificial intelligence and robots and they want to make sure their children will have a better future. There is a competition among families for sending their children to these schools. If your child is not going to English and Coding schools then there is something wrong with the family. Not long ago, parents are afraid that their children play too much video games, but today if children are learning to code, they are happy. Coding is big right now all over China, from small town to big cities, there are thousands of “Coding schools” opening to meet the demand with advertising like “If your children cannot code, they will NOT have a future.”

I lamented: “Even I believe that children need to learn about technologies but this is a wrong direction. There are much more important for them to learn at a younger age than coding. By sending them to coding school after regular school, it takes away the precious time of parents to interact with their children to teach them essential life skills such as values, attitudes, ethics, morals, and responsibility. In my view, for young children age of 3 to 7, it would be better for parents to interact with their children, and if needed, they can teach them programming using simple languages such as Scratch, Blocky or Alice at home. Even parents do not know about coding, they can still teach Scratch with pictures and simple modules. Young children need to learn how to read and explore many things with their parents because there are more important things for them to learn than how to code.”

He seemed surprised: “Why do you think they do not need to learn computer programing?” I explained: “Coding is only a small part of the digital knowledge called “Computational thinking.” To learn digital knowledge they need to explore and understand how to analyze problems, decompose complex problems into manageable pieces, thinking logica lly, (i.e. abstraction and algorithmic thinking) and solving problems. Computational thinking is an essential capability for every student and it is the foundation of all technologies today and the future. Coding is the application of this knowledge, it instructs the computer to perform certain tasks based on computational thinking. The reason I think learning how to code at an early age is premature because languages will change and evolve but computational thinking will remain unchanged because it is the foundation. It is better for children to learn to explore, to discover, to read and build a strong interest in learning where they can develop the ability to analyze, to reason, to logically come to a decision and solve problems. It is just like to learn about numbers in arithmetic before learning calculus, formulas, and equations.”

He asked: “Then what do you suggest? I explained: “Learning to code at a young age is NOT a guarantee for the future. Instead of a focus on coding, every parent needs to look at the larger picture of developing intellectual knowledge. They need to help their children to develop an interest in learning by spending the time with them, reading books with them, get them interested in several fields from science to technology and math. When they grow up, they can choose whatever fields they are interested in, that will be their choice. Forcing them to learn to write code may have a negative effect and make the afraid of code when they grow up. We have seen evidence of college students who hate math because they are forced to learn math when they were young. The best way is to help them to develop lifelong learning skills and know how to use digital devices, children will have a lot of time to learn whatever they need as they grow up, as long as they like to learn.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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