Early last October, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, made an express visit to France while promoting the latest iPhones.One of his public statements launched a myriad of comments and criticism.
“Learning to code is more important than English”
Despite France’s glee at the “more important than English” bit, most comments were negative. They ranged from “why not stop all subjects altogether then?” to “don’t force all kids to become programmers”. But what did Tim Cook really mean by that?
What does learning English bring?
Learning a foreign language opens up one’s mind. It redefines mental structures to comply with a different frame of mind. This is true of any language. With English, the benefits extend to being able to trade with anyone and communicate easily worldwide. In a country like France, lacking English skills is now a hinderance when applying for a job.
What does coding teach?
This is when most code-haters stopped their analysis far too early.
Sure, a good coder can work in the computer industry. But not all kids learning code will choose that path.
What do they learn while studying code?
Steve Jobs, 20 years ago, said “learning to code is learning to think”. Mitchel Resnik (MIT Media Lab) deemed it the “new literacy”.
Logical Thinking and Creativity
Coding has this rare advantage of developping both logical thinking and creativity. It enhances problem solving skills while encouraging fluid thinking. Continuity and storytelling skills are also involved.
Breaking down the problem in single action steps will help crush bugs. In the meantime, thriving to find the most efficient code will challenge out-of-the-box thinking.
That makes for a powerful combination, useful in many fields.
Kids learning code are not isolated. They work in teams to make their program. Learning to work with an individual who might find a different way to solve the problem demands social skills. Teamwork could well be one of the most precious assets in a professional world and gains from being developped as early as primary school.
French school favors individual endeavour. Do not look at the neighbors’ paper, compete, make your own way to the best grades. Third tier kids get often left behind.
The coding school 42 has pushed the concept of teamwork furthest: learners are together like all the time. They can rely on mutual help whenever needed which would be same as in the workplace in a team of coders. Why teach kids to work alone when they’ll probably never be in that configuration in their grown up life?
If there is one vital matter missing from the French curriculum, it’s learning how to learn. Kids are told to “learn that text by next Tuesday” but are never guided on how to do it. This drives adults to stick to their acquired knowledge but not to seek new skills by themselves.
The French adults are quite behind in lifelong learning. Many don’t know how to get back to learning. Only 43% of adults are involved in some kind of training: this is among the lowest figures of the OECD countries. When 50% of our future jobs don’t yet exist, being able to update our skills is major to stay in the game.
Coding is not a static subject. As anything in the computer world, it evolves, upgrades, mutates. It pushes coders to find solutions, keep up with novelties, know where to find support. They are not expected to know it all but to know where to find and learn the critical pieces of information. Lifelong learning starts here.
The right to be wrong
The French school system resents failure. It’s only been very recently that we see posters in the primary school classrooms stating that “it’s ok to make a mistake”. Mistakes mean bad grades. They are not used as starting points for improvement. It may not be surprising to see that French kids, in the last PISA report (dating 2015), are among the most stressed out students in the OECD countries.
When coding, mistakes are an integrate part of the process: write, execute, notice a bug, look for solution, correct code, execute again, repeat process. Mistakes are not a problem, they’re part of the solution. It’s surprising to see those kids – who do not try by fear of failing – take pleasure in squashing their own bugs in a code. They move from “trial & error” to “test & improve”. An error in the code is not an end in itself, it’s a beginning.
So when Tim Cook said coding was more important than English, he probably didn’t mean to stop learning English altogether to become geeks. But rather, take advantage of all the side skills provided by learning how to code. Skills which might prove surprisingly valuable in any situation and any jobs.
So, who’s buying their kids a Raspberry Pi or a Cozmo this Christmas?