Opposition Leader Bill Shorten asked the Prime Minister to commit to teaching coding in every primary school. Prime Minister Abbott’s nonsensical response was ,”He says that he wants primary school kids to be taught coding so that they can get the jobs of the future. Does he want to send them all out to work at the age of 11? Is that what he wants to do?”
The Prime Minister’s response shows how woefully out of touch he is with the modern world and what education is about.
I’ve had a close relationship with education for much of my work life. I started my career as a secondary school teacher back in the 1990s. I’ve got three kids who have attended both state and independent schools and worked as the IT manager at a large independent school. I’ve served on school council and have contributed to education-focused publications.
None of these means I have all the answers. But I have seen, read and discussed enough to be able to offer some informed opinions.
1. Not all education is vocational
The Prime Minister’s comments suggest skills like coding are taught with a specific vocational outcome in mind. I learned macramé, cooking, algebra, chemistry and a bunch of other skills.
What was the point of those classes? Macramé wasn’t about starting a hanging basket business. It was about patience and fine motor control. Algebra isn’t about preparing the next generation of mathematicians. It’s about teaching abstract problem solving and logic skills. English isn’t about memorising Hamlet’s famous soliloquy – it’s about analysis, communicating ideas and reading for insight.
The benefits of teaching coding a much broader than creating a nation of programmers. It’s about skills that can be applied across many other disciplines. Problem solving, logical thinking and following system rules are valuable, cross-functional skills.
2. We lag the world in STEM
Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are important skills that all economies need. The Communicationds Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, recently said, “Of our 600,000 workers in ICT, more than half work outside the traditional ICT sector. Seventy-five percent of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills, but only half of Year 12 students are studying science; that’s down from 94 percent 20 years ago. That is really a retrograde development, and we have to turn that around.”
The Prime Minister seems to think programming is a narrow field. I’ve worked with accountants, HR professionals and myriad other ‘non-technical’ fields and almost all of them rely on some sort of programming. Whether that’s in spreadsheets, either creating complex formulae or macros, or for databases, or other tools, there is a dearth of skills.
3. In a data-rich world, these skills give insight
Learning how to solve technical problems is, arguably, the key skill we expect from the workers of tomorrow. We live in an increasingly data rich world. But we could end up insight poor unless we develop the software engineering skills to look into data and discern useful insights.
4. It’s fun
Some may argue that art is the wrong word.
I used to hate art at school. I was a hopeless artist – I couldn’t draw, paint or sculpt to save my life. Those so-called fun classes weren’t fun at all for me. Creating interesting programs, robots and tools by solving problems is an art. And it’s a lot of fun.
It would seem our Prime Minister doesn’t really understand the modern world and the skills that will be needed by individuals and the nation to thrive in the new world. Coding or software development aren’t about creating lines of code – they’re about solving problems using rules, logic, insight and creativity.
When he gets that, there may be a chance of a rational debate about developing these skills in students as early as possible.