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Teaching children to write computer programs is not enough - we need to teach them to write GOOD com

Despite its growing prominence in today’s and tomorrow’s job markets, computer coding, or programming, is still poorly understood by many. Some think programmers only make websites and apps, others believe they hack into government computer systems and create computer viruses, and some still believe the stereotype of a programmer: male, mid-twenties, badly dressed, up all night staring at a couple of computer screens.

Another common misconception is that learning to code is the same as learning the syntax of a programming language. This is as wrong as the expectation that a good knowledge of English grammar is sufficient to write a compelling novel. The key skill in programming is to structure your thoughts first, and then your computer code. Novice programmers often believe mistakenly that if their code ran without the computer complaining of an error, then it must be correct.

As programming is being introduced in schools, it is clear that not all schools are equally equipped to teach their students how to code. How many teachers write computer code on a daily basis? Not many. How many are proficient at testing and debugging code? We need to teach our children how to write computer programs — this is mostly an uncontroversial statement. But more importantly we need to teach them how to write good computer programs, choosing the right data types for each task, structuring the program in an efficient manner and using programming good practices that might not matter too much in simple programs but that will make all the difference when they start writing longer and more complex code.

We need people who code everyday in their lives to get involved more in teaching children in schools. It is neither realistic nor desirable to outsource the teaching of coding entirely to professional programmers. Instead schools can find a balance between having programmers deliver workshops a few times a year and teachers building on that during the rest of the school year. Such workshops will benefit both students and teachers, and if programmers and teachers can find a good synergy then such a hybrid system would deliver the best possible environment for children to become good coders. Of course not all programmers are well-suited for such a task, but there are many programmers with a passion for passing on their knowledge and with the ability to communicate clearly.

We want our children to know how to code well so that they can grow up to become those who create the future, not just be part of it.


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