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Robert priceShould we teach computer programming to children?

This question bounces around in the news and among technophiles who worry about things like coding. They worry Canada won’t be competitive if we don’t teach children how to write software. They worry we won’t have gender parity in the tech industry if we don’t teach young girls how to code.

The worry, op-eds and lobbying will continue until educators, tired of the constant debate, finally cave to the demands of technophiles and institute mandatory coding classes. For girls especially.

But let’s set aside the self-interest of the pro-code lobby and return to the question: Should we teach coding to grade schoolers?

I defer to what I’ll call the Dessert Principle: You can have dessert, but only after you finish eating everything on your plate.

The meal that elementary schools have yet to eat includes heaping portions of reading, writing and arithmetic. Ontario has logged double-digit failure rates in standardized math tests. Reading appears to be, at least anecdotally, an increasingly rarefied activity. And as somebody who teaches writing, I can testify that plenty of students – more than you’d want to believe – make it into post-secondary without knowing how to write a sentence.

Parental concerns about their child’s job prospects can wait at least until the young ones can ride the bus home alone. Mission One should be to fortify the foundation. Teach literacy – reading, writing, numeracy.

This position may sound old fashioned. It is, and intentionally so.

Education reforms that deviate from the centrality of reading, writing and arithmetic deviate from the entire purpose of elementary-level schooling, which is to prepare students to live in the reality of the world. And not just to live in reality but to love reality, which is another way of saying to love truth or to love knowledge.

Educators can ask a dozen questions about how to spend class time, like “Should kids code?” and “How many hours should we spend teaching children about sex and gender?” But the question of ultimate importance for educators is: How do we inculcate a love of reality in children?

This isn’t a question to reserve for fourth-year philosophy classes. It’s essential to getting to that fourth-year philosophy class in the first place – and to living well even if you take a pass on a degree in philosophy.

To love reality, a person needs to encounter reality and be dazzled by its wonders. This means spending time with what’s real and learning the tools we use to access reality. The component parts of those tools are numbers and language.

Try as we might, we can’t get around the fact that schools need to teach the three Rs. And what strategies do we have to teach them well?

The first strategy involves celebrating the child’s intelligence. Or simply, not to insult the child’s intelligence. Educators belittle themselves and their students when they remove the challenge from schooling, like when they swap out “difficult” books with easier and less interesting texts, or convince themselves that teaching essential skills, like the memorization of multiplication tables, discourages a child. It probably will discourage them – until they get it. Then they’ll be confident.

The second strategy puts teachers at the centre of the classroom. They must not cede their position to Internet tutorials or “educational” video games. Like desert dwellers sealing the windows to keep the dust out, teachers must keep distractions out of the classroom. Say no to movies and no to screens. No to time-wasting school assemblies. No to anything hyped as “innovative.”

The good teachers know that, as hard as it may seem at times, they must never communicate cynicism about the course material. To make such an error is to open the window in the middle of a sandstorm. They know their job is to love what they teach, and who they teach, and to spend long days demystifying the mysterious.

So should we teach coding to grade schoolers?

No. Reserve coding classes for kids who show an affinity for it and serve it after students have mastered – and hopefully love – the stuff that comes before.

Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.

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