Coding != Career

Thirty years ago, when computers were still new, we didn’t know what to do with them. There was a sense — in that half generation between the widespread availability of computers and the advent of the Internet age — that the world was changing in fundamental ways. No one was sure what was really going on, but this was big. Really big.

Apple_II_plus[1]Schools bought computers because they thought children should be computer literate. They didn’t really know what that meant. They were struggling to prepare students for a world that no one understood. So they scraped together money from the media budget and grants and the PTA and they bought a few computers that they set up in a lab.  The digital age was here.

As students, we played a little Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand. We practiced our math facts. And then, we learned BASIC programming.  Programming seemed… important. This was a skill we would need. Everyone would have a computer when we became adults. Everyone would need to know how to program it. Plus, the computers came with programming software. It was one of the few things we could do without buying additional software, and those costs weren’t anticipated when they bought the computers.

I learned BASIC in fifth grade, and by sixth I had forgotten it. I learned LOGO, but just the turtle parts of LOGO, not the really cool list handling stuff that made it a useful language. I learned to type on a typewriter, which I then used through high school. Computers didn’t help me learn other things. They were a subject all to themselves. Our school didn’t have enough of them to teach students much of anything about them. And they didn’t know what to teach us anyway. So after sixth grade, I didn’t use a computer again until I was a senior in high school, when I took programming (in Pascal, this time) for fun.

Half a decade later, I found myself with a minor in Systems Analysis and half a dozen different programming languages under my belt. I was teaching a middle school computer applications class. My predecessor had spent about 80% of the course teaching programming. Having no actual curriculum to follow, I scrapped all of it, and focused on applications instead. I felt that students needed to know more about word processing and spreadsheets and presentation software than BASIC.  A year later, I was emphasizing Internet research, evaluating online resources, documenting sources, and using the Internet to disseminate content. These were things my middle school students needed to know. They’re still things they need to know.

source-code-583537_640At the dawn of the new millennium, I was teaching a high school programming course. It was an elective. It was a neat class for students interested in programming. But students don’t need to take auto mechanics to drive a car. They don’t have to study structural engineering to work or live in a high-rise building. They don’t need a degree in economics to work at the bank. The course I taught was an introduction meant to spark interest in the field. I never felt like I was teaching a necessary (or even marketable) skill.

The early 2000s confirmed that. Remember The World is Flat? Friedman talked about going to the drive through fast food restaurant, and talking to someone in India or China to order your food, which you then pick up at the window. Auto companies were making tail light assemblies in the US, shipping them to Malaysia for cheap, unskilled labor to put the light bulbs in, and then shipping them back to go into new cars. Software companies were focusing their systems design efforts in the US, but outsourcing the routine coding to India.

Programming is an entry-level skill. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the kind of position that is more “job” than “career”.  Sure. There’s a bubble right now, and programming skills are in demand. There are also some good reasons to teach programming, because it helps students learn logic, reasoning, and problem solving. But if schools are reacting to the media hype around coding by teaching programming to a generation of would-be programmers, they’re preparing students for a future of unemployment.

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay.



The Global Citizen

I’m a Partridge Highlander. I live in the Partridge Highlands subdivision, precinct 2-H of ward 2 in the city of Stow. So I guess I’m a Stowite. And since Stow is a city in county Summit in the state of Ohio, that makes me a Summitian (?!) and an Ohioan, though we sometimes call ourselves “Buckeyes.”

flagsOur sworn enemies, here in Partridge Highlands, are the residents of the Quail Hollow allotment over in precinct 2-E. Life over there is… different. Their streets are paved with asphalt, not concrete. The sidewalks are twelve feet from the curb instead of ten. Their Christmas decorations are too gaudy. Their landscaping is too pretentious.

We don’t really have a lot in common. But compared to those crazy people in Hudson or Cuyahoga Falls or Kent, we’re practically brothers. We share common schools, city infrastructures, and services. We use the same post office and library. We shop in the same places.

The same is true if we widen the context. Those crazy people in Hudson and Cuyahoga Falls and Kent are not so crazy after all compared to the Wolverine-loving residents of Michigan, where you have to pay a deposit on soda cans, it’s legal for 12-year-olds to own handguns, and they don’t even have a state rock song.

My community is defined by the terms with which I describe it. Moving beyond geography, I can call myself an educational technologist. But as soon as I do that, I’ve excluded all the people who are interested and actively engaged in education who may not accept technology as the means to achieve academic goals. If I get specific and say I’m a blogger, or a Twitterer, or a Facebooker, I can connect with the people who use those tools, but at the same time, I’m choosing to not connect with those who don’t.

The nice thing is that we have the concept of plurality. I can be more than one thing at a time. So I can be a blogger and (theoretically) a webcaster at the same time. I can be a brewer and a musician. I can be a father and a son. I can be a Partridge Highlander and an Ohioan.

In 2007, my school district adopted a new mission statement as part of its strategic plan:

The mission of the Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District is to inspire and prepare students to be lifelong learners, to be flexible in approaching opportunities for growth, and to be effective as well as ethical contributors to our global society.

As we work through the revision of the strategic plan this year, some have raised objections to that last phrase. We don’t want our students to be contributors to our global society. We want our children to be Americans first. Why should they contribute to the global society? Why should they be helping the Chinese and the Indians steal American jobs? Why should they be improving living conditions in Africa when so many Americans are living in poverty?

We have a responsibility to our communities. We protect them. We nurture them. We learn from them. We benefit from our participation in them. But when we narrowly define them, we end up with an unhealthy homogeneity. Quail Hollow is not any better or worse than Partridge Highlands, just like Summit County is not any better or worse than Portage. And the more we engage with people from those other communities, the more we can learn from one another and benefit from our common experience.

So, yes. We can be Americans. Our students can be “ethical contributors to our American society.” But that doesn’t mean they’re not global citizens, too. And they’re going to be much better off if we don’t restrict their frame of reference to the United States.

Photo Credit: Enric Archivell on Flickr