Over the decades, students have been required to take a foreign language in high school for reasons that relate to expanding communication abilities, furthering global awareness, and enhancing perspective-taking. Recently, our home state of Texas passed legislation that enables computer science to fulfill the high school foreign language requirement. Coding (defined by BusinessDictionary.com as "the process of developing and implementing various sets of instructions to enable a computer to do a certain task") is, after all, both a language and a foreign subject to many students -- and much more.
Coding, Cognition and Communication
In terms of cognitive advantages, learning a system of signs, symbols and rules used to communicate -- that is, language study -- improves thinking by challenging the brain to recognize, negotiate meaning and master different language patterns. Coding does the same thing. Students who speak English and Mandarin are better multitaskers because they're used to switching between language structures. Coding, likewise, involves understanding and working within structures.
Memorizing rules and vocabulary strengthens mental muscles and improves overall memory. That's why multilingual people are better at remembering lists or sequences. Coding similarly involves very specific rules and vocabulary.
Learning a language increases perception. Multilingual students are better at observing their surroundings. They can focus on important information and exclude information that is less relevant. They're also better at spotting misleading data. Likewise, programming necessitates being able to focus on what works while eliminating bugs. Foreign language instruction today emphasizes practical communication -- what students can do with the language. Similarly, coding is practical, empowering and critical to the daily life of everyone living in the 21st century.
Coding is Ubiquitous
Programming is the global language, more common than spoken languages like English, Chinese or Spanish. Think about all the company websites, apps for mobile devices and in-house software. McDonald's employees take orders using software developed specifically for that purpose. Your Happy Meal depends on someone who can code.
Todd Park, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, says:
In fact, according to Code.org, computer programming jobs are growing at twice the national average. Yet less than 2.4 percent of college students graduate with a degree in computer science. This is not surprising, given that only 10 percent of high schools have computer programming classes, and only 30 percent of the states allow computer science to fulfill a math or science graduation requirement. So while our home state of Texas doesn't count computer science toward math and science, allowing programming to count as a foreign language is a big step in the right direction.
Because of its ubiquity, because it takes the mystery out of technology and because it allows students to control (not just consume) technology, coding should be a curriculum staple along with reading, writing and arithmetic.
Resources to Support Coding Instruction
Despite the fact that few high schools in the United States offer courses in computer programming (and even fewer middle schools and elementary schools), many resources are available for teachers and parents to help their children learn this digital foreign language. Coding apps, ebooks, websites, Pinterest boards, interest groups and opportunities to practice coding and teach coding abound, as described in our previous Edutopia blog, 7 Apps for Teaching Children Coding Skills.
Start with Code.org, a nonprofit seeking to expand the availability of programming in schools and participation of underrepresented students of color and women. Code.org offers links and resources for teaching and learning various programming languages for all ages.
Currently Code.org is launching a campaign to provide a one-hour introduction to computer science for 10 million people "ages 6 to 106" during Computer Science Education Week. Their resources will work in web browsers, tablets or smartphones, and no experience is needed. The site will offer everything you need to get started, including tutorials, FAQs, posters and more. Non-digital options are made available for classrooms without technology, so that students can learn about this language system and what it can communicate.
Empowering Students to Bridge the Digital Divide
In the past, the digital divide described students with technology compared to those without. Today, the divide addresses students who receive instruction on how to do things with technology versus those learning how to make technology do things. Now that computer science is the highest paid career for college graduates, it is time to stop teaching students how to push the buttons and start teaching them how to make the buttons.