With the advent of the AI era, it is program or be programmed! For children, learning to code should be a process of exploration and discovery open to all, not a high-stress, fun-free endeavor. In the last decade, 29 countries have adopted mandatory K-12 Computer Science (CS) teaching. The curriculum is designed to make students comfortable with coding at an early age. Contrary to what most people think, a child doesn’t need to be a mathematics wizard to enjoy programming. Universities in the U.S. like M.I.T. (where the first visual programming language for children called “Scratch” was invented in 2003) started the revolution.
These days, companies like Pasadena, California’s codeSpark Academy are enabling children to leverage a smartphone or pad based visual app to code at very young ages by dragging and dropping functional code routines. In keeping with the tradition started by M.I.T.’s philosophy that coding skills should be something anyone can learn, regardless of family income, codeSpark Academy software is free for use in public schools, libraries, and non-profit organizations. The result is that millions of children are learning coding concepts while creating cool software programs they can share with friends and family. But the situation is entirely different in China. With less than 1% of K-12 students studying programming currently, China is a laggard in all these areas and now wants to catch up.
As the Chinese government seeks to be a world leader in AI research, Chinese parents realize that traditional extracurricular courses, like math and English, are increasingly unable to give their kids a significant competitive edge in the future job market. So as interest shifts toward tech-related skills, private companies are already emerging to fill the demand for coding courses for children. The question is: in China can the K-12 school system adapt to teach coding skills or will the private sector dominate as has been the case with English?
So far in China, it looks like the private sector will step up first to fill this need. Since 2014 over 100 companies have been formed to teach computer programming to kids including Beijing’s VIPCODE, Shenzhen’s Codemao and Hangzhou’s Ultrabear. While this is a good thing in general, it means that unfortunately, only the children of wealthier parents will be able to afford the courses. To combat this, China needs clear government leadership and action to make the environment for learning coding skills and concepts accessible to all students, no matter what their socio-economic background.
Research has shown conclusively that coding skills develop problem-solving capabilities and enhance creativity in the brains of those who code. In the U.S. and Western Europe, schools and governments now realize the four “C’s” – collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication are more important than rote memorization of facts. In China, it is crucial that programming doesn’t go the way of English studies—an inherently fun subject to learn destroyed by making it part of the test prep regime in China. Computer Science (CS) education needs to be fun and full of exploration, creation and a feeling of accomplishment.
As China hurries to formulate a strategy, they are falling farther behind. In 2014 the UK was among the first countries to add coding to the compulsory curriculum for elementary and middle school students in 2014. In 2016, the US government announced US$ four billion in funding to promote coding education. The same year, Australia listed coding as a compulsory course, demanding every student learn it from the age of 10. Moreover, it is not just China; most of Asia is still significantly behind the U.S. and Western Europe. China needs a strategy to “leapfrog” the leading countries. Most likely this will happen first at expensive private coding schools, workshops and summer camps.
In China, coding is becoming the “new English,” but as with English, good teachers cost good money. Currently, the programming industry suffers from a lack of qualified teachers. Experienced programmers can easily earn 30,000 RMB per month in Tier 1 cities, but most elementary school teachers are not making even a third of that amount. Also, currently, while most coding teachers have programming experience, they don’t have any experience teaching children. So, there is a severe supply and demand issue that requires the training of many thousands of teachers. This shortage of qualified teachers could lead to schools to relying once again on memorization-based techniques versus a more creative style of learning. We have all heard stories about English teachers in China who can’t speak English. If China is not careful, this could happen again with CS instruction in public schools. Unfortunately, given recent history, the scenario that teachers with no programming knowledge whatsoever end up teaching children to code is extremely likely. This is a difficult problem, and yet it must be avoided at all costs. Lest we forget, programming is at its core all about creativity and problem-solving. In many ways, it is much closer to writing and art than an activity that primarily requires raw math skills. The curriculum and the teachers who teach it must be in sync with this reality.
So far, many Chinese kids who experience intense day-to-day pressure in their “college test prep cram school hell” in China have found they like coding, the feeling of building things with other children, collaborating and showing off what they can do, without any pre-set rules. It’s pure creativity. Let’s hope it continues to be taught this way. It is the only chance China can realistically future-proof the next generation and become the AI superpower it hopes to become.