A principal from a Queensland school was recently on the radio talking about children and why ‘teaching to the test’ is not going to create a future for most of today’s young people.
The conversation was about the Prime Minister’s Innovation statement and how work will be vastly different when today’s children are adults. For instance, the principal argued, being a doctor at some point in our children’s future will no longer be an option. (Robotics and e-health will largely remove the need for three-hour waits in medical centres). On the other hand new jobs that we can’t yet imagine will emerge. (Much as a social media expert did not exist in the 1950s advertising agency—even though ads are still with us).
The conversation was in part about the many calls to ‘teach coding’ to children in schools. (If you were unconscious for the last year when these calls have increasingly been made, coding is the new word for computer programming or software skills. The ability to code is what makes apps work on mobile devices, supports websites, runs computer programs and underlies instructions for things like robotic arms.)
Yet there’s a contradiction at the heart of this. How do you, Paul Brown mused, educate children for jobs that don’t yet exist?
Children do not need training in obsolete technology. However some abilities, dispositions and knowledge are timeless. Children will always need the ability to think critically. There will always be a use for skills in patterning and sequencing. They will need to reason and exercise judgment, be able to analyse and switch between abstract concepts and the third dimension. They will need a grasp of what some educators call ‘computer thinking’ even as the applications of that thinking morph into shapes other than laptops or mobile devices. Mostly they will need to understand and relate well to other human beings.
It is no surprise to early educators that ‘teaching to the test’ does not help children develop the full range of capacities available to them. Nor does teaching to the test create individuals with capacity to generate their own business (which is what our Prime Minister is hoping for) or make a successful, rounded life. Teaching coding to younger and younger children is not the answer.
Coding has a place in schools. Many out of schools hours care programs too are providing fun and creative challenges for primary school children through coding activities. However in early childhood let’s pause to think what we know about young children and what early childhood educators do best.
The push for coding if allowed to push all the way into early childhood settings could well give pre-eminence to instructive-based teaching methods. A colleague recently saw children as young as three years, seated in rows in a Beijing long day care centre learning ‘financial concepts’. No time for play. They were getting a ‘head start’, learning the way their older siblings learn.
When parents, politicians and policy makers want the best for children they can often want more of what older children have. The early childhood sector has an important role to play in helping others to understand what this looks like at different ages.
One of the blissful experiences meeting, talking with and observing different early childhood educators and young children together is seeing what happens when the ‘whole person’ is engaged in learning experiences and play. Young children are not aware that they are learning as they sort shapes in a basket or place exquisitely coloured beads and seed pods into a sorting frame. Yet this play-based approach is teaching the kinds of skills that will have them creating, designing and coding with the best in years to come.
This invisible yet essential element of early childhood settings is something the sector needs to get better at explaining to parents, politicians, media commentators and policy-makers.
Let’s make sure that the call to ‘teach coding’ to young children does not overtake what educators do best: create rich, play-based environments that support young children’s learning, development and wellbeing. Environments that set them up for a life of curiosity, creativity and perhaps even commercial success.