"Programming as a compulsory school subject is the wrong way to go"

It’s suddenly become very popular to talk about whether programming should be a compulsory subject in primary schools in Sweden. The site "Framtidens språk” which mostly seems to be a marketing campaign from the Academedia – owned "IT-gymnasiet, " writes that Sweden risks falling behind if programming is not introduced for all children in primary school and invites visitors to e-mail Education Minister Jan Björklund. At first glance this seems very commendable and unquestionably correct. Clearly our kids need to learn to program in school – it's the future! But I strongly disagree.

Måns Jonasson.

Måns Jonasson.

(This is a translated blog post, written by Måns JonassonWeb and Brand Manager at .SE)

Programming as a compulsory school subject is the wrong way to go, and risks putting Sweden at a standstill. Let me explain how I think:

First and foremost – I love to help children who want to learn to program. In our own ”kids’ hack” I’ve learned a lot about the easiest way to inspire young children about the possibility of creating for themselves on computers.  Previously they have just consumed – played games and surfed the various kids’ websites – but the joy that occurs when they create on their own and decide how the games will work is obvious and warms its way into an old computer nerd’s heart like mine.

But I remember how we middle school students in the 1980’s were taught computer knowledge. In the ”computer room,”  stood the now (for the wrong reasons ) legendary system COMPIS.  We learned important things like how to log on and log off mainframe systems or how a specially designed word processor worked. The poor teacher who had this computer subject was completely dumbfounded, and therefore spent the majority of our lessons attempting to teach himself how everything worked. Over the summer holidays, the cleaners happened to turn off the power to the cabinet where the central unit stood and the next year there were no computer knowledge lessons because no one knew how to reset everything.

No, computer knowledge was no picnic – although I already loved computers and programmed in my spare time, I learned nothing of value there, and my less computer literate classmates probably learned nothing at all.

We also had ”typing” on the schedule. There were 15 kids in a classroom with electric IBM typewriters that had no letters on the keys. During these painful lessons we had to learn the proper fingering for a typewriter keyboard , and now some 20 years later, these are the lessons that have had the most benefit. Being able to type quickly on the keyboard without making many mistakes is worth gold now that I sit in front of the computer all day .

Is it possible that the main thing we need today is typing and not programming? Metaphorically speaking, that is. I simply do not believe that there is a sensible way to teach mandatory programming in school.  However, I do believe that it’s possible to teach about methods, how a computer works, the definition of programming, and how to think logically.

It was, after all, not computer knowledge in schools that led to our current amazing IT community, but the introduction of PCs into millions of Swedish homes through a national subsidizing program.  Likewise, I don’t believe that any push toward mandatory computer programming in schools would lead to more skilled programmers in the future.

In school we teach our children important things that they may find useful in their future lives.  Programming can certainly appear as something that our kids need to know, but before kids can learn something useful about programming in school, there are a lot of things that need to be sorted out first.  For example, which programming language should they learn?  On what type of computers should they learn?  Many schools still don’t have enough computers for every student.  Who should teach programming?

The truth is that school is most likely not the best place to learn specific programming skills.  In our school competition Webbstjärnan for example, we can see quite clearly that the students who do the best web design did not get their talents from learning web design in school.  On the contrary, they’ve taught themselves out of their own interest, which is exactly as it should be.  The school should provide opportunities and space for students to advance and explore their skills instead of pushing outdated knowledge down their throats.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I would love to see more programming in schools but it must be done correctly under the right circumstances.  First and foremost we must give our teachers the opportunity to become better at using the web and computers as educational tools.  This is a large education initiative that will not be easy or cheap.  For the teachers to learn, there also has to be good and current equipment in all schools.  Internet, computers and platforms for all children must be a well integrated part of teaching and everyday school life.

If we can manage to get all of these things in place, then we can start discussing the role of programming in teaching.   Until then, the discussion is mostly empty phrases and rhetoric without actual possibilities.

Published: October 21, 2013