Friday, May 30, 2014

Reading, writing, and coding?

Some parents, school districts, and companies are pushing for kids as young as seven to be involved in programming computers.  See “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding”, New York Times, May 10, 2014.  Part of the rationale is it is a “basic life skill, one that might someday lead to a great job or even instant riches.”

Or, “Computer science is big right now — in our country, the world,” a mother said. “If my kids aren’t exposed to things like that, they could miss out on potential opportunities and careers.”


Coding is a means to problem solving.  One can code all kinds of things, but if one doesn’t use the “right” language, no amount of coding work will get one a job.  The job market is littered with people who were whiz-bang coders but can’t get jobs because they don’t have the right “skill set”.  Never mind that many programmers have learned and keep learning new languages, if they haven’t learned the language of the day yet they won’t be hired.  See the writings of Norman Matloff.

Matloff, a college professor, is in an enviable position.  He can learn a new computer language, write a book about it, and get people to buy the book; no personnel department checks on his “skill sets”.  He wrote “The Art of R Programming”.  R?  What is that?  I bet most readers never heard of R.  I don’t have space for more description here, but it “is the world’s most popular language for developing statistical software”.  According the publisher, No Starch Press, “Archeologists use it to track the spread of ancient civilizations.”  Didn’t learn R in elementary school?  According to the statements of some, there goes your career in archaeology!

Remember when learning BASIC was the rage.  How many who learned BASIC got jobs using BASIC?

I posted the following comment to the New York Times article.  Unfortunately, it was not accepted, possibly because there were so many more like it already.

“I have been involved with computers for over 50 years, and in some cases was considered a whiz. But I feel somewhat left behind. Not because my problem solving abilities have deteriorated, but because programming languages have become more obtuse.

“The real skill people need is problem solving, whether its why their computer doesn't behave as it did yesterday or why the answering machine message disappeared. I just replaced the answering machine message, now to figure out how to get my wife's iPad to once again access my iPhone hotspot through Bluetooth.

“I might do it, or I might not. I do know I recently figured out a problem that the Geek Squad couldn't. In short, it was about what program was active at the time of the problem.

“Oh, by the way, how well did the rush to learn BASIC a few years ago really work out.”

A better approach might be courses in problem solving in many different disciplines.  How do you make a pleasant melody?  How do you draw?  How do you settle an argument?  What is the true meaning of a set of “statistics”?  What data is needed?  Are we working on the right problem?  How to read a map and plan a route?

“Corporations increasingly are looking for skill-sets. Thinkers need not apply. But is that what we want emerging from our schools? Easily disposable cogs?”  A comment by RuthMarie to “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding?”

As an example of how narrow skill sets are, consider that energy traders in Europe are being laid off because of the move to alternative energy.  They are considered so specialized that they aren’t being hired for other trading jobs.  “Energy Trader Turned Caribbean Surfer Watches Wind for Waves”, Bloomberg, May 21, 2014.  So, a trader in energy can’t learn to trade in steel or bonds or …?

What is happening in the Duluth Public Schools regarding computers and other skills?  You can find the middle and high school course catalogs on the schools’ website (

Sixth graders take a one semester course on computers (see Business Education).  The primary focus is on development of touch typing. Along the way they learn to produce “letters, flyers, memos, tables, outlines, spreadsheet[s],…and slide show presentations.”

To me, these are skills almost all of us need sometime in life.  How many people do you know that still hunt and peck at a keyboard?  How often have you watched a speaker get lost in his or her own PowerPoint presentation?

I had to wait until 11th grade to take typing; it was an elective for me, not a requirement.  It has been one of the two most important classes I took in high school.  The other was driving.  I use these two skills more than anything else I learned in high school.  Driving is no longer offered in many high schools.  I did not find it in the Duluth “High School Course Book”.

What I did find is something for more interesting than the shop courses I took (wood working, metal working, and printing): Pre-engineering!  Who sets print by hand anymore?  All seventh graders are required to take it, and the focus will be on design and modeling.  They will work both individually and in groups.  The lone coder bent over a coding sheet is a myth; his or her work has to mesh with that of lots of other people.

Pre-engineering is part of the “Project Lead the Way” curriculum.  It continues in high school with other courses.  One of the objectives is to “develop students’ innovative, collaborative, cooperative, problem-solving skills.”

Now all we need is more employers who look for generalists rather than narrow specialists.

Mel learned coding at 20, programmed main frames until 44, programmed personal computers until 57, and is still debugging the coding of hotshots at 76.

Published in the Reader Weekly, 29 May 2014 at