Never Too Young to Code? Wrong…. Traditional Foundations Matter Even for “New” Skills and STEM

As we all try to get a “handle” on the rapid pace of technological change, schools feel the pressure to be “teaching technology.” (As an aside, we must all stop throwing around the word technology, especially in talking about whether or not it is “good for kids” without taking some much more serious time to define precisely what it is that we are talking about as “technology.”   Otherwise these are vapid discussions.)   Games, academic apps, using computers to access the vast availability of information – both better and worse than was previously “available” – and computer coding all require very different discussions about merits / demerits.

Recently the idea has been espoused that it is “never too early to start computer coding,” and that five, six and seven year olds are better off if they have this “exposure” to technology.   I am spurred to write. This follows the extensive push for so-called STEM education.   State resources are going into “STEM education for preschool.” From the start, I resisted this idea.   Any strong preschool program should have been very heavy on the FOUNDATIONS of STEM before any push for STEM education. I emphasize the foundations because that is precisely the piece that deserves focus.   Of course, I argue that STEM foundations are heaviest in Montessori preschools and kindergartens where the combination of the sensorial curriculum and the “care for the environment” teaches the basics of scientific observation, care for animals and plants, sorting, matching, noting small distinctions in objects, gradation in many guises, visual-spatial skills including manipulative based representations of powers of ten and a tactile manipulative representation of the quadratic equation.   What more STEM could we teach preschoolers that would eventually make them meaningful designers of or innovative users of technology?

So what foundations must we be presuming when we posit that six year olds can do computer programming in a way that is meaningful enough to merit their time given that time is limited?   (Basic sciences, math, literacy, geography, history, social studies, negotiation / peer problem solving or social-emotional learning, foreign languages, hands-on architectural design and building, the arts including dance, drama, music, painting or photography and more all properly compete for time in elementary education and beyond. All of them are necessary foundations to creating thinkers who have the power to solve the inter-disciplinary problems of today’s world.)  Computer coding in any meaningful sense involves a reasonably deep understanding of: equations and equivalencies, conditional logic and iterations (loops).

As a Montessori school, I don’t think we are “behind the curve” in any way in teaching math concepts – just the opposite – but our first graders are still firmly in those initial throes of learning equations and equivalencies.   They are practicing addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fraction equivalencies. . .more importantly they are applying all of the above skills in the areas of running their classroom’s budget and the division of school-wide resources amongst children and priorities. When one posits that it is “never too early to code”, we might think, “Well, I don’t know but it probably couldn’t do harm.” This is absolutely not true. . .the crucial applied skills that we are teaching, via practice of the math equations concepts, would probably have to “go” if we had to devote time to a computer or technology class.   We haven’t even gotten to the math-like logic of conditional statements or iterations or iterative thinking. The application of this concept of iteration is most important well beyond the math or coding field . . .understanding iterations and the change in variables that set off a chain reaction amongst other variables is crucial to today’s global world. It might be the single skill that defines the best inter-disciplinary, problem-solving intellectuals in every field.

To me teaching computer coding to first graders makes no more sense than it would have made to teach Word processing to kindergarteners years ago when that was a new technology, in the guise of training them to be good “executives” or “writers.”   We had the sense years ago to save these mere “tools” to middle school, at least, and to teach foundations of reading, writing and thinking before teaching how to use computers.   Nothing has changed with the advent of the newest “tools” of technology. Foundations remain paramount.   Let’s teach children to understand something about the problems they are trying to solve or the potential uses for the products they are trying to design before we teach them computer coding, which is simply another language – albeit an efficient one — to use in solving or designing.   The paradoxical “Cart before the horse?” question seems still the right one to ask even in this Age of Technology.

Kristen Mansharamani, author, is the Founder and Executive Director of Torit Montessori School in Boston, MA. She holds a BA from Yale University in Ethics, Politics and Economics and a JD from Harvard Law School.