As parents, we are no longer entirely sure what kind of world we are preparing our children for. The pace of technological change is dizzying and, as one education expert puts it, we might sometimes feel that we’re trying to prepare children for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that we haven’t dreamt of, to solve problems we haven’t yet realised we’ll have.1
This might seem alarming, but there are things that parents can do to stay ahead. Making sure that their children learn to code is one of them. This is not because every child needs to grow up to be a software developer (although we could certainly do with a few more developers) but because, rather like learning any language, understanding code gives an insight into a world of possibilities, a different culture. Not all children are going to be physicists, but we still think it’s important to teach them all something about the principles of the physical world.
Educating and empowering
While children are sometimes glibly referred to as ‘digital natives’, the latest research shows that, in reality, many young people are actually in danger of being left behind.2
This is concerning, given that digital technology plays such a large role in their world.
Many computer games, for example, use ‘reward technologies’ to prevent users from leaving or to create incentives to come back. Knowing how and why developers do this can make the difference between playing a game and being played. Similarly, a young person who understands why an app provider is asking for personal information is better placed to work out who is profiting from their data.
Preparing young people for work
There is also the question of jobs. Digital technologies have created many new roles in recent years, from information architects and big data scientists to online content editors and social media managers. But there is still concern about a digital skills gap – while the tech industry flourishes3, computer science has fallen in popularity in UK universities in recent years4, for example. By making coding a compulsory part of the curriculum, all school leavers and college graduates will be better prepared for the workplace.
Did you know?
The Science Council estimates that the UK's ICT workforce could grow by 39% by 2030.5
Even though not all future jobs will require advanced developer skills, most will need people who are confident and competent in using computers and other digital devices. Whether your child is interested in designing clothes or publishing books, working in finance or marketing, digital technology expertise will be crucial, and there will be rewards for those who understand how code works.
The role of teachers and parents
The new computing curriculum should help. Until this year, school ICT tended to focus on rather pedestrian office skills, such as how to compile a spreadsheet, which were pretty boring and often out of date by the time students entered the workplace. The new computing curriculum is much more about ideas. Coding has grabbed the lion’s share of attention, but the curriculum also focuses on computer thinking – breaking down problems, understanding how algorithms work and evaluating solutions.
This doesn’t, however, mean that there’s nothing left for parents to do. Recent research on people with jobs in the creative digital industries suggests that what happens in the home and in children’s free time is vital in building the skills for these new roles.6 These hobby-type activities might include joining a code club or app-making scheme, learning to use Mozilla’s Webmaker or Popcorn, blogging or making films or music. All these activities help to develop digital creativity as well as other skills, like collaboration, that are valuable to employers.
Arthur C. Clarke, author of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, once compared advanced technology to magic and, for some of us, the technology that powers many of our daily activities might indeed seem beyond our understanding or control. But it would be the wrong kind of legacy for our children if we condemn them to live in a world in which they feel at the mercy of random, mysterious forces.
One of the best gifts we can give the next generation is to make them feel confident and creative. They may not all end up fluent in several coding languages but they will benefit enormously from not being afraid of computing and from understanding its concepts and underlying principles. We may not be able to send them to Hogwarts, but the ability to understand the magic of the digital world is at least as exciting a prospect.
1 Richard Riley, former United States Secretary of Education
A former feature writer for the Observer and columnist for the Independent on Sunday, Geraldine Bedell is the founding editor of Gransnet and the editor of Parent Info.