Education, innovation, and tradition

A little more about the following excerpt from Satya Nadella’s message to Microsoft employees:

Our industry does not respect tradition–it only respects innovation.

Tradition is important within certain contexts–take family traditions, for example. The rituals practiced with loved ones provide memories, bonding, and a shared history that passes to the next generation. Values stretch throughout the years this way.

Religious services also benefit from tradition. Congregating and repeating words and actions help us remember what’s important as we practice outwardly what we believe to be sacred. Regular participation in familiar worship provides comfort for many people–especially during difficult seasons in life.

Traditions also give nations and countries an identity and sense of unity. Songs, holidays, and monuments converge, flooding citizens with a sense of belonging and pride.

But in which contexts are traditions unimportant, perhaps even detrimental? Satya Nadella says the technology industry doesn’t respect tradition–only innovation. For example, Apple couldn’t keep the image of a CD for it’s iTunes icon; it no longer makes sense. Microsoft can’t expect people to save documents to their computer’s hard drive anymore. Other computer companies can’t use the traditional PC as a model for most future products–not when the internet is being accessed more frequently by handheld (and wearable!) devices.

Education has long held traditions. Unfortunately, many of these are outdated and no longer necessary. Should students sit in rows like a factory? Does a teacher dispense knowledge, or should students work collaboratively on 1:1 devices to construct their own learning? Are the skills they are learning–cursive, geography, dodgeball in P.E.–needed in a 21st century world. (Picking on geography, do students need to memorize the cities in a foreign country when they have a smartphone in their pockets? Do they need to memorize anything that can be easily accessed via the internet?) Should school be 180 days a year, 8:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M., or should students learn everyday–even after 3:00 P.M.?

Education needs to fundamentally change, and then it needs to continue changing when needed. There is no resting place, just like there isn’t for technology.

Should kids learn how to code?

I truly believe so. In fact, this Wednesday the school where I teach will be participating in Hour of Code, and I’m really excited to be part of it.

There are some, however, who dispute the conventional wisdom that coding should be embedded within a student’s school day. Jathan Sadowski wrote a con-coding piece for Wired. Money quote (via Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish):

The problem is elevating coding to the level of a required or necessary ability. I believe that is a recipe for further technologically induced stratification. Before jumping on the everybody-must-code bandwagon, we have to look at the larger, societal effects — or else risk running headlong into an even wider inequality gap.

For instance, the burden of adding coding to curricula ignores the fact that the English literacy rate in America is still abysmal: 45 million U.S. adults are “functionally illiterate” and “read below a 5th grade level,” according to data gathered by the Literacy Project Foundation. Almost half of all Americans read “so poorly that they are unable to perform simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels.” The reading proficiency of Americans is much lower than most other developed countries, and it’s declining. We have enough trouble raising English literacy rates, let alone increasing basic computer literacy: the ability to effectively use computers to, say, access programs or log onto the internet. Throwing coding literacy into the mix means further divvying up scarce resources. Teaching code is expensive. It requires more computers and trained teachers, which many cash-strapped schools don’t have the luxury of providing.

In reading the entirety of Sadowski’s opinion, I see his heart is in the right place. I do disagree with him, however, because I believe coding can be taught in conjunction with reading and (traditional) writing. For example, teach a student the basics of HTML and then have him or her write an essay within <p> tags. Voila, the student is on his or her way toward publishing on the internet while learning how to construct an essay.

I’m an educator who’s about to teach a little coding during an enrichment period on Wednesday. This isn’t costing my district a penny (contrary to Sadowski’s piece)–I’m doing it of my own accord because I believe coding is a skill that will enrich my students’ lives. And the kids who may be a little behind when it comes to national literacy scores, well, the knowledge that they can produce their own website by learning how to write sentences and code may help them excel in the more traditional aspects of school.

Learning to program makes the “Why am I learning this?” less abstract. Young people know why they’re learning it: For a better future.