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Coding should be part of the core curriculum in high schools

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June 11, 2015

At a recent 'hush-hush' reception overlooking Sydney’s Opera House, chatting with the local doctor of one of the world’s largest technology companies, the conversation turned to basic education.

“At least we’re all talking about the importance of teaching coding,” this executive said. “Better than a year ago.”

Around the globe, there’s a growing sense among the political classes that coding should be part of the core curriculum in high schools and most colleges.

To be sure, from Barack Obama to David Cameron to Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, pollsters have recently extolled the virtues of coding, though none have been able to articulate exactly why this might be a good thing, beyond the general notion that the are “jobs of the future”.

Instead, what they should be talking about is the need for knowledge of coding as a self-defence skill. It's a crazy idea you say? Not really.

A child entering kindergarten in 2015 will graduate somewhere around 2030. By then, connectivity, programmability, interactivity, and overall responsiveness will be ubiquitous.

Youngsters will need the skills needed to operate in that world and they need to be able to defend themselves from it, is what we mean by this.

It’s of real vital importance that we teach those skills. We’ll go further-- we need to make coding the third pillar of the curriculum, equal in importance to literacy and math.

To advocate for anything else is arguing for a functional illiteracy across the entire population. We’ll end up with a generation capable of little more than pressing buttons. A generation of weak people ready to be attacked by every hacker, everywhere.

Whatever its benefits, a connected world is inevitably a more dangerous world. Our culture is becoming little more than an almost inconceivable number of attack surfaces for hackers.

If we want our children to thrive in that world, we have to teach them how to protect themselves in that world.

A decent coding-centric curriculum would harness the pervasive computational fabric of the 21st century as a platform for learning-by-doing.

Classes could form into teams of ‘white hats’ versus ‘black hats’, one team charged with defending themselves against attacks from the other team.

Kids who learn these lessons in the safety of the classroom can develop a visceral sense that connected devices and connected lives need to be properly secured.

For example, coding a social app need not be just about learning to code. But it can be a way to teach how sharing changes everything.

How better to warn kids against the dangers of sexting or any other kind of oversharing? They’ll know that on the Web, nothing is ever permanently deleted because that’s the way they’ll write their apps.

Demonstration through practice is more effective than any high-and-mighty preaching from parents and teachers.

Eventually, we won’t need to teach ‘privacy by design’ in our engineering classes, because the will say, “Been there, done that. Here’s what’s next.”

What we don’t need - and probably can’t withstand – is another generation of po-faced executives bemoaning the hacks that cost them customers/data/privacy/legitimacy, or our safety.

As a whole, we need a generation that is unafraid and totally prepared to engage in the kinds of conflict – both military and commercial – already becoming common, and that will most likely get a lot worse moving forward.

Education bureaucrats will try to smooth-talk politicians, giving kids a pat on the back. It's bit like teaching someone how to drive without bothering to study the operation of the brake pedal.

The kids themselves face a new generation of educators who graduated before connected technology crowded into every aspect of our lives. Lacking both the training and the permission to make these skills their own, they cannot pass them along.

Back at that reception, the doctor concluded with: “The kids are ready to learn, but their parents don’t understand how important this is. The parents didn’t get coding instructions when they were in school, so they really don’t see why their kids should. We’ve got to convince the parents.”

Those parents use smartphones and laptops and all sorts of other connected devices every day, without even realizing how quickly so much of the world has changed, or how vulnerable we have become.

That disconnect is fertile ground for ignorance and a growing, permanent, digital defencelessness. We’ve got to dispel the darkness and get our kids coding so that they will be able to fend for themselves when the time comes, and it will.

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