Technology

Does a five-year-old need to learn how to code?

Boy looking for code with magnifying glass Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Will your child grow up to be a programmer?

Here's a scary thought for any parent whose child has just started primary school.

The new national curriculum for Key Stage 1 - ages five to seven (Years 1-2) - requires pupils in all local authority schools in England to "understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented on digital devices, that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions; create and debug simple programme".

And there were you thinking they were just going to be doing a bit of colouring.

The rather daunting-sounding plan is part of a push to get computer coding taught in school from an early age as a way of helping to find programmers for a jobs market that is increasingly reliant on such skills.

Putting aside the obvious parental worries that our five-year-olds are not yet able to read properly let alone code, the other question is whether the education system, which struggles to keep pace with technology, is coming to coding rather late?

We are entering an era when computers are actually beginning to teach themselves. Known as cognitive computing, the new branch of computer science revolves around the idea of training a computer to think like a human brain.

It could mean that we no longer need a bunch of programmers sitting in a room writing lines of code which, in turn, could mean that the skills which schools are just coming round to teaching are already outdated.

That's the view of technology journalist Kevin Maney who, writing in Newsweek, describes coding skills "as about as valuable as cursive handwriting".

He points to Muse, a program being devised by the US military's science laboratory Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

The program aims to give a computer all of the world's open-source software and organise it in a giant database. It means that someone with no computing knowledge can simply ask the computer what he or she wants it to do and it will find the necessary code to carry out the task.

Dead language?

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Is Java going the same way as Latin?

IBM is leading the cognitive computing field with its supercomputer Watson, which has already proven its human language skills by competing and winning US quiz show Jeopardy.

On its website explaining the concepts behind Watson, it gives the example of an executive of a large store who, in the near future, rather than employing someone to write an algorithm to work out the most profitable place to build their next shop, could simply ask the computer.

So, in an era when we can chat with our computers, will Java, C, Javascript and other computer languages be about as relevant in the average workplace as Latin?

"Code is definitely evolving and the specific languages we use today may not be used in five to 10 years," admits IBM programmer Dale Lane. "In fact I hope that coding language in 10 years' time will be closer to the language we use to talk to each other."

But for him that doesn't mean that coding is dead.

"Coding isn't going to become outdated, but it is going to evolve," he said. "It is not just about writing lines of code it is about starting to teach logical thinking, breaking things down step by step," he said.

He has seen the benefits for his own young children.

"My youngest is six and what she is doing is more about finding ways to solve a problem which to me is the same as writing an algorithm," he said.

"And funnily enough my 9-year-old has just started to learn Latin."

Digital natives

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Kids love technology but do they need to know how it works?

These was once a time in the dim and distant past - well, the 1980s - when coding wasn't just a good skill to have it was pretty damn essential if you wanted to penetrate the confusing world of computers.

But these days a two-year old can operate a tablet computer and a child given a new phone can personalise it with apps, games and home-made video content faster than a parent can say, 'I want to know your password.'

So with computers now officially user-friendly why would the generation of digital natives need to understand what is going on beneath the bonnet of their shiny devices?

"It is about teaching kids that it is not just a black box that they are consumers of but it is something that they can change and modify too," said Mr Lane.

"The tools we have to create content today are amazing but we want people who will create the tools of tomorrow and they are going to be the ones that open up the box and tweak it," he said.

Algorithmic future

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption How will teachers cope with the new coding-heavy curriculum?

The new focus on coding has meant boom times for organisations such as Codecademy.

Since it was founded three years ago, 25 million people have taken its courses.

This summer one of the biggest groups of applicants was teachers, desperate to polish their digital skills before the new term and new curriculum kicked in.

Codecademy has partnered with more than 1,000 schools in the UK and has had 4,000 teachers taking its courses.

So does it think that it will be able to equip teachers with the skills they need?

"There is apprehension about whether we can train enough teachers in time and as with any big changes there is always going to be hiccups and it will be a while before it is completely embedded," said Rachel Swidenbank, head of UK operations at Codecademy.

Techno-manipulation

There is little doubt that in today's job market coding can come in pretty handy in a range of industries that previously had little or no need for technological skills.

Algorithms are increasingly driving everything - from medicine, to the legal profession and even journalism, everyone wants a piece of code that will help them do their job better.

But as our society becomes more and more governed by technology so people will need to know exactly what the machines are up to, argues Evgeny Morozov, contributing editor at the New Republic and a keen watcher of the social implications of technology.

"Learning to code will make us question all the techno-manipulation around us. Just like learning to read made us question all the propaganda," he tweeted recently.

So parents, like it or not, the era of colouring-in may be over. Now your little ones are more likely to come home with a computer game they made than with a badly-drawn picture.

Prepare yourself for a household of logical thinkers.

More on this story