Python Ascendant: Coding Obsession in Schools

This morning I received a Tweet which contained the following headline:

Coding in the classroom: Python overtakes French as most popular ‘language’ in (English) primary schools

It came from the International Business Times magazine. They must surely be concerned. Historically British students have struggled to learn foreign languages, and our teaching of them has been patchy. And now more people are learning computer languages!

That headline means that more 7–11 year old students in English schools are learning computer languages than learning the most common second language, French. After all, France is just our nearest neighbour, historical rival and highly favoured by the British for second homes. SO no immediate relevance for the language then there.

I immediately replied to the tweet with

“I worry about this. #French will be more useful than #coding. There, I’ve said it, and I’m glad”

I really do worry about this current obsession with coding for everyone. It’s an educational fad. Of course, it would be great if students learned to how to program computers. It will teach them analytical, compositional and mathematical skills. But is it more important than learning a foreign language? No.

Sinclair ZX-80 from 1979

And I’m saying that as a person who has been coding for many years. My first computer was a Sinclair ZX-80. I’ve programmed computers to do all sorts of useful things as part of my scientific work. I’ve even been employed in the IT industry. But, for the vast majority of students, learning another language spoken by people, not interpreted by machines is going to be far more useful than programming in Python, or any other language. And computer languages come and go, are fashionable, fall out of fashion, hang around in legacy applications for years. They are fickle and mutable. They are also easier to learn, because they are just not as nuanced and subtle as human language. And human language skills are best acquired early — preferably before puberty.

Now my French skills are pretty poor — I only started learning the language at 11, and just didn’t get on with it. This is annoying, as I now live in Ottawa, where a significant portion of the population is Francophone. I did manage to get my head around German, thanks to my excellent high school teacher, Mr Epps, who I really should have thanked at the time, but forgot to. Ten years after finishing his classes, I lived in Germany for three years, and his lessons were invaluable. Danke, Herr Epps. And living and working abroad is a very good experience, which I would recommend to anyone. And being able to code in Python is really not going to help you in a German supermarket, when you need to ask for a bag to put your shopping in (In Berlin say, “Eine Tüte, bitte”).

The question that should be asked is “Why is French not popular?”. What is failing to excite the students to study French? I wish I knew the answer, I was certainly not at all enthused by it! But surely there must be something or some method or some technique that would engage the students.

And two words of encouragement for those who are being forced to learn coding in school, and don’t really like it, or “get” it.

Don’t Worry

Not everybody has an aptitude for computer programming. It is not an essential life skill. It will not ruin your life if you do not learn to code. Go and concentrate on basic reading, writing and mathematical skills. Find the art subjects you enjoy. Find the science or humanities subjects you enjoy. Absorb them and follow your passion. Later on, you may find the need to code as part of your professional responsibilities. You can learn it when you need it, and you can clearly see the application you need it for. That’s when I really got to grips with coding.

And if you do have an aptitude for computer programming. Congratulations, you will have a bright future too. But don’t forget to learn other things to complement the coding, like the mathematical skills, and the writing skills so you can explain to people what you have done. You will need those skills too.

So if we are going to prioritise children learning to communicate with machines, rather than learning to communicate with other humans, than we need to reconsider that choice. Quickly, or as they say in France, rapidement. We also need to consider why learning a second language is so unpopular, and how to improve the teaching.