Monday, November 24, 2014

"Coding Literacy" a/k/a "Computational Thinking"

Last update: Wednesday 4/15/15 @ 3:33 pm
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" ... William Shakespeare

"A rose is a rose is a rose" ... Gertrude Stein

The end of the last decade witnessed the birth of a surging, grass roots, educational movement that has many names, two of the most prominent being "coding literacy" and "computational thinking." This movement seeks to ensure that everyone -- especially the younger generations, and most especially the younger generations of peoples of color -- are given opportunities to learn how to code. Fortunately, this is a technical revolution with the most profound economic consequences that Black America won't miss thanks to the rapid emergence of a savvy cohort of extraordinary leaders, e.g., Kimberly Bryant (Black Girls Code), Kalimah Priforce (Qeyno Labs), Van Jones (#YesWeCode), and Emile Cambry (Blue 1647).

I am embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of this powerful movement until the early months of 2014 -- shortly after I was forcibly "retired" for non-technical, i.e., political reasons. But now I am a full throated supporter of this movement. 

As a result of my lucky response to a blind employment ad posted by IBM in a newspaper in the summer of 1963, I learned how to code mainframe computers over fifty years ago. I was probably one of the first ten or twenty black Americans to do so. Subsequently I have had many personal experiences that confirm the validity of the movement's fundamental assertion ==> computational thinking skills greatly enhance one's employment opportunities and greatly reduce the likelihood that one will ever be unemployed. Yes, I say this, despite my forced "retirement" at age 72, because as one of my colleagues put it with a wry smile when he said goodbye, "Roy, you've had a very long run" ... )

So why am I quibbling about the movement's names? And have I come up with a better name? No, because I have no problem with two names that mean more or less the same thing. I merely suggest that our current use of both names obscures an important distinction:

  • As I read statements from members of this movement, especially its leadership, I understand them to mean that they want everybody to learn how to code because the economy is rapidly evolving into an "Internet of things" in which  all processes that relate all things to each other are being computerized. Learning to code is an effective way to develop the thinking skills required to become creative participants in this universal digitization. Computational thinking skills will therefore be useful, i.e., employable in a wide range of career options, not just in software development
  • But coding skills won't be sufficient to ensure long-term employment as full-time software professionals any more than writing skills are sufficient to ensure long-term employment for professional writers, e.g., for poets, novelists, playwrights, and journalists. Enhancing one's writing skills will enhance one's employment opportunities in a wide variety of careers; but most people don't have sufficient aptitude to achieve long-term success as full-time professional writers, i.e., enough talent to be able to support themselves and their families at a decent standard of living. So too with software. Learning how to code and thereby developing basic computational thinking skills will bring enhanced employment opportunities in a wide variety of fields; but most people don't have enough talent to be able to support themselves and their families as full-time software professionals.  
So I suggest that the movement embrace not one, but two fundamental goals: (1) it should continue to strive to provide opportunities for everyone to develop computational thinking skills; and (2) it should also strive to identify the small percentage of truly gifted and talented "hackers of color" -- i.e., the Black and Latino Bill Gates, Larry Pages, and Mark Zukerbergs. These potential stars and superstars have sufficient aptitude to become successful software professionals, but only if they receive the training they need to develop their skills to the highest possible levels.

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