Coding for Kids: The New Vocational Education

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce

Theodore Search, National Association of Manufacturers, 1898

[K]nowing something about programming makes us competitive as individuals, companies and a nation. The rest of the world is learning code. Their schools teach it, their companies are filled with employees who get it, and their militaries are staffed by programmers — not just gamers with joysticks. According to the generals I’ve spoken with, we are less than a generation away from losing our technological superiority on the cyber battlefield, which should concern a nation depending so heavily on drones for security and electronic trading as an industry.

Finally, learning code — and doing so in a social context — familiarizes people with the values of a digital society: the commons, collaboration and sharing. These are replacing the industrial age values of secrecy or the hoarding of knowledge. Learning how software is developed and how the ecosystem of computer technology really works helps us understand the new models through which we’ll be working and living as a society. It’s a new kind of teamwork, and one that’s under-emphasized in our testing-based school systems.

Douglas Rushkoff, author, teacher, film-maker, 2012


Beginning in 1917 and continuing through the 1960s, the federal government appropriated monies for states to spend on vocational training for industrial and commercial jobs. This support made the NAM version of vocational education dominant in public schools for three-quarters of a century. Since the 1980s, however, vocational education has largely disappeared as a formal choice in the curriculum. Career academies and scattered high school courses do pinch-hit and offer some choice to those students uneager to spend four additional years sitting in college classrooms. With the disappearance of the “old” vocational education, a shiny new one is being touted to replace it. Yes, I refer to the shrill cries for more computer science and the teaching of coding to children and youth. Enter the “new” vocationalism.

You do not need a Ph.D. to figure out that the past thirty years have forged strong links between the economy and public schooling. The primary purpose for K-12 schools in recent decades has been crisply defined as preparing each child for college and career. Completing college, of course, is basically geared to getting decent paying jobs. So becoming college-ready means that higher education is really a vocational school. Advocates for coding and requiring computer science as a subject seek to expand the K-12 curriculum (or replace other content and skills) by adding a C to the three Rs.

Let’s say that champions of coding and the subject of computer science succeed in lobbying policymakers to mandate the teaching of programming in elementary and secondary schools. And, further, they strike gold in getting policymakers to insert coding into the national Common Core standards and state graduation requirements. Their success would be unstoppable were a coalition of coding supporters to hit the even larger political jackpot. That is, adding new multiple choice questions to state tests that ask students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in programming a piece of software. In an already jam-packed curriculum of reading, math, social studies, science, foreign language–don’t forget those prerequisite courses in middle school that put students on track to take math, science, and history Advanced Placement courses in high school–what would get less class time or is dropped completely? Those opposed to dropping required subjects for graduation could then–in concert with coding champions call for a longer school day by adding an hour to the daily schedule. By now, readers should get the picture of growing support for a “new” vocational education.

Public schools, then, have experienced two spasms of vocationally-driven reform. One created the  “old vocational education” in the early 20th century endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers and now the “new vocational education” nearly a century later, endorsed by high-tech CEOs spreading the gospel for teaching children to code and take computer science courses. Then and now, policymakers saw an intimate connection between a strong economy and strong schools. And that is why Theodore Search and Douglas Rushkoff could easily have sat down and had a cold beer together.




Filed under school reform policies, technology use

13 responses to “Coding for Kids: The New Vocational Education

  1. Reblogged this on DigitalClassroom Blog and commented:
    Very interesting to us here in the UK as we are very much in the grip of a coding epidemic…. Although it has to be said that I personally enjoy this, the longer view needs to be considered. Our new curriculum here in the UK has not been without controversy, and thise behind it should be considering all motivations. Will be sharing! Thanks, as usual.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, I have read about UK requiring coding in schools, Rebecca. Thanks for comment and re-blogging post.

  2. Doug Johnson

    Hi Larry,

    Enlightening as always. Have your read this article from one of the engineers at IEEE – that the STEM crisis is a myth? Well worth a look. (I sort of see coding like Latin or calculus – a means of teaching a way of thinking rather than any that has much practical use.)


  3. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Is history repeating itself? I do think Larry Cuban is making a correct point.

  4. Pingback: Coding for kids | Blurts

  5. One interesting aspect of the push for computer science in classrooms is the different slants available. Some, especially in the US, push it as an employment-related solution: get more kids coding, and thus in 10-15 years train more graduate software developers. This may yet work, but I think knee-jerk links between employment shortages and school curriculums are short-sighted, as you suggest.

    However, there are other opinions, e.g. from Simon Peyton Jones in CAS in the UK, are that computer science allows us to better understand the increasingly digital world around us, in the same way that physics lets us understand the physical world. I’m partial to this view, and to my mind it justifies computing’s new place in the England curriculum.

    Computing (and especially programming) is overhyped right now, but once that dies down, if we can retain the useful insights: the power and limitations of computers, issues like data security, privacy, etc, I think it can form a worthwhile subject. And it’s worth remembering that computing is not just useful for primary employment: there is a slow steady growth in end-user programming, in areas like financial and scientific analysis, and a benefit to informed consumers and commissioners of computing systems.

    • larrycuban

      You raise points, Neil, that I have not yet heard in the current U.S. hyped-up hullabaloo over coding. Thanks for the comment.

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