Code talkers: Education’s new literacy

August issue_smaller-01

Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

For the record, I am not a coder and I have never played one on TV. I am, however, fascinated and sold on the fact that coders are the inevitable lifeblood of our future workforce.

As our back-to-school excitement reaches fever pitch, a few things have my brain stirring. For starters, Google fiber recently completed its design for a fiber network in Nashville, with construction already underway. Google’s choice of Nashville as its fiber network hub further solidifies Music City as “an advanced tech city with seemingly infinite life-changing impacts for Nashville and its residents – specifically students.

We have all heard the tired education adage “We’re preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.” Coding stares this excuse-based declaration in the face before quite literally slapping the words out of our mouth. Software developers and digital infrastructure engineers are now circling Nashville as the new Tech-Mecca, spring boarding those with coveted coding skill sets to unchartered heights as the city officially shifts into overdrive. Ultimately, one of the byproducts of Google fiber and its Nashville infatuation is the opportunities it affords Nashville students in terms of future-ready jobs and cutting-edge careers. Thus, the question surrounding Nashville educators drastically shifts:

Are we preparing students for a future-ready, tech-based economy?

Unfortunately, the present answer for both Nashville and public school districts across the country is shamefully – no, scarily – an emphatic NO. We have already heard from the Department of Labor and their prediction that the U.S. alone will add more than 1.2 million computer-science related jobs yet as it stands we currently graduate fewer computer-science majors than in the 1980s!

Like I said, scary.

And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One doesn’t have to pour through mounds of empirical data to realize rather quickly that the disparity between race, gender and coding pushes ludicrous levels.

Ironically, Twitter’s #EdTech movement has spurred a much needed focus on utilizing technology resources in the classroom – and that’s a great start but if we are to keep up with the advancements of society and the expectations of a global marketplace, #EdTech alone no longer suffices. Thus, if you’re still anti-tech and the thought of students engaging in problem-based solutions through technological resources turns your stomach, I implore you, if not outright beg you, GROW or GO. Our future undoubtedly depends on it.

His next step is to create his own app!

His next step is to create his own app!

Any educator remotely tuned-in to the rapidly changing economic and business landscape understands the imperative shift from tech as a resource to tech as an outcome. Software apps engage both adults and children, so a follow-up question becomes Why are we not positioning students as creators, embedding in them coding skills that usurp stagnating analog skill sets while boosting their 21st century job-ready stock?

The Future of Literacy

Very, very soon the question will no longer be Can you read? Instead, the majority of tomorrow’s worthwhile employers will simply ask, Can you read Code? The answer to that question could very well seal a student’s financial fate. Students who can respond affirmatively snatch the red pill out of Morpheus’ hand, leaping into the real world headfirst as a creative participant in an ever-expanding digital reality. Everyone else is relegated to consumer-status: a blue pill blindfold that only allows users to play the game – never control it.

Thankfully, games such as Minecraft and interactive sites like Codeacademy.com are spreading awareness and enticing students of all ages to embrace the coding pathway. Yet it’s far too risky of a gamble – if not outright unethical – to merely hope students will stumble upon coding and if they like it, awesome! It’s no mystery both Millennials and Centennials crave hands-on, self-directed learning but our job as educators is to provide the framework, platform and opportunities for this learning to incubate, securing the imperative resources for this kind of journey while facilitating the admittedly arduous process.

That’s not to say there aren’t schools, programs and advocates actively promoting this life-changing skill set. In fact, newly elected Maury Co., TN superintendent Dr. Chris Marczak begs the question, “Why isn’t coding offered as World Language credit?” — I couldn’t agree more! As the Underdog’s Advocate, it’s my dream to see Coding “at scale” which will only happen through public education.

Recently, Crosspoint Church, one of Maplewood High School’s official community partners, opened Tennessee’s first-ever Teen Dream Center (TDC). Under founder Ketric Newell’s vision, The TDC provides life-changing opportunities for disadvantaged Nashville students, running the gambit from academics to social-emotional learning. The TDC stands on Ketric’s mantra of giving students a “Hand-up not a Hand-out.” As an advisor, it is my utmost dream to fulfill this vision by including a Coding pathway into the TDC curriculum, thus legitimately empowering inner-city students with an equalizing skill set that levels the playing field while positioning them for success. Using various social media platforms, we reached out to the Nashville coding community and the response has been overwhelming. The coder’s affirmation that this kind of program is exactly what the city needs has now further advanced to local coders volunteering time to teach inner-city students both computational thinking and C++ scripting.

The response from Nashville’s homegrown entrepreneurs only further fans these coding flames. Project Music finalist (the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center’s leading action to support innovation in the music industry) and EarIQ co-founder Joseph Moore has been coding for the past 20 years. “The basics of instructing computers should be considered fundamental literacy, not a esoteric skill required by programmers,” says Moore. “The child taught computational thinking at a very young age has an insurmountable advantage, no matter their eventual career choice. “

The question stands:

Are we preparing students for a future-ready, tech-based economy?