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Should 6th graders learn to code? Maybe they should learn MS Office first.

May 31, 2013

Pigeonhole PrincipleLately, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles touting the notion that “everyone” should learn how to program computers. One article goes so far as to endorse teaching coding in the 6th grade, and possibly sooner.

Whenever I read these articles, my first thought is that I don’t know why anyone in the IT industry would want to teach “everyone” to code. The simple economic concept of aggregate supply/aggregate demand dictates that once “everyone” learns a particular skill, that skill will plummet in value. If “everyone” learned how to code, people who can pound out code as fast as a popcorn machine spits out kernels would be paid $7.00/hour…when they could obtain programming work at all, because the Pigeonhole Principle would also kick in.

Although, realistically, an America where “everyone” knows how to build their own copy of Microsoft Office isn’t going to happen until most people actually know how to use the existing version of Office. Check out this article in today’s New York Times about how many graduates of the top business schools in the nation are illiterate in Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint:

Newly minted university graduates who have landed coveted jobs on Wall Street may have impressive résumés and sought-after references. But often, nuts-and-bolts skills like spreadsheet building and database extraction are not part of university curriculums.

When millions of dollars can be won or lost on one calculation, firms are finding it essential that their new hires can tell the difference between a pivot table and a header row….

“I just want someone who can really use Excel and PowerPoint,” said one senior loan syndication banker at a European bank, describing his recent interviews of newly minted M.B.A.’s in New York.

Keep in mind that these graduates are Millennials who grew up with this technology. I grew up with typewriters, and I know how to use Excel, including advanced functions like pivot tables and if-then statements. I never took a $3,000.00 class to learn Microsoft Office. I never took any class. I learned how to use Office on my own. I never was able to grasp enough C and Java (or whatever language I would need) to build my own version of Office, but I’m a power user of the one that Microsoft built.

I have personal experience with this phenomenon. While attending Temple University as an older student, I met throngs of Millennials who couldn’t format a simple Word document or use the SUM function in Excel. I’ve encountered the same thing in my MBA program at Wilmington University. I took a statistics class where several students failed because they had no idea how to use Excel…and no intention of learning it.

It seems to me that before we talk about teaching 6th graders how to code, we should first teach them how to format a Word document or set up a basic Excel spreadsheet. Basic English and critical thinking skills would be nice, too, but that’s a subject for another blog.

One Comment
  1. I just found this year-old blog post of yours because I searched for your name after seeing that you run at Bellevue.

    As it happens, I taught 6th-grade computer classes last year, at a private school in Wilmington. The curriculum was largely designed to teach more about Scratch, a graphical programming environment, which the kids had been using since 4th grade.

    Scratch probably doesn’t fit your idea of “coding.” It’s a good foundation for computing; I think it serves largely to get students thinking logically and to help them decide whether to study more serious varieties of programming when they reach high school. (That’s where the dedicated few will learn real “coding.”)

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