Why do We Have to Learn This? Programming is the Literacy in the 21st Century

My friend Patrick says I encourage students to be rebellious. I know it comes from my Punk rock days and my defiant nature that was instilled in me ironically by my parents. So it comes as no surprise that I get the typical "Why do we have to know this?" question. What may come as a surprise is what they are referring to and that I have an answer.

The topic is programming. Every math/physics student that comes through my class is exposed to programming either through Python, Processing and Arduino, or Blender Scripting to name a few. Well one day I was asking them to come up with an algorithm that would generate the Fibonacci numbers and one of my students (female and an excellent student, as a matter of fact) asked me, "Mr. W, why are we learning this?" A couple of other students nodded their heads in agreement and I took a moment to gather my thoughts.

I replied, imagine you are in a classroom 150 years ago in America. You more than likely help out your family on the farm, because our economy and society was largely agrarian. Your parents are able to read but only do so as needed or for enjoyment. Now you are sitting in a classroom being asked to read a classic text and are frustrated as this is far beyond what is required for your life. It would be impossible for you to realize that your future would be dictated by your ability to read.
As opportunities opened up for more to enter college, the need for literacy increased and determined your earnings and perhaps the quality of your job. Many states realized this and prevented slaves from being able to learn to read and write because of the power that came from literacy. It was only because of influential individuals who refused to give up, that literacy essentially became elevated to a citizen's right in America. While literacy rates are tragically low especially in struggling communities, there is at least an understanding of the importance of it.

Flash forward to the present day. There are very few jobs that do not utilize technology. Farming was one of the first to broadly adopt technology which started the industrial revolution and the population explosion that we see in this century, but soon after other companies saw what would be afforded by using technology. Now nurses, teachers, chefs, and using technology in order to do their day to day job. 

If the shift was from a labor based economy to a knowledge based economy where everyone is expected to have basic computer skills then my prediction continues to be that we will need a large part of the population to be able to program. Programming is not about making software or about programs. It comes down to working with data and information is the basic building block of the universe.

Programming is art, it is creation. Even though technology adds a layer of difficulty towards creation in the learning process it enhances what we are able to do. Just as Adobe Photoshop makes the graphic artist's potential creative power grow so also with the programmers. Even more so since the artistic software is programmed. It is as Eckhart Tolle might say, "pure potentiality".

While I would never reduce life and its experiences to 1s and 0s, think about all of the data that we use. From our banking, medical information, communication, records, and the list continues. Programming is the ability to work with that data and interpret it in a way the fits your needs. The economy will be based upon how well we can adapt our data to various and innovative new situations.

So, I tell my students, that very few students in America are learning programming. Not because they shouldn't be, but because their teachers didn't see the importance in teaching it nor did they likely learn it themselves. This puts them at a huge advantage and if they decide that it isn't for them then they are free to dump it during summer vacation along with Newton's Laws and the Quadratic Equation if they so choose. 

But, many students are taking advantage of it and it is exciting. I have students create beautiful art and some have created software to encourage others to save the environment. One of the students who asked me that question is creating a motion based video game and the other is creating an animatronic teddy bear for a big exhibition (check out their work at Festival del Sol).

Programming is the literacy of the 21st century and the great part is how few barriers there are. If you can get on a computer you can program. Software to create is free, tutorials are abounding, support is everywhere. Get on board, learn it and share it with your students! All of the programming resources and tutorials that you need to start can be found on BrokenAirplane.com.

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