In a world where technology is rapidly changing, Wu Pei began teaching her 6-year-old son to code. She began this journey thinking he’d enjoy learning a new skill that might boost his future job prospects, but now she runs classes in Nanjing, China to help parents introduce their children to the world of coding.
The 35-year-old former computer programmer with Foxconn Technology Group is tapping growing demand from parents intent on preparing their preschoolers for a world in which Oxford University researchers predict half the jobs in some countries may be eliminated by robots and computers.
Similar classes are taking off across China. Reynold Ren has taught about 150 primary school-age children in Beijing to use Scratch, a project developed by the MIT Media Lab and Arduino, which enables users to create interactive objects such as robots. In Hong Kong, about 2,500 students have taken courses that Michelle Sun runs at her First Code Academy.
“Teaching the next generation coding is something that should be elevated to a strategical national importance,” said Wang Jiulin, the Xi’an-based creator of Kidscode.cn, a website that shares free information and courses. “Even today, the majority of programmers in China can only perform very basic-level tasks and there’s huge demand for top notch coders.”
Wu thought over weeks about how she could introduce the fundamentals of coding to preschoolers — who are only just starting to learn math and Chinese — in a way they could understand.
She settled on showing them a 3-by-3 unit grid on a board and invited them to play a game in which the students were asked to identify locations using simple directions, such as up, down, right and left. She then switched to a number system and asked the children to pinpoint locations using coordinates.
When students are familiar with the concept of an X and Y axis, she teaches them to play simple games involving airplanes on Scratch. Once they are hooked, she encourages them to learn how to create similar games themselves.
“Usually, you need a game to get them interested, and then introduce new concepts,” Wu said.
Nanjing mother Zhang Minyan began encouraging her 5-year-old daughter to learn coding from Wu after watching a video of an American child who wrote an app for friends so they could share their views on Canadian singer Justin Bieber, she said. Before that, Zhang hadn’t thought it was necessary for children to learn.
“That made a big impression on me,” Zhang, 32, recalls. “I thought, since my child is playing games on an iPad everyday already, why not give her some guidance and let her learn something in the process?”
Also children are learning to code in other countries and Zhang doesn’t want her daughter to be left behind, she says.
Encouraging children to learn how to write the instructions for computer programs may help China move up the technology value chain, making it more of an innovator of software and digital tools, rather than a mass manufacturer and a component supplier. As it is now, the world’s second-largest economy lags behind at least 16 countries in Europe and the U.S. in putting coding on the national school curriculum.
“Schools in China have IT lessons and some even teach coding, but these classes take a back seat compared with other subjects that determine how students are rated on their academic performance,” Wu, the coding teacher, said. “They fail to realize coding education is something that will be very important for the future.”
Barack Obama, who became the first president to write a line of code last December, agrees it’s something children should be taught. “People are not born coders,” Obama said in July. “What happens is, kids get exposed to this stuff early and they learn. They soak it up like sponges.”
There were 1.02 million software developer jobs in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which estimates that number will jump 22 percent by 2022, spurred by “a large increase in the demand for computer software.”
“It’s totally possible that your child could create a million-dollar app when they’re 12 years old — you don’t need a masters’ degree to do that,” said Wayne Xiong, a partner at China Growth Capital, a Beijing-based venture capital fund which manages about $500 million of assets. “An education system where you need at least 21 years to test your return on investment is high-risk and unreasonable.”
Not everyone agrees that coding promises to secure a child’s future. Automation may even make it possible for machines to take over the majority of coding tasks in a decade, said Tom Davenport, a professor of IT and Management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “It’s not really necessary for millions of 3-year-olds to be trained in programming,” he said.
Predicting which professions will be needed most in the future can be a crapshoot. Nine of the 10 most in-demand jobs in 2012 didn’t exist in 2003, the World Economic Forum said in September.
Wu says she’s not counting on coding to make her child successful. Rather, she sees it as “another tool to express himself” and part of the mandatory digital skills people worldwide are likely to need in decades to come.
“A lot the jobs from my parents’ generation don’t exist anymore and I think about what that means in 20 years,” she said. “When our kids grow up they will be competing globally and by then coding will be a skill as common as English.”
Wu takes comfort in knowing that coding has helped improve her boy’s logic and reasoning.
Her son, Feng Yiran, spends about 10 minutes after school creating games that he wants to play.
“I actually think it’s pretty fun,” said Feng, who recently created a game about a dragon-battling knight. “At first my mom wanted me to learn, now I’m the one asking.”
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