These days, young people who want to learn to code have a number of options: Codecademy, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, #YesWeCode, Code.org and others. All of this work is noble and necessary for equity and diversity in media production, but there is one key component of 21st-century learning that is often left out of these programs: the ability to de-code. By omitting this vital skillset wherein young people learn to question everything, we do our youths a great disservice.
As the noted renowned media theorist, Doug Rushkoff, wrote in his book Program or Be Programmed:
“Every answer to every question is available for someone to find on the internet. Applications like Google and Wikipedia make information available in a matter of seconds. But are we really learning anything, or are we just becoming dependent on our devices (and the people making them)?”
And, as London School of Economics Professor Sonia Livingstone warned last year in a report on steps the United Kingdom should take to prepare youth for the future, an over-focus on coding often comes at the cost of teaching media literacy and critical thinking:
“Media and communication technologies are getting more complex every day. Yet it is increasingly vital that young people can navigate this complexity to participate fully and fairly as digital citizens now and in the future. Coding is a great idea but it’s not enough. Decoding today’s media – to recognise misleading and exploitative content, to appreciate what is available and to grasp the emerging opportunities – doesn’t come automatically or naturally. This is a time to strengthen media education.”
In other words, it’s really great to learn how to make a website, but it’s just as important to understand why websites are made, what impact web content has on our personal lives and the world in general, as well as who makes these websites, apps and mobile tools upon which so many of us have come to rely. When students complete a coding program, it’s unrealistic to expect that every one of them is going to choose computer science as their life’s work. Yes, they’ve gained a new and useful skillset, but not everyone wants to be Steve Jobs or Grace Hopper. Those who decide to pursue careers in business, humanities, law or medicine may not use coding in their daily lives, but they will all need critical thinking skills as citizens and consumers in a media-saturated environment.
That’s where media education – and active media critique – comes in. Critical thinking and de-coding skills veer away from procedural “if this, then that” teaching and can be difficult to measure, but these are the skills we need when we decide how to vote, what products are best for our health and the values we want to live every day. These are the skills referred to not only by Rushkoff and Livingstone, but also by social critics like George Carlin:
Coding is important, but learning to decode is every bit as vital if we want youth prepared to proactively face the myriad challenges they will encounter as adults.