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Are children being introduced to coding too early in life?

The number of coding and programming bootcamps that are being offered by educational technology (Ed Tech) companies for children as young as four or five years has increased exponentially in recent times. Ed Tech companies argue that careers in the 21st century will be based on technology, for which children should get a head start. There have also been ringing endorsements from celebrities for this trend. Should we at all be concerned about this? What are the repercussions of increasing screen time for young children? Pritika Mehta (a data scientist and entrepreneur who leads initiatives to teach coding to young children via interactive games) and Latha Madhusudhan (an educator for over 30 years, is the founder of ‘Prakriti - A Waldorf Kindergarten’, a Waldorf-inspired school in Bengaluru) discuss this issue in a conversation moderated by Mandira Moddie. Edited excerpts:

With schools being shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a spurt in enrolments in coding classes. What could be the reasons for this?

Pritika Mehta: I think there are three reasons. One is FOMO (fear of missing out) — somebody else’s child has learned JavaScript, my child is not yet into it, so I shall get him to do that. The second is the sense of security with jobs. I think a lot of careers in India are driven by how well-paying the job is. We pursue careers not out of passion but by figuring out what can earn us a decent living. The third is that parents wanted to channelise the energy of their children during the pandemic and they found coding to be one way of doing that.

 

Latha Madhusudhan: I would not recommend joining coding classes. I would go back and ask the parents, what is it that a child needs at the age of four? The child needs his security, he needs to develop his physical skills, hone his language and speaking skills, and his metabolic system has to be in place. All of this has to be achieved before he can get into coding and programming.

Some say that since technology has crept into pretty much every aspect of our lives, children should be exposed at an early age to coding as that will help them develop analytical thinking, logic and problem-solving skills. But why is it happening at such an early age?

Pritika Mehta: Education is not only about learning to code, or learning mathematics, or learning just one subject; it is about the overall development of a child’s brain. My nieces and nephews are very attracted to technology, to mobile phones. They know how to open websites and do many things on the phone. So, if a child enjoys technology, how about you expose him to certain coding courses online which are free? Instead of letting your child play games on the mobile phone for two hours, why don’t you help him spend an hour learning coding which can help him channelise his energy and maybe one hour he can have the time to play games? I don’t think coding is for everybody, but it’s like maths... if you know maths, your life becomes easier. And it is not that everybody goes on to pursue a career in maths. If you know coding, it will help you become a part of this technological revolution that is happening around the world. But I would not recommend that every parent push their child aged four or five into coding. I would just say expose it to them. If they like it, good; if they don’t, then they have a lot of years to learn it.

There have been numerous studies on how early exposure to technology can harm the child’s development; that technology comes at the cost of developing cognitive skills that children build through personal connections and interactions, and free play. Could you elaborate on this?

Latha Madhusudhan: In my school, we do not encourage technology in any form. I advise parents that screen time is not at all what children should have right now. We need to understand what the child needs at this age. Until the age of 12, the brain is not wired to master anything outside of oneself. The brain is wired to connect, it is wired to learn from experience and stimulation. A young child between the age of zero and seven years only learns in an environment of imitation, emulation. When children see their parents sitting in front of a screen and working, they pretend to do the same thing. At that point of time, what they need is to first develop their basic skills. Let them develop the biggest computer that is their own body and their brain, let them master their physical skills, and then move on to something outside of their body to master. Then it happens very easily. It’s not like I’m against technology. But only at the age of 12, the brain is wired to better receive technology.

Also read | A child old enough to walk is old enough to code

Pritika Mehta: I disagree a little that at the age of 12, everybody has developed at the same pace. A parent should judge his or her child’s ability to learn. Whether the child is ready or not, expose the child to technology. If he doesn’t like it, don’t go ahead with it. And if he does like it, then why not? Just like you send your children for swimming classes, maths classes and dance classes, why not send them or just expose them to coding classes online?

Latha Madhusudhan: Yes, children are very individualistic. Each one has his own talent. But what does [literature on] pedagogy and human development or child development say? Universally, if you see, by the age of 24 months, every child is walking. By 18 months, the child speaks. So, when there are developmental milestones to be reached, then individualism comes within that span of development. When children are exposed too early to technology, to screen time, to too much media, what happens to the physical development of the eye, to sensory integration and to their social interactions? There are developmental milestones which every child should meet at the appropriate age. When you put children in front of the screen or introduce them to coding and they develop one kind of skill, what happens to their physical skills? The human eye does not develop completely until the age of seven. Any medical person will tell you that it takes that much time for the heartbeat to settle, since children’s heart rates are faster. When all these things are happening inside their bodies, we need to wait, give them time. There is enough time to do all these things.

Also read | Surge in demand for online extracurricular activities during COVID-19 pandemic

Do you think that there is room for both to co-exist at an age-appropriate time? That at the right time, the ideas of free play and these structured programmes that can help them develop their cognitive skills can be combined?

Latha Madhusudhan: Yes, there is scope, but the bone of contention here is, what is the right age? We always talk about age-appropriate activities, even in education. As an educator, I am very clear: play experiences bring everything into the picture, whether it is logical thinking, cognition, critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills... you let the child be a child, not a small adult. If you leave him at that level, and allow play to take over, he will work, interact with the outer environment. Then these things will automatically happen.

Pritika Mehta: I would like to add one thing. Because of the pandemic, children are receiving their education only on mobiles or laptops, so there is already screen time. And they are watching a lot of television. There is technology at every juncture of your day-to-day life, and it is really hard to keep your child away from it. I see no harm in this. I started coding when I was very young, and I used to go outside and play. So, I think both can exist together.

Also read | Coding gets inclusive

Latha Madhusudhan: I agree that media and screen time cannot be brushed under the carpet. They are here to stay. But that is my worry. The early years are the single most important period of the human lifespan. That time is the [time for the] creation of healthy, happy, sustainable societies. This is not happening. There is lack of touch. There is lack of sensory integration. There is too much of exposure to media and children have forgotten how to write properly, how to pick up a book and read. They need to stay connected to another human being. They have relationship problems. Their growth hormones and genes are changing. Menarche has come down from 12 years to eight years and now five years. Where is society headed? Some affluent children have access to sports activities and these parents might find that balance. But what happens to these middle class children or lower middle class children? They are addicted to their mobiles. It is very harmful.

Pritika Mehta: Excess of anything is harmful, but if done in moderation, I see no harm. And when it comes to writing or reading, honestly, these days I’m also not reading any book because I find reading blogs more interesting. And I hardly write anything; I type. I use Google Docs to make my documents, notes. Technology has made our life easier. And if we are using technology in our day-to-day life, maybe we are evolving in a different manner.

Comment | All is now fair in India’s ailing pedagogic spaces

There is an argument that technology is developing at such a fast pace that programming languages that are being used today will become redundant. And instead, with developments in artificial intelligence, humans will no longer be needed to code. So, is there a possibility that these skills that are being taught can become redundant?

Pritika Mehta: No, coding will not become redundant. Today, I know more than seven to eight programming languages. But initially, I just learned one. For all the other languages, only the syntax changes, the semantics remain the same. If you know the basics of coding, you can pick up any language any time. And when it comes to the premise that humans will no longer be needed, I would say it is not that we will be replaced, but that we are going to work with better technology. When computers came people said, oh, we are going to be replaced. But just look at the time we are in. During the pandemic, almost all companies were able to operate because they had technology by their side. We had Zoom meetings and people could work from their homes because of technology. If we are replaced at one job, we might just need to learn another skill. I think technology has improved our life rather than ruining it. Excess of anything is bad. We just need to find the right balance.

Also read | The flip side of e-learning

The National Education Policy 2020 recommends that coding be introduced in school only from Class 6 onwards. With private players coming into this field, do you think there is a need for some sort of regulation in this area?

Pritika Mehta: I don’t see the need to regulate anything. Companies pressing parents to enrol their children in coding classes or bootcamps... that’s a marketing problem and not really a problem related to coding.

National Education Policy 2020 | Leave no child behind, bridge digital divide

Latha Madhusudhan: More than regulation, what is needed is a statutory warning. Parents should be educated on what is the need for the child at that age.

Pritika Mehta: School education in India is broken. You might have seen a lot of discussions on why there is such a huge gap between the skills required by corporates versus the skills acquired by children in schools or colleges. We can fill this gap when we help children become creators of the future; this century is driven by technology.

Latha Madhusudhan is an educator for over 30 years, is the founder of ‘Prakriti - A Waldorf Kindergarten’, a Waldorf-inspired school in Bengaluru; Pritika Mehta is a data scientist and entrepreneur who leads initiatives to teach coding to young children via interactive games.


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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 7:55:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/are-children-being-introduced-to-coding-too-early-in-life/article33413984.ece

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