Random musings…
The ones that got written down.

missing the woods for the trees…

Coding! The new age moms mantra for her kids. All of a sudden all around me I see moms going completely bananas looking for the right size “coding classes” for their kids. It’s as if being a geek is super cool all of a sudden. So I picked up the prospectus of one of these quote un-quote coding classes and went through it. By the time I reached the stated objective of the last class I was left with a feeling of sheer inadequacy and something akin to an inferiority complex. Here was a course that was promising to teach 8 year olds (and upwards) how to change the world and rewrite the weather system in steps of one hour sessions each. What’s more they were going to do all this without requiring any complex math skills or understanding of logic, graphs, language, machine architecture or oh well what do I know…

Just that the thing is that over the past twenty-two odd years Sonali and I have worked with code on a daily basis, almost like 24×7 because we love code and the underlying logic development. The charm for us is the simplified problem solving, puzzle resolution that code offers. We are the nerds they show you in movies (I am almost as fat and similarly bespectaled as well while SG is that completely asocial psycho geek who does nothing but think about the next piece of code to optimize)… we had to study three years to get to a point where we could attempt to start coding… the basics were in hind sight so morose and monotonous that back in college one wondered why they were there to begin with… however now when one looks at these coding courses one is satisfied that we took the scenic route not the short cuts… because what’s on offer today is shortcuts to basically nowhere…

Let me illustrate with an analogy; remember when we were kids (am assuming you’re 40+ like me), Casio exploded in the Indian ecosystem with their synthesizers and all of a sudden everyone was enrolled in music classes. Yes this is the same thing all over again with a million times more advertising to hoodwink the poor gullible moms… Do you know of any friend of yours who went to one of those music classes and is today a renowned musician working in the field? Chances are that you would be hard pressed to identify any friends who still even have a piano… and all of them were so dedicated back then… what went wrong? Basics. Most of these quote un-quote music classes were teaching the children how to play songs. Songs which were required for school assemblies, school functions and maybe a one off to entertain the guests who came home for chips and chai. There was very little to almost no education in the basics of music. Yes you carried a copy and pencil to the class but what you got were notations to play the music for the school anthem, the national anthem or whatever song was being taught. Some students were able to pick up music faster than others… the others were usually not so keen on processing pre-processed gyaan or maybe as the parents and teachers concurred they were just dumb… As they grew older and moved away to different cities the smart alecs who were supposedly musicians realized they had no clue and all they could play was mera joota hai jaapaani or yaadon ki tarah lehrein because they had learnt songs not music. That’s when the disillusionment settled in and the casio got stored off into a now forgotten location.

This is happening all over again in the field of coding. Coding is not a dish you prepare by adding four ingredients. It’s about problem solving, about developing logic skills so that you can write instructions for the computer in any language and solve that problem… the basics are what matter. If you look at the curriculum of WhiteHatJr for instance you would, hell I would, be filled with immense optimism about the future of my kid. In fact even I would consider joining the course and learning something new… such is the power of marketing and positioning… essentially appealing to the fear that parents live in all their lives… but then you need to take a step back and think. Are the basics being built here? Is there a foundation being set up or are we just rushing headlong into an empty pool… Yes pappu, chintu and raivah (for the life of me the names nowadays) are going to know how to code an AI engine (without really understanding what it is that they are doing) that will switch on the geyser for you when you step in after a run, however, what if you step in after a short walk in the rain… would the child be able to think and setup the appropriate controls to switch on the geyser and activate the mopping device as well (because based upon weather inputs the system should know that you walked in the slush and now are leaving footprints all over the house)… This and many such and similar examples can be conjured up about how futile this whole exercise of introducing the kids to “coding” through rote can be. If you are teaching them how to solve specific problems without building the foundation for logic and problem solving skills, without explaining to them how the machine works and how language is developed then all you are doing is an analogue of teaching the kid how to play a song on the casio…

Some might argue that for all we know a few kids might actually learn something meaningful or discover coding as a passion and take it forward. Yes, but the way to arrive there is not by starting them off at a coding class. It’s by engaging them in puzzles, reading, crosswords, sudokus and helping them develop their logic and math skills. algorithm building is the basic requirement for any code. How do you solve a problem is broken up into simple steps. There can be multiple algorithms for the same problem because getting from point A to point B need not necessarily be a straight line route…. and then there is algorithm optimization. An algorithm takes into account boundary conditions and variables that would affect execution and outcome. An algorithm is nothing but code in simple human understandable language. I do not see any class that today advertises coaching your child to develop algorithms in depth. They start from we will move the turtle from point a to point b followed by we will now add music to the previous code. Algorithms are touched upon as an unnecessary formality. To me that’s like teaching a child how to understand the taste of appy fizz and the taste of bananabread. What or how he reacts to the taste of a banana split or an apple pie is not in the course and so when he encounters it… splat… system malfunction… setting them up for a fall… instead what needs to happen is that you teach them appreciation and identification of basic taste and from there they develop their appreciation for complex tastes. Now any combination you hand them will be understood.

It takes time… same as conversation and music and a sunset and love… it all takes time. Don’t rush them, give them the basics first. Teach them problem solving, lateral thinking, logic, compassion, appreciation of art and nature, reading and thinking first…. coding will follow. For heavens sakes do not enroll them at online coding classes… you want smart intelligent kids not well trained circus animals who will have a system overload and a subsequent crash if asked to solve something that was not taught in the quote unquote coding class. And then again if your only objective is to show the guests how good Pintu and Pinaakruti (names nowadays I tell ya) is at “coding”….

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