Programming must become general knowledge!

Digitalization & innovation, 09.04.2018

She has just entered office and already the new German state minister for digital affairs has made a point. Dorothea Bär calls for programming to become a compulsory subject in all schools. Yes, compared to its European neighbours, Germany has a lot of catching up to do in terms of digitalisation, in many areas. This has some people asking whether the demand for compulsory programming curriculum in schools is the best place to start. My answer is: yes!

In Germany, we have a great deal of work ahead of us in the area of digitisation: Over here, the need for improvement exists in many dimensions, from broadband expansion to public hotspots to cyber security “Made in Germany”.

Dry mathematical formulas that only nerds understand

Should we be focusing on school curriculum in the face of all these challenges? No, we shouldn’t! The fact that less than a handful of German states have made the subject of computer science a mandatory part of their curriculum makes me think. Maybe there are reservations because some people have this idea in their heads about how dreary computer science in those computer workshops can be. Dry formulas with zeros and ones and no one knew what for. Computer science – it was the subject for nerds.
This image, if it ever existed, has changed radically. In a time in which we are trying to map out the world in algorithms, programming has become a universal subject. What was previously the engineer's nimbus has been passed on to the software engineer, who is using digital codes to build bridges we never thought possible.

Telling robots in kindergarten how to do things

Some children can program before they can even read or write. This has been tested in kindergartens – the little ones learned how to program a robot. They learned that by changing a code, they could alter a robot's movements. Suddenly, the question of “what for” that my generation posed in computer science class was so self-evidently answered. The robot goes left, not right, just like I wanted it to!

As I said before, this is happening in kindergarten. German schools that actually do offer the subject only start teaching it from grade five or even later. Only every third German student between 6 and 13 years of age in Germany uses a pc or a laptop in class at all. That's not the case with many of our European neighbours. In the UK, the Netherlands, Estonia and Poland, children already start learning about programming on the first day of school.

Some might disagree with and say: Schools in Germany do indeed offer computer classes. That may be true, but that's mostly only the case with schools that specialise in media literacy and that are specifically geared toward honing students into digital users. That's extremely important, no question. But it seems to me even more important that our students become digital shapers. In this respect, the ability to program is, in my opinion, indispensable. When my son showed me his first self-written program on the computer, I was very proud of him.

Programming today is a mixture of creativity and logic

Programming today is a subject that combines many skills: logic with creativity, discipline with fantasy and curiosity with abstraction and strategic thinking.

Those who want to program have to penetrate the topic they want to translate into computer language. They have to delve into the minds of future users. Because they want to find out what users intuitively can or can't do, how they think and feel. The nerd of yesterday has become a philanthropist!
But it's also of course about concentration and discipline. The code tolerates no wrong period. It's about logic – programming is the laying out of patterns, steps that build on one another, and repeating loops.

Living responsibly and self-determinedly in a digitalised world

As Chief Digital Officer of a big insurance company, I would of course love to see all employees of the future be able to program. That way, they will sooner be in the position to build creative solutions for our challenges. But I think it is first and foremost a public duty to put students in a position in which they can shape an increasingly digitalised world.

We have to enable them to be responsible and self-determined, especially in digital matters. The likes of us are perhaps still astonished when we see an advertisement for a product suddenly appear on our screen while we’re reading a news page that we searched for on Amazon two weeks ago. Our children should be in a posi-tion to better understand something like that. By teaching computer science in school, we can give them the tools to do so.

I’m glad that the topic of programming as a school subject is high up on the political agenda. It's vital if we want to responsibly shape the digital future.

I look very much forward to your comments, questions or suggestions.
Best regards, Mark Klein

Author: Mark Klein

Mark Klein is Chief Digital Officer ERGO Group and Chairman of the Board of Management of ERGO Digital Ventures AG. Here you find Mark Klein on LinkedIn.
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