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What is the “Junk Food” of code? Developing healthy coding habits for K-12

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

It's pretty universally understood that coding is a critical skill for future jobs. But what code? Parents and teachers alike are trying to understand how to teach coding to kids in a way that engages them but also prepares them for the future.

This brings me to my question. With the massive advances in coding tools today, it is now relatively easy for even an elementary school kid to build a fun app that does something cool, like a chatbot with AI, a game, or an animated cartoon character. The value of this is tremendous - kids see very quickly how they can build real apps, have fun, and solve interesting problems. Way more motivating than for-loops, lists, and recursion!

However, just this, and more and more of this with nothing else, in my view amounts to the junk food of code. Like junk food, it is enjoyable and has instant gratification. However, more of it and nothing else will not nourish the kid or help them grow. After a point, it is empty coding calories.

So, what can we do to ensure the “healthy food” equivalent of coding? At AIClub, we have developed the 4 C’s of AI Literacy. While originally developed for AI, it is equally applicable to coding. The 4 C’s are:

  • Concepts: Learn the core concepts. This is like nutrients. Concept learning enables kids to develop and grow their skills.

  • Context: How are the concepts used in real life? This is the difference between consuming vitamin pills and eating foods with the nutrients in them. Understanding how coding concepts work in real-world companies, businesses and apps makes them less abstract and helps kids understand why they are learning what they are learning.

  • Capability: How to build real code. If you don't actually consume the food, it cannot help you and you cannot see yourself get healthier and stronger. By building programs and applying the concepts, kids see their innovations come to life, and are motivated to build larger and better programs.

  • Creativity: How to bring their imagination to life. Kids who have a strong handle on concepts, whose imagination is fired up by seeing how the concepts are used in real-life apps, and who have strong hands-on skills by building code, are in a great position to solve problems they care about and bring new ideas to life,

At AIClub, over 2500 kids from grades 4-12 have learned AI and coding, and have gone on to develop over 500 custom innovations and win 12 national and international competitions. You can read more about our approach on AI for Kids and AI Literacy for K12 here.

As a parent, I spend a fair amount of time both helping my daughter develop sustainable skills AND trying to help her develop healthy eating habits! At least on the coding front, the 4C’s approach is helping my daughter build solid skills for the future while also improving her brainstorming and real-world problem-solving abilities. The healthy food habits challenge remains.

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