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Vietnamese Fifth Graders Are Coding Loops Around US High School Students


Is seven years old too early to start teaching computer science? Vietnam doesn’t think so.

Google software engineer Neil Fraser visited a school in Vietnam where computer science classes begin in the second grade and continue right up to graduation. By fourth grade, students were already writing programs using loops, and by “grade 5 they are writing procedures containing loops calling procedures containing loops,” he says. By eleventh grade they regularly handle problems, he says, that are as difficult as the ones Google uses to test job applicants in interviews.

Meanwhile, juniors and seniors at San Francisco’s magnet school for science and technology struggle with subjects the Vietnamese students had already mastered in fourth and fifth grade. Fraser offers a few explanations for the fact that many US students are so far behind:

  • School boards fight to keep CS out of schools, since every minute spent on CS is one less minute spent on core subjects like English and math. The students’ test scores in these core subjects determine next year’s funding, so CS is a threat.
  • Teachers often refuse to teach real CS because more often than not they don’t understand it. Instead, they end up teaching word processing and website construction, while calling it CS.
  • Parents often oppose CS classes since the grade has no direct benefit on their child’s academic prospects. This is compounded by a lack of understanding of the difference between their child playing video games and their child writing video games.
  • Students intentionally tune out of CS class since there are few things worse in American high school than being labelled a nerd.

The nonprofit estimates that by 2020 there will be a million more computing jobs than there are computer science students. Yet for all the talk about preparing kids for the workplace, many American schools seem content to leave CS to expensive universities to teach (barring the cheapest alternative: teaching oneself to code).

We don’t expect every primary school student in America to become a coder and go to work for Google. Rather, what Fraser likes about this particular Vietnamese school is what we like: that students are exposed to CS from a young age and given the freedom to pursue it to their own limits. As he says, “Start everyone early, and offer those who are passionate about the subject limitless room to grow.”

[Classroom image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • lukelea

    Screw that. I say start everyone with history a lot earlier. Since when has America had a real shortage of engineers where it counted? How about never.

    • Thirdsyphon

      Are we short on historians?

      • Corlyss

        I’m with Luke. You miss the point, 3rd.

        The move to emphasize history, and I would add civics, is not to produce historians but to produce citizens much more in tune with their own history, which formed what America is today. As the feds and consequently schools have gone test-crazy to math and English, history has become a frill and civics fell out of the curriculum decades ago. The result is teenagers who never heard of the founding fathers, who don’t know the great ideas and movements that produced the modern era, who have no emotional or logical attachment to their own country, mores, way of life. People like that are much easier to lead down the path to socialist tyranny than Americans who know their history, who know that the 3 branches of government are NOT the president, the Senate, and the House (as Rand Paul said the other day), who understand their obligation to be informed on the issues.

        And teaching student a foreign language will teach them more about English than they could learn in English classes, while it makes the brain more supple and flexible, like learning a musical instrument. They sharpen the mind in ways that pay off in more areas and later in life than merely knowing the foreign language would account for.

        • f1b0nacc1

          I understand your point, and applaud the thinking behind it, but I let me ask you this….
          Who do you think will be teaching history and civics? Do we really need MORE miseducation?

          • Corlyss

            I know, but at some point, all the stupid Boomers will be dead and with them their ideological obsessions. I hold no hope for the nation until that happy day in which the last one is laid in the grave.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Well, I am one of them (I am ashamed to admit), so perhaps we could wait just a leeeetle longer before the last of us shuffles off…
            Seriously though, while there is no question that the Boomers have been a big piece of the problem, do you really believe that GenX and the Millenials are any better? I have been a university administrator (more shame) and am in the IT business now, and thus have had a lot (way too much) contact with the Millenials, and can assure you that they are, if anything, worse than their parents and grandparents. They combine a toxic narcisism with an almost invincible ignorance that is not endearing. If you are expecting better from them, you are in for a big, big disappointment….

  • Atanu Maulik

    Yet it is US only which comes up with all the Bill Gateses and Mark Zucherbergs when needed.

  • Kelly Hall

    I have to call BS on this. The Vietnamese school was likely a “show” institute, a legacy of its communist past, one in which genius kids with exceptional aptitude for CS were identified in advance. Their academic prowess is then presented as the norm for any Vietnamese school. Conversely, I’ll bet the students at the SF “magnet schools” were selected on the basis of “disadvantaged” status and/or family affluence rather than prodigious intellectual aptitude.

    • Rol_Texas

      Speaking from personal experience, the basics of CS don’t require all that much intellectual acumen. Conditionals and loops are well within the ambit of any 4th or 5th grader in the US; recursion and certain algorithms are a bit trickier, but easily conquerable inside of 12 years (or 12 months, really).

      But the scandal isn’t that Vietnamese students are so advanced at the basics of programming; it’s that US students are not, and that it is unlikely that they will be exposed to this kind of basic-level stuff in 12 years.

      The US puts on a good show of caring about math and science education, but practical applications of the stuff-being-learned are really given short shrift all the way up through high school (and even beyond, into college). CS not only has very direct practical applications from day one of study; it also offers an excellent opportunity to put students on a path toward mastering basic logic, mathematics, and algorithmic thing.

    • SisyphusRolls

      I did computer programming starting in second grade in the 80s at a gifted magnet school in California. They still offer it, as far as I know, and kids are probably learning loops in second or third grade there, like I did.

      I think it’s likely that this is more of a heirloom, organic apples to commodity red delicious apples story. That is, Via Meadia is comparing the same thing superficially, but not at nearly the same level of quality and selectivity.

  • Pete

    There’s another advantage here in teaching kiddies computer logic — i.e., programming with loops and conditional statements.

    It teaches them how to think logically, much like algebra does.

    Some of the reasons that the U.S. K-12 teaching profession is against initiative like this is because:

    1) The strict logic & discipline of even simple programming is beyond the limit of most education majors. Theirs is a world of fluff.

    2) If a program isn’t written precisely, the computer won’t compile it, and the show stops.

    That is, there is no leeway. There are no fuzzy ‘correct’ answers. This takes away the ever so comfortable latitude that teachers now have of passing on ill-educated students with the excuse that they almost got the right answer — whatever ‘almost’ actually means..

    (This, by the way,is one of the main reasons why some 40-pct of the kiddies accepted to colleges need remedial training in the basics of either reading, writing, and/or math. Disgraceful.)

    Given the sorry state of 1) public education and 2) American culture today, introducing programming and computer logic in the early grades of the public schools is a non-started. However, select private schools would be smart to do so.

  • qet

    That’s great. And when the bottom falls out of the software job market like it did 15 or so years ago (I have a great many friends, MIT Course 6 grads all, who found themselves suddenly and for a long period unemployed), all of these coding prodigies will be reduced to operating food carts on the streets of Ho Chi Minh city, until one sets himself on fire and begins the Southeast Asian Spring.

    • ljgude

      Well if they get onto oDesk and start offering their services they can access jobs world wide – including in the US. Maybe they are kinda growing virtual boat people. Of course, as been pointed out they could be just growing wee Potemkin virtual boat people.

      • Corlyss

        Kudos for the use of Potemkin and making it funny.

  • Corlyss

    “Neil Fraser visited a school in Vietnam where computer science classes begin in the second grade and continue right up to graduation. By fourth grade, students were already writing programs using loops, and by “grade 5 they are writing procedures containing loops calling procedures containing loops,” he says. By eleventh grade they regularly handle problems, he says, that are as difficult as the ones Google uses to test job applicants in interviews.”
    Don’t know how to break it to Fraser and ViaMeadia, but the days when cutting edge computer innovation sprang from brilliance in software coding are loooooooooooong gone. The key innovations are in device invention and new uses for devices. Microsoft is stagnant because it is principally a software company in an age when software innovation is trite and passé. The Apple operating system has been settled for what, 30 years? While their technological prowess has been in, as Jobs put it, inventing and selling devices Americans didn’t know they needed.

    • Flatley

      Perhaps that’s true in the somewhat inconsequential world of consumer electronics, where the Big Choices come down to font selection and user interface. In the arenas of defense, science, and engineering, however, there’s always room to find a better algorithm.

      Whether you’re working in robotic control, cybersecurity, or any of the other technical fields that have only emerged in the last few decades, the world of the future is going to be built by those who can speak with the machines. Learning to program doesn’t mean one is forced to enter a technical field; it merely means one has that as an option.

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