Every time I share my vision of free computer programming for kids and teens, I get the same question: “why are you focusing on libraries instead of schools?”

It’s tough to answer, because there are 78 million kids at school all day, a place that exists for the sole purpose of educating our young people. Nearly a trillion dollars will be spent on schools this year, with billions of those dollars being directed to software, technology, and other innovations promising to improve education. Now consider the fact that coding advocates like Code.org and Khan Academy (backed by Gates Foundation) have focused exclusively on K-12 schools, and I pretty much look like an idiot for deciding to ignore them.

The onus is on me to justify my bet on libraries over schools. I accept that.

I’ve blogged a little about this in the past, and I will certainly write more in the future, but for today I want to make a simple argument. It’s an indisputable fact, and one I hold responsible for the political mayhem and bureaucratic quagmire that turn any discussion of education into a verbal war of the highest degree. Take a look at what happened when Mark Zuckerberg tried to help the public schools in Newark, NJ.

Here’s the fact: kids have to be at school, but they can choose to be at the library. 

It sounds minor, but this is a huge distinction that has major practical implications. I’ll briefly mention a few.

  • By choosing to be there, kids at the library are free to pursue the highly motivational ideals of autonomy, purpose, and mastery (see this TED talk by Dan Pink for more on this).
  • With no compulsory element, adults are free to teach – not transmitting information, but  motivating, inspiring, mentoring, supplementing, and coaching.
  • And with a field as gripping as computer programming (i.e. tinkering with technology in an effort to create something fun), kids are empowered by their natural curiosity and find themselves learning in a real, meaningful way.

Ironic, perhaps. But it’s certainly effective. We have proven this approach over two years of weekly Code Club meetings. I wish you could meet the kids who are teaching themselves to program of their own volition, believing all along that they are just having fun.