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The Fourth R of Basic Literacy

April 30, 2015

The three Rs (as in the letter R) refers to the foundations of a basic skills-oriented education program within schools: reading, writing and arithmetic. The phrase the three Rs, is used because each word in the phrase has a strong R phoneme (sound) at the beginning. The definition of original phrase "the Three Rs" as "reading, writing, and ‘arithmetic" is attributed to Sir William Curtis from a speech made at a Board of education dinner in 1795, in England. [1]

It may surprise you to know that as old as this phrase is, it formed the basis of the educational system we have today. Our curriculum for basic education (primary and junior secondary) which was borrowed from the British, revolves around the three Rs. Why else do you think a credit in Mathematics and English language are mandatory for promotion to the next class in our schools today?

The 3Rs are great, they produced much of what we have today. But I guess you are already thinking what I am thinking, “Isn’t there something we can add to this 220 year old model?” or “Are the three Rs alone good enough?” Certainly the three Rs no longer suffice, and yes, there is something we can add to them. We need to add one more R, the one of pRogramming or like the R in algoRithms.

BusinessDictionary.com defines programming as the process of developing and implementing various sets of instructions to enable a computer to do a certain task. Wikipedia describes it further, “programming involves activities such as analysis, developing understanding, generating algorithms, verification of requirements of algorithms including their correctness and resources consumption, and implementation (commonly referred to as coding) of algorithms in a target programming language.  Algorithms are as basic to the way the 21st century digital age works as reading, writing, and arithmetic were to the late 18th century Industrial era.

Programming and computational thinking gives children in this century the ability to write software and develop programs to suit the needs and challenges that are peculiar to their environment.

Learning to program (code) allows children to not just create, but understand and perhaps contribute to the technologies that govern their lives, including interaction with other kids learning the same skills as they are. It scratches their innate itch to create.

Programming also gives children the opportunity to participate in the creation (not just the consumption) of digital culture, as well as the economic, educational, and business products & services that embellish our lives today.

For those children not destined to be programmers when they grow up, this Fourth R gives them access to computational thinking; exposes them to the internal workings of computer systems and how it can be used to enhance their chosen field of endeavour be it medicine, aviation, engineering, sports, etc

Just as the last century saw a major educational initiative aimed at basic literacy and numeracy for the masses, today we must push for basic computational literacy for everyone, especially our children. In fact, computational literacy should be a human right.

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