Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Reading, Riting, Rithmetic….. and Coding

While you were reviewing your elementary school child’s math and language arts homework, did you catch the coding homework? If not, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. According to Anthony Cuthberton of the International Business Times, the majority of parents aren’t even aware of coding, nor its newfound presence in school.

In many places over the world —including in Miami — coding curriculum has already been launched in primary and secondary schools. So while our children are learning to put vowels together to make words or sentences together to convey thoughts, they are also learning to how join, break and combine symbols to make inanimate objects perform for them.

What is coding?

As Cuthberton explains, coding is the ability to tell a computer what you want it to do. It involves the creation of step-by-step commands that a computer will follow. That is, if you do it correctly and in a language that the computer can understand. So for an example, if you want a computer to draw a specific sized rectangle, with the word rectangle! inside, you might use this set of commands: <div style=”width:500px;height:100px;border:1px solid #000;”>This is a rectangle!</div>

To see how simple coding can be, you can click the link to Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science, to learn how to program Elsa (from the Disney movie Frozen) to move in different directions. http://studio.code.org/s/frozen/stage/1/puzzle/1

The impact of coding

For a non-coder like myself, I equate coding to asking someone in France how to get to the Louvre. You first get a series of directions, most likely in French. You have to understand French to interpret the directions, then you have to follow the directions. If all goes well, you will arrive at your intended destination.

Speaking of languages, coding for computers comes in thousands of languages. But these languages don’t involve words per se; they involve numbers and letters in abbreviated commands. The website www.CodeConquest.org offers an array of user-friendly explanations and tutorials for those who want to learn about coding.

CodeConquest.org also explains the niche of the various computer languages out there. From the earliest versions like BASIC and FORTRAN to those used today like “C,” the simple but powerful grandfather of coding languages, Javascript for creating web browsers, Python for writing scientific code, or Ruby for those who simply want to have fun. The list is nearly infinite. The rectangle command above was written in HTML/CSS.

So what ignited the push for coding’s return to the front lines of academia?

Digital and computerized devices run our lives. Yet most of us take for granted the foundation upon which these devices (aka, smart phones/apps, video games, our digital appliances, the Mars Lander, automatic external defibrillators, traffic signals, and so on) function — the ability to follow commands.

Over the past few decades, coding has moved from the inner sanctum of a select group to global mainstream. Celebrities ranging from Chris Bosh to President Obama joined the “everyone should learn to code” movement. The notion is that learning to code will make American kids more employable and help them keep up with global competition. Steve Jobs once said “everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”

Code is to the digital age as coal was to the industrial age. And while code makes our digital world possible, coders remain the creators, the composers. So as we move further into the digital world, who will become the digital composers of the future? From coders and people who understand code, to welders and makers, the world needs these people, yet there are very few to fill these spots.

History repeats itself

Even before today’s push to learn coding in elementary school, the 1980s arrival of desktop computers ushered in the need to learn keyboarding skills (and for a few, writing rudimentary code). Like typing, learning the keyboard and its functions was relatively simple. But someone had the idea that teaching children how to write code could undo the stringent rules and traditions of the classroom and provide children with opportunities to think creatively, sequentially and critically.

Using constructivist principles (knowledge is constructed based on experience of the world and playing with what is already known) it was thought that children would be able to transfer their programming abilities to other essential knowledge areas and skills. The Logo program (created in 1967, Seymour Papert/MIT, et al) and its animated turtle set out to achieve this. After nearly a decade, a combination of changing academic vision, the program’s apparent failure to transfer learning, and overall bad timing, led to the program’s general demise.

A New Standard of Literacy?

Everyone ought to be able to read and write. Most people would agree with that statement. But Dan Rowinski in his piece “Computer Programming for All: A New Standard of Literacy,” asks whether everyone should be able to program computers.

By the late 19th century, knowledge was no longer confined to an elite class. The impact of literacy began to spread throughout all levels of society. Any educated person could command the power of words. But what if the concept of literacy was expanded to encompass machine languages? Typically, computer literacy begins and ends at the user interface — if you know how to make the machine work, you are computer-literate. But the deeper literacy of the programmer is far more powerful.

Computer languages and human languages are very similar — they vary in form and character (Python to Java to Ruby) and can be implemented in infinite ways. One person’s Python may not look like another’s, but it can do the same thing. Similarly, a singular idea can be expressed differently simply by using a variety English words. And both kinds of language are infinitely flexible. Just as a person literate in English can compose anything from a sonnet to a statute, a person literate in programming languages can set a traffic light to handle a busy intersection or make an AED (automatic external defibrillator) able to distinguish an irregular heart beat requiring an electric shock from one that simply requires monitoring.

Developer Boot Camp founder Shereef Bishay believes that coding will be the new literacy within a few decades. Those who don’t know how to code soon will be in the same position as those who couldn’t read or write 200 years ago.

As expected, the path to universal code literacy is not without roadblocks. The skills necessary to code depend on how computing evolves over the next several decades. The opponents for putting coding into the schools say that the human capacity to learn coding is not the issue. Like most urgent things in life, when we really need to learn something, we do it. The question remains, is it urgent or purposeful for all children to learn coding? Should computer programming become the new literacy or should it remain a vocation?

Classroom Change Without Educational Reform

Educator and education historian Larry Cuban in his 2014 piece “Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals” doesn’t believe that the growing call for instructional coding will work out as supporters hope.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, public schools have been charged with instilling the steadfast values of civilized life and the traditional three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Today, these expectations have been further compounded with the need to address the whole child, to serve as the change agent for societal progression, and to ensure learning gains for all.

Over time, the three Rs have expanded into several literacies — including scientific, numeric, technologic and civic. The arts and humanities — upon which all literacies are borne — were lost in the shuffle.

Cuban says this value conflict is best illustrated by the demise of cursive writing and the simultaneous ascent of K-12 coding instruction. Since Common Core Standards do not mention writing, it will eventually disappear from the curriculum, and from our lives.

Nation at Risk — Enter coding

The context and rationale for K-12 instructional coding differs from the days of Logo but some say the outcomes may repeat themselves.

The 1983 Nation at Risk report warned leaders that unless schools became more effective, the U.S. would languish economically allowing other nations to capture global markets. By the late 1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more rigorous curriculum frameworks, and began relentless testing regimes.

In the late 1990s, as computers and digital technology continued to explode, the idea of elementary computer programming instruction was resuscitated as a means to equip youth with the computational skills to prepare them for the 21st century labor market.

But has anything really changed since Logo became virtually extinct? Cuban offers some observations:

▪ Despite the influence of technological expertise, educational institutions have the last word about how any reform is put into practice. Traditional schools adapt reforms to meet institutional needs, not necessarily societal needs.

▪ Instructional coding opportunities remain a boutique offering. The majority of students who are exposed to it are middle or upper middle class.

▪ Most teachers are disinterested or have little incentive to teach coding.

▪ As before, the success of instructional coding depends upon the principle of transfer. The research on this has yet to be determined.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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