Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: A look at both sides of the coding curriculum debate

Today, there are an infinite number of articles from both advocates and critics of the recent push for getting coding curriculum into elementary ( and secondary) schools. The more you read, the more interesting the discussion gets. Let’s take a look at their points.

The Advocates

▪ Coding leads to “computational thinking”: Ed Lazowska, University of Washington Professor and Bill and Melinda Gates chair in Computer Science and Engineering, in a New York Times letter to the editor, clarifies that coding and computer science aren’t the same. Taught right, programming — coding — is the hands-on, inquiry-based way that students learn “computational thinking” also known as problem analysis and decomposition, abstraction, algorithmic thinking, algorithmic expression and stepwise fault isolation (debugging). He says there are three reasons that young children should learn coding:

1. Computational thinking is an essential capability;

2. Programming is a marketable skill;

3. 71% of all new jobs in STEM related fields are predicted to be in computer science.

▪ The world is changing: Stav Ziv shares in “Deciphering the Code: Why America’s Kids Need to Learn Computer Science,” that world has been completely changed by technology. From banking and medicine, to transportation and entertainment, every field has been impacted by computers and software.

▪ Coding vs. Biology: It’s the learning that’s important. The fact that schools don’t teach the most basic course of how computers work and how the Internet works appears to be a huge gap in current education offerings. Compare that to a scenario where a school doesn’t teach biology or chemistry or physics. Even though your children may not become a biologist or a chemist, it’s important that they take these courses to help them understand how the natural world works. And so the basic understanding how does the Internet work, what are the inner workings of an app, those are just as important as learning how electricity works or how photosynthesis works.

▪ Coding provides a gateway: Once kids are hooked on programming, it becomes a gateway for science, math and entrepreneurship. One of the challenges in teaching science and math has always been finding direct connections to everyday life to make the lessons relevant. Math is essential for more advanced programming, so if done right, this program can be a gateway to engaging students in math/science curricula, which has befuddled educators and students alike.

The real challenge remains to bring this skill-set and inspiration into poor and overlooked neighborhoods, or we risk creating another have-and-have-not chasm: those who can program, and those who can’t.

▪ Relevance impacts outcomes: There is little appreciation for how computer languages can be used to solve problems. The more concrete the problem is - like when a biologist uses software to analyze data, the more meaningful it becomes. If the biologist is not able to get the information that is needed, he/she could use a flexible command line to write the needed scripts. This is a compelling reason to extend programming knowledge outside of the “technology” realm. The biologist’s knowledge comes from a focused learning of the language that is specialized for the application used in that field - rather than simply learning how to program.

▪ Coding is better than gaming: Parents love the idea of giving children something to do with computers that they see as productive, as opposed to endless hours of video gaming.

▪ A scaffold to social responsibility: Learning to code is fun, but designing learning experiences where real-world problem solving is at the center gives an important sense of purpose to coding and will equip students with the necessary skills to ensure competitiveness and inspire social responsibility.

▪ Coding is practical: Mark Morss says the purpose of education is to develop good problem-solving skills. Coding, which is a formal expression of logic, is very useful. It does not involve confrontation and is accessible to more personality types. Coding has a practical purpose, and thus perhaps is more likely to engage the young.

▪ Coding works in summer camps, get it into the schools: Sheena Vaidyanathan, in her article “Should Kids Learn to Code in Grade School,” says that nonprofits and other private organizations are chiefly responsible for providing the summer programming camps for minority high school students and for middle and high school girls. What they are doing is working to fix what’s broken — providing an essential skill that’s not taught in most schools due to funding. Programming is just writing in the language of computers, so why not teach kids to code like we teach them to write?

The Critics

▪ Who qualifies as a teacher?: Chase Felker, a software engineer for Slate Magazine is concerned about programming teachers. In his article from Future Tense’s “Maybe Not Everyone Should Learn to Code,” he agrees that the access to programming knowledge is just as important as the access to of all types of knowledge.

Programming provides very little separation between appreciation and the creation of a product. With the right coding, you can write programs that build real things. And in programming, your credentials are derived directly from the programs you have written.

So who become the teachers? Anyone can call himself a programming instructor and misdirect unsuspecting students. There has been much written about the alarming number of programming job applicants who show up for programming positions and can’t program. It seems that many computer science instructors fail to teach people to recognize what they don’t know.

▪ Problem solving is paramount to coding: Scott Lawson, Founder of Trackpal taught himself how to code. He says we shouldn’t be so focused on teaching young kids how to code in order to save the future. Despite the obsession, he strongly believes that coding won’t create great problem solvers by itself. The only skill that will do that is learning to problem solve. So instead of the focus on coding, there should be a much stronger emphasis on problem solving.

Coding is a useful skill to have, but problem solving is one that will always be required and has the potential to change the world for the better.

▪ Will skill set impact careers?: Matt Richtel, in his piece “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and now Coding,” is not sold on whether teaching basic computer science in grade school will beget future jobs or foster broader creativity and logical thinking, as some champions of the movement project believe.

Felker feels that the promotion of programming is based on the notion that the pervasive presence of technology demands that everyone understand the nitty-gritty details. Do we all need to understand how it works? Society divides its labor so that everyone can use things without having to know about their specifics. To justify the need for everyone to learn programming, data should show that most jobs will actually require this skill rather than vague predictions and a “program or be programmed” mindset.

▪ Early learning should focus on cultivating research skills and digital citizenship: Beth Schwartze, technology coordinator and computer science teacher, shares that her school offers K-8 computer science instruction. However, it focuses on keyboarding practice, using programs to create products, and learning how to research with proper citation and digital citizenship.

While learning how to use editing and coding tools are valuable tools across the curriculum, she feels that early elementary students’ primary needs are literacy and numeracy. By middle school, both students and teachers are most focused on research, collaboration and writing skills that will allow them to complete core class homework.

▪ Impact of coding curriculum on university expectations: Universities want students who can write, comprehend, communicate and compute. Adding another component into the mix may not realistic.

Computer science is a necessary part of the whole educational package. However, it is not the only part, or the most important.

▪ Influence of “the industry”: Some educators worry about the tech industry’s heavy role. Companies like Microsoft and Facebook have put up millions of dollars in support of Code.org. to offer free lessons to encourage both students and schools to embrace code and computer science.

▪ Where are the documented benefits?: According to Jim Taylor, author of “Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children for a Media-Fueled World,” there is not strong research linking the benefits of early exposure to technology to later academic and professional success. He says that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer didn’t become successful because they could write code, but rather because they were cogent, creative and innovative thinkers.

▪ Thinking comes first: Students continue to demonstrate the impact of the computer age. This was illustrated when a groups of students were given a simple graph and asked to draw a shifted or rescaled version and couldn’t do it. They could push buttons to make their graphing calculators draw it, but THEY could not do the work. We need to teach children to think. People funding education need to look closely at the best ways to encourage children to think on their own before putting computer programs into the classroom.

Felker adds that mandating instructional programming as a general education requirement would most likely displace something else we’re already failing to teach. We don’t need everyone to code — we need everyone to think. And unfortunately, it is very easy to code without thinking.

▪ The social impact of computers: Children grow up to be successful when they have parents who instill in them essential values, attitudes and life skills, and capable teachers who inspire and inform them. Taylor says to put down the gadgets, and let children interact with their parents, teachers and the world without a screen in the way. The benefits of early coding abilities must be weighed against the social isolation and sedentary nature associated with it. Kids still need to go out, explore, play and sweat.

What the philosophers say

▪ Who imparts ethical responsibility: Christine Mattison worries about the effect of anonymity on public discourse and the fact that a single person can orchestrate chaos within minutes. She feels that young people need to understand the impact of their craft and that coding instruction should go hand in hand with coursework on the ethics of the Internet.

▪ Let creativity and interest lead the way: Commenter Rob Campbell says too many parents desperately to push their child at too young an age into one thing or another. He says the greatest musicians became great because they taught themselves their craft. The same goes for coding and programming. Provide the child with the basics and exposure to computing appreciation, and let them go from there.

▪ Priority of consumerism vs. citizenry: Must we know about the things we purchase and use? One could argue that if we had a better idea of what our software does, we might use it differently — especially when it comes to “security.” But there are several other things we should — and do not — know. We have become a nation of bibliophobes. Most kids lack civic knowledge let alone basic understanding, of logic, science, music, etc. How do we prioritize?

In the end, each individual must find what is “right” for them. It is incorrect to think computers will make our kids smart, bright and successful. Yet we can not ignore the need to understand that which drives these current devices and the ones that have yet to be invented. Success, be it technologic or civic, will always remain the result of empathy, curiosity and motivation.

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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