Michael Trucano posted this on his blog December 8. 2015. From the World Bank blog: “Michael Trucano is the World Bank’s Senior Education & Technology Policy Specialist and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, serving as the organization’s focal point on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world. At a practical working level, Mike provides policy advice, research and technical assistance to governments seeking to utilize new information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems. Over the past 18 years, Mike has been advisor on, evaluator of, and/or working-level participant in, educational technology initiatives in over 45 middle- and low-income countries.”
“Coding”, it is said by some, is the “new literacy”. The ability to write and understand computer code, some contend, is increasingly fundamental to understanding how to navigate one’s way through, to say nothing of succeeding in, a modern society where more and more of our lives are enabled and/or constrained by the actions of devices and information systems that run on computer code.
Few would argue with the notion, I would expect, that efforts to expose some students to ‘coding’, and to develop some related skills, is a bad thing. That said:
Should *all* students learn how to code?
All? That’s ridiculous! some would answer.
All? Absolutely! others respond.
I’ve sat in on a number of related discussions in ministries of education and at education policy forums around the world. At times, it can seem like members of these two groups are not only on different pages, but reading from totally different books. Those people just don’t get it, I’ve have heard representatives from both groups lament about each other after the conclusion of such meetings.
For what it’s worth, and in case it might be of any interest to others, here are, in no particular order, some of the most common arguments I hear made both in support of, and against, educational coding initiatives:
Coding education will help students acquire vocational skills that are immediately relevant to today’s job market.
Look at all of the IT-related jobs available in the world, coding education advocates say. Shouldn’t our schools be specifically preparing our students to compete for them? Setting aside larger questions about the proper place of vocationally-oriented classes and approaches within an education system (some folks have a bit more expanded view of what ‘education’ should mean than something that is only meant to prepare the workers of tomorrow) and agreeing that some perspectives are a bit extreme (“Latest Craze for Chinese Parents: Preschool Coding Classes”), critics respond that many related efforts are a waste of time in practice for a number of reasons. These include that: (a) they focus on developing largely mechanical processes that are easily learned in other venues; (b) they are largely concerned with “job-relevant” skills of today, not tomorrow; (c) initiatives of this sort are largely driven by the business sector (a group whose motives they view with great suspicion); and (d) many current efforts have little pedagogical value in and of themselves. Often cited with particular disdain are projects purportedly about coding but which amount to little more than learning how to use basic office tools such as word processors and presentation software. Proponents counter that arguing that something shouldn’t be done in the future because it is often done badly today doesn’t always make for a winning argument, and that just because the private sector supports a particular activity in schools doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad or that nefarious intentions are at play. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, they respond.
Coding helps develop important logic and problem-solving skills.
Steve Jobs remarked that “coding teaches you how to think”. Few would argue against the notion that, when taught well, education in coding can help develop important logical thinking and problem-solving skills. Indeed, most coding education is at its very heart about logic and meant to be oriented to help people identify and solve specific problems (whether they are as basic as “have a greeting appear on the screen” or “move this turtle up and to the left” or as complex as trying model projected rainfall patterns or the transmission of a virus throughout a population). In response, critics argue that coding courses have no monopoly on the development of such skills, and that in fact such skills should be embedded throughout an entire curriculum, not the focus of a single school subject
Understanding coding helps students better understand the nature of the world around them, and how and why increasing parts of it function as they do.
Computers play increasingly large roles in our lives, and so it’s important to understand how they function. There tends, I find, to be general agreement about this statement among education policymakers, although different groups nevertheless disagree on its practical relevance, given many competing priorities. That said, it is perhaps worth noting that many critics of educational coding efforts may perhaps not fully grasp the potential import of this observation. Computers don’t have minds of their own (at least not yet, anyway!), they act only according to the instructions that have been programmed into them. The price you are charged in the market, why your government or a private company thinks you might do (or not do) something, why a search result appears on your screen – such things are increasingly not directly determined by the whim or a person, but rather by an algorithm (or combination of algorithms) that someone has created. Understanding what such algorithms enable, and how, will increasingly be important to understand our increasingly digitized world. (Technology is neither good nor bad, Melvin Kranzberg noted, nor is it neutral.) Those who acknowledge the potentially profound insights that might follow from such observations may still argue that there is a very practical and immediate opportunity cost here: If you add coding to the mandatory curriculum for all students, what comes out? Some places are considering doing things like letting coding courses be used to meet foreign languageor basic mathematicsrequirements – is this a good thing?
Teaching students to code can serve as a gateway to subsequent study of STEM topics — and hopefully to jobs and careers in related fields.
Reasonable people can disagree about the exact nature and magnitude of the ‘STEM challenge’ (i.e. problems that arise because insufficient numbers of students are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics … a topic for another blog post, perhaps). That said, even where critics concede that such a challenge exists, they may ask: Is ‘coding’ really this really the ‘best’ gateway to boost general interest in STEM? If coding is not well taught, might it in fact dissuade some students from further study of STEM topics, and thus decrease the likelihood that they pursue STEM-related careers? Is coding education in schools indeed a gateway to coding, or is it in practice just ‘edutainment’, something to do with all the computers that schools have purchased and still haven’t figured out how to use productively — better than nothing, to be sure, but not better than many potential alternatives?
Introducing coding in schools can be a force for greater equity and equality of opportunity.
There can be little doubt that the tech industry suffers from a real problem related to diversity (or, more accurately, a lack of diversity). Efforts to introduce coding in schools in some places are seen as a measure that can help with this. Advocates maintain that, when coding is something that everyone does, it is no longer something just e.g. for boys, or for kids with computers at home, or for people in California or India, or who are Caucasian or Asian or ___ [feel free to insert your own stereotype and/or ‘privileged’ group]. Providing more exposure to coding for a wider variety of kids can certainly help to some extent, critics might counter, by helping to providing some initial opportunities for those who may not otherwise get them and by chipping away at some stereotypes, but the situation is rather complex, and much more needs to be done. Such critics worry that, because there are coding initiatives in schools, certain leaders will declare that the diversity challenge is being ‘solved’, or at least ‘handled’, and leave it at that. Supporting international efforts like Girls Who Code or more localized programs like GirlsCoding (in Nigeria) is all well and good, such critics say, and certainly a good start, but it isn’t ‘solving’ the problem.
Being able to code enables new avenues for creativity and creative expression.
Efforts to teach coding skills to young students through the use of tools like Scratch, or as part of robotics courses or initiatives to promote “making” (and/or “physical computing”), are often cited as compelling examples of what (good) coding education efforts may comprise. Here again, many critics may laud such efforts but still argue that, even if you concede that coding is a new literacy in our increasingly technology-saturated world, it is still worth asking two rather basic questions before moving ahead with new, large-scale, mandatory educational coding initiatives in school:
*How are we doing with the old, basic literacies of reading, writing and arithmetic?
*Shouldn’t we ensure that these fundamental “literacy skills” are in place before we start tacking new ones on to our already bloated curricula?….
Should we teach coding in schools? What does ‘coding’ mean in our context? Who should teach it, and who should learn it – a certain few, or everyone? Can we afford to do this do? (Conversely, given that our neighbors and competitors are doing this, can we afford not to do this?) Are we interested in making sure more kids ‘learn to code’ and then stop there, or is it more about developing the skills that would help students eventually ‘code to learn’?
Whatever the situation or context, how a policymaker answers these and many of other related questions is probably colored quite a bit by how she views the role and process of education, and the activity of learning, more broadly.