Why compulsory coding in schools is a silly idea

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If there’s one thing bigger than big data in the educational trendo-sphere lately, it’s coding.

Coding, I think, is a cool way to talk about what we used to call programming, and it’s all the rage, as in ‘Coding in Schools is Vital’

This is the next big thing and when the Opposition Leader stands up in Parliament and tells us that everyone should be doing it, you know it’s mainstreamed. Bill Shorten said that all Australian children should have the opportunity to learn “the literacy of the 21st century” so that they can “design, create and operate the apps and computers” that will drive Australia’s future economy. Others are arguing that coding is as crucial as English and Maths.

Read that last sentence again, then code in that smiley face with the straight-line mouth at this point. 😐 Really?

Does that argument even make sense? And if you say it does, what time should be given over in the crowded curriculum, and what should go? Geography?

I used to keep a list of the all the stuff people in the papers and politicians said that should be taught in schools. It included things like (and I kid you not): chess, road safety, personal safety, origami, basic mechanics, first aid, meditation …) Many of these things are very worthy of our attention and time, but you get the point. Where do you stop, and what do you take out?

So, why coding? Well, the arguments seem to come down to these:

  1. Computers are really important in our world and you need to know how they work. This is exemplified in the Business Council argument that ‘digital literacy is now a core life skill which is becoming just as important as normal literacy and numeracy in the emerging digital economy.’
  2. This is where the jobs are. You know that Careers teacher who’s been telling us for year that the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet? Well, now they have, and it’s called app development.
  3. It’s like another language; languages are good to learn
  4. Compulsory coding will get girls into an area that is dominated by males.
  5. It teaches you logic, cause and effect, that kind of thing.

So, do these stand up?

  1. Well, yes. computer are pretty important in our world. I’m writing this on one now and I’d hate to be pulling the fountain pen out to draft it. I happily admit that I’ve no idea just how Siri understands me 70% of the time. I’m a long time advocate for computers in schools, for students. But not for their own purpose, but for what they bring to teaching, learning, collaborating and creating: what you can do with them. So, while it might be handy to know that computers are programmable devices I’m not sure how much class time you’d devote to that simple idea. Cars are pretty important too, but nobody’s arguing that we should all learn basic mechanics in school to know how they work … (oh yeah, there was that one guy who argued that!) So, ‘digital literacy’ doesn’t mean putting on overalls and replacing the gearbox, but maybe it means being a skilled driver who can get the most out of the technology?
  2. The jobs argument seems a bit like an even weaker argument than the 1980s push that we all learn Japanese, because that’s what the jobs will be. That didn’t turn out so well. And, I don’t really think that coding is the dream-job of the future. For every Mark Zuckerberg who can code and had some good ideas, there are a thousand coding hamsters, most of them outsourced to India, doing the grunt work and making the wheel spin. There sure are jobs in technology, but if I was looking for future skills I’d want to be the creative / collaborative / inventive /entrepreneurial / inventor type rather than the poor pizza-fed employee who has to make it work.
  3. It’s good to learn languages. And coding is a language. Or many of them. But, you know, even in these crazy modern days, if I was thinking about learning a new language it probably wouldn’t be Python. I might try Spanish. You know, a language that’s lasted more than a decade and is well out of beta. Is coding ‘the most important language in the world’? Well, no. You might try Chinese, or English.
  4. That more women in coding would be a good thing is undeniable. Anyone who has encountered the pervasive, casual misogyny of the gaming world would say it needs to be more inclusive. But why should women like evangelising hamsters into the coding caves to right the wrongs of the world?
  5. That it teaches logic, cause and effect, sequencing, is to me the strongest of the arguments. One of my primary colleagues, Steve Costa, puts it beautifully when he says: “It is essential to have students learn to be creators and makers of programs as well as take risks, learn through their efforts (both successful and otherwise- and to experience that learning from their “mistakes” often helps for better understanding of the procedures being attempted… He points to articles like ‘Why we should be teaching kids to code’. Hard to argue with that, except to say that there are other well tried ways of working to develop concepts of sequencing and logic and persistence as well, and those important attributes are timeless and beyond mere content.

In looking at articles about coding in schools in thinking about this piece the name Estonia came up a fair bit. Apparently Estonia has moved to implement coding in schools in a big way. So, Estonia is to coding what Finland is to PISA tests. Something like that.

Late in thinking about this piece I came across Patrick Kenneally’s Guardian piece, ‘Let’s pause before drinking the “coding in schools” Kool-Aid, which argues in part: ‘In the absence of being able to accurately predict which skills will be in demand in the future workforce, surely it makes more sense to build broad generalist skills of numeracy and literacy in the early years, rather than concentrate on the narrower skill of coding.’

I’ve got an even better idea: develop literacy and numeracy and the 21stC skills that are likely to really useful in helping young people fully engage in their future world of learning and work. I’ve blogged about them before. And stop knee-jerking politicians telling just what schools ought and ought not to be doing.

Disclaimer:  I love technology but am not a coder. The most advanced stuff I’ve ever done is scripting in Filemaker Pro. I enjoyed it.  The high point was a Markbook program I developed that was tailored to VCE English, which I began for my own use, gave to some other teachers even considered selling to a textbook publisher. This was long before ‘apps’.