During 2017’s Computer Science Education week, Fast Company published a thought-provoking article by Kate Miltner titled, “Who benefits when schools push coding?”, strongly questioning the notion that computer programming, or coding, should be taught to all students.
Several points are worth quoting at length:
However, the American history of these education initiatives shows that their primary beneficiaries aren’t necessarily students or workers, but rather the influential tech companies that promote the programs in the first place. The current campaign to teach American kids to code may be the latest example of tech companies using concerns about education to achieve their own goals. This raises some important questions about who stands to gain the most from the recent computer science push.
Miltner’s often painful reminders of costly and disastrous past mistakes – the billion-dollar Los Angeles School District iPad fiasco, among others – certainly don’t make it easy to remain optimistic about the trajectory of education’s incorporation of “tech” subjects now.
While the article is careful to cite research concluding that technology “on its own” will not solve education’s age-old problems, it fails to see the merits of coding and computer science through one of the very same lenses we encourage students to value more traditional subjects like science and math through applications offering a deeper understanding of our world. And as for the concept of computational thinking, it isn’t even mentioned.
What also goes unmentioned is the arduous road math and reading instruction creators confronted when providing students with resources and technology in nascent form. As I mention in this piece championing more rigorous standards by which to teach computer science, educators learned the hard way not to rush implementing new technology in more traditional subjects like math and reading; in approaching computer science why not heed lessons of traditional subject administrators?
Whatever problems plague the delivery of an excellent education in coding, a serious reality remains – we may be far beyond the question of integrating computer science, coding and computer programming skills into what is today considered a well-rounded curriculum offering.
The same Fast Company article begins with the following:
Over the past five years, the idea that computer programming – or coding is the key to the future for both children and adults alike has become received wisdom in the United States. The aim of making computer science a new basic skill for all Americans has driven the formation of dozens of nonprofit organizations, coding schools, and policy programs.
Used interchangeably above, computer programming, coding and computer science are distinct in their own right, yet also all crucial parts of understanding a world that is definitely already here. As Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org, has pointed out, looking at just one aspect, like coding, while ignoring the broader concepts is analogous to teaching students how to print their letters without ever teaching them how to write an essay. To take that analogy even further, if one of the benefits of learning subjects like biology and chemistry is learning more about the natural world we inhabit, initiatives like CS for All need to be seen as teaching more about the technology we are (already) so entrenched in.
For example, with some context given to coding, students stand to gain an understanding of:
- How the internet works
- How to solve routine software and hardware problems that may occur in their everyday lives
- How people can be feel secure shopping online
- How it is possible for a group of friends to play an online game simultaneously
- How one can do so many things with a smartphone besides just talking, like find directions, take high quality pictures, purchase tickets to a movie, etc.
CS for All is also an important means for students to express themselves with technology, and to gain a more nuanced understanding of what that really means. Sacha Judd echoes the sentiment about a world that has already arrived in her fascinating talk about how our approach to motivating more females’ involvement in computer science may need some updating:
I realized that I was spending all this time trying to think about how to engage women with technology, and I was ignoring the fact they already were. They were essentially already video editors, graphic designers, community managers. They were teaching each other CSS to make their tumblr themes look more gorgeous, and they were using Chrome extensions in anger to make tumblr do what they wanted. These were basically front end developers, social media managers, they were absolutely immersed in technology, every day, and we weren’t paying attention, because they were doing it in service of something we dontt care about. – Sacha Judd
Far from suggesting an aim to turn all students into software engineers, the quote from Judd may illustrate that students could be intrinsically motivated to write code without ever wanting to work for Google or Facebook, but rather, to individually improve their own user experience in a digital world they already inhabit.
Still, Miltner’s concerns about “new economy” claims, and more specifically, the insatiable demand for technology workers in the future being over-hyped are certainly worth considering. However, one thing that is definitely not overhyped is students’ passionate interest in computer science, long before considering a career.
Before joining the EdTech world, I was a teacher – a teacher who took pride in teaching students, not subjects. As I made strides in my teaching career, I took on the role of Gifted Education coordinator for an elementary and middle school in my district. This new position offered welcomed challenges, including, developing the program’s curriculum. I took this opportunity to lead with the values I’d learned from my teaching career and embrace students as active participants in informing their own education.
So I surveyed them. And their voice was clear; resoundingly, they wanted to learn more about computer science and robotics. Under those two headings, there was wonderful diversity. A group of the students wanted to compete in robotics competitions. One student, Chris, loved programming. At 13, he’d already created his own website and numerous apps and was always looking for more to learn and do. Another student, Rachel, wanted to program a robot to play music. Much like the teenagers profiled in the talk by Judd, the motivation for these students was intrinsic, and often times, driven by joys I hadn’t necessarily anticipated – they were satisfying needs for fun, competition, expression, and curious exploration within their education.
Not every day in the classroom can be a transformational one, but I did everything I could to make sure my students had some opportunity to learn what it was they had expressed a genuine interest in learning computer science.
It wasn’t long before I too, was hooked. The engagement from the students was exhilarating; I was having fun and so were the students. Because I was also a novice, we learned together; I learned as much from them as they learned from me. The experience changed my entire perspective on teaching, so much so, I later transitioned to a career advocating for quality education across the globe in the very fields my students had taught me to know and love.
Whether their interest in tech was driven by an industry or a cultural movement too big and too fast to contend with, I can’t say. And while coding may not solve some of the difficult questions that have plagued education for decades, it and the larger field it relates to, do offer one solution we’d be wise to never forget – students can teach us as much about a changing world as we can teach them