The second coming of coding: Will it bring rapture or rejection?

Coding, aka computer programming, made it into the headlines earlier this year when Federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, asked Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, whether he would “support coding being taught in every primary and secondary school.” The Prime Minister initially derided the idea with a comment about kids going to work as coders at age 11 but later confirmed that the Government was already supporting the concept in the national curriculum.

Those of us who have been around schools for long enough will recognise this as at least the second coming of coding in the classroom. It was there when computing first began to appear in the mathematics curricula of the mid-1970s but the first big push was when Logo became available for Apple Computers in the early 1980s.

Seymour Papert (1980) was unimpressed by what seemed then to be the future of computers in education, children being taught by computers. Instead Papert thought it better that the children should teach the computer, drawing on the experience that most of us have that one of the best ways to clarify our understanding of something is to explain it to somebody else. He devised the Logo programming language specifically for education.

Logo was designed to be easily accessible at a basic level so that young children could quickly learn the rudiments but rich enough to support more advanced programming. It was used successfully with very young children and to teach university computer science courses.

Papert also devised the ‘turtle’ which could be driven around on the floor under computer control, making simple programming concepts concrete. The mechanical turtle was expensive so most implementations of Logo in classrooms were restricted to using the same instructions to drive a ‘turtle’ around a computer screen.

Within a decade Logo had all but disappeared from most school classrooms. That was despite development of multiple versions of the language with graphic and other extensions, including interfaces to support control of Lego and other systems. There were schools, including some of the early adopters of laptop programs, that made Logo a feature for a time but the focus of computing mostly shifted to standard office applications and the World Wide Web.

I don’t know that anybody has ever satisfactorily explained the virtual disappearance of Logo despite research that demonstrated its educational value. I suspect that the cause was that the classroom applications seldom progressed beyond drawing simple geometric shapes on the screen or producing short animations. The likely cause of that may well have been that few teachers had any real concept of what else might be possible with the tools at their disposal.

Programming has continued and expanded in schools over the past couple of decades but that activity has been very largely in secondary schools and, with few exceptions, a specialised subject taken by a minority of students. There has been no widespread adoption of programming or coding as part of general education in either secondary or primary schools and no apparent impetus for such adoption, until now.

Over the past five years or so interest in computing in schools has emerged around the world. The terminology varies – programming, coding, computational thinking – but the same broad ideas are in play. The shift has not been sudden; there are hints of it in Friedman’s (2006) discussion what is needed in education for the flattened world. The drivers have included corporations concerned about where they will find the talent to spearhead their next advances in computing and governments concerned about the future of their economies.

The Digital Technologies subject in the new Australian Curriculum: Technologies (ACARA, 2014) has proposed computational thinking as a key idea and presented some elements of programming as core to a general education. The review of the national curriculum (Donnelly & Wiltshire, 2014) expressed some scepticism about the proposals for digital technologies, apparently on the basis of suggesting that other countries are not doing it and Australia ought not lead the charge. The exchange in Federal parliament cited above suggests that it is an idea whose time has come but there continues to be public debate about the possible place of coding in schools.

There are voices raised in support of an introduction to coding as part of a general education. Sterling (2015) is one who argues that the centrality of coding to modern technology makes it important for all to understand the possibilities even if we have no expectation that all students have careers in coding any more than we expect that all will become artists as a result of studying The Arts in school. His position is actually less in favour of children using technology in classrooms than developing some understanding of the principles of computational thinking upon which the technologies depend. I suspect that trying to rebottle the genie of computers (or tablets and smartphones) in the classroom is a lost cause but I agree that understanding something of how things work and the potential for new applications is important.

At the other end of the spectrum there are arguments that a little bit of coding in classrooms may be a dangerous thing (Merkel & McNamara, 2015). Their argument is that simplistic approaches to coding misrepresent the nature of information technology by encouraging ad hoc tinkering. The reality is that information technology depends upon the systematic approaches of software engineering implemented through team work. Their assessment of the proposed digital technologies curriculum is that the anticipated outcomes would challenge some students in university programs.

Interestingly, with the arguable exception of Kevin Donnelly, none of the voices cited above could claim much familiarity with school education, let alone the challenges of teaching computing to primary school children. Bron Stuckey (2015) has voiced an opinion from an educational perspective and admitted, in response to a comment, to having taught Logo in the mathematics curriculum. She is not convinced that coding is the new literacy, preferring science for that role with coding included under its umbrella. She recalls that she learned to code in BASIC, a common activity in the early days of personal computing when there was little or no software other than what one could code mostly by copying from code sourced from others. She also notes that she no longer uses that knowledge and knows few or no people who have any use for coding in their daily interactions with computers. She suggests that coding may be best learned outside of class time though the logic and computational thinking that underpin it may be more vital in general education.

There are many things taught and learned in schools that have limited everyday utility for most people – trigonometry, calculus, atomic structure, geography of foreign lands, European history, to name a few. Nevertheless we probably do not need to add to the list and should take care that new additions to the curriculum seem relevant. Certainly we want teachers to see the value of the curriculum even if it is not immediately apparent to the children in their classes.

The Australian Curriculum: Technologies (ACAR, 2014) specifies the creation of visual programs and refers to the use of a visual programming language. The most widely known language of that kind and the one most likely to be used in addressing those aspects of the curriculum is Scratch (scratch.mit.edu). Somewhat ironically Scratch has been developed out of the same laboratory that Papert established and led at MIT. The use of drag and drop pieces to construct simple programs makes it even easier to get started with Scratch than with Logo and it lends itself to the creation of animations and games that children will likely find motivating. How far Scratch, or any of the similar languages that have appeared, can be pushed toward developing ‘useful’ programs is not entirely clear. Some variants are extensible and the RALfie project (ralfie.org) has developed some extensions to one variant, Snap! (snap.berkeley.edu), that enable remote control of Lego and other systems.

My guess is that most teachers, and learners, will find Scratch and its variants similar to Logo and for that reason it is at risk of meeting a similar fate. The most obvious projects involve simple animations and games that may demonstrate knowledge of programming and other subject matter but have no obvious utility in the real world. Enthusiasts may persevere but the already crowded curriculum will squeeze out all but the most necessary and minimal efforts at coding in many classrooms.

How should educators respond to this second coming of coding in the schools? Is this the long awaited rapture of computing in the classroom or will it end in another round of rejection? How should we be responding to this opportunity?

On balance I tend to agree with Bron Stuckey (2015). I have some coding skills and I do occasionally use them but not most days. However, the residue of my coding experience does have benefits in my application of computers in day-to-day life. A large part of that residue is probably the logic and computational thinking that Bron wrote about. I do think that having some knowledge of programming helps me to see and follow the logic of unfamiliar applications. It also raises my expectations about all aspects of design in digital technologies and makes me more critical of applications and websites than some of my non-coding colleagues who have no reason to expect that systems should be more usable than they are. My capacity to analyse things in ways that lead me to construct spreadsheets or other tools to manage routine tasks is also enhanced and I am more likely than my colleagues to use tools like auto-text expansions and keyboard macros to automate repetitive tasks. On balance I think that having learned coding has developed my capacity for logical and computational thinking in ways that enhance my day-to-day use of digital technologies.

The children now in schools are so-called ‘digital natives’ who, compared to older ‘digital immigrants’, are supposed to possess superior capabilities for working with digital technologies by virtue of having grown up with them. Simple observation of younger people working with technologies should be sufficient to refute that view as a generalisation. Many of them are adept with some common technologies and a few have extensive skills but for most of them confidence and facility with social media is a superficial veneer and there is little depth to their knowledge of the technologies they use. That is logical when we realise that the speed of technological development means that nobody is really a ‘digital native’ who grew up with current technologies. We are all ‘digital immigrants’ living by our wits with constantly evolving technologies.

Perhaps the role of general education is not to prepare students to take up careers that may disappear before they enter the workforce but to develop the capability to live by their wits, manifesting resilience in the face of the only real constant, namely change. The native/immigrant dichotomy with respect to digital technologies has never really been valid. The analogy of residents and visitors (Jones, 2011) is probably more apt, better reflecting the differences between those who stay long enough in any context to develop some degree of comfort and those who do not stay long enough to care or really need to know.

So far as coding or programming is concerned we need sufficient people with specialised skills to build the digital worlds that we will inhabit but not everybody needs to be a builder. For most of us it will be sufficient to understand the possibilities well enough to have a sensible conversation with the architect or builder or perhaps to have sufficient skill to be ‘digital renovators’ (Jones, 2011), able to adapt what we find to better suit our needs.

If we interpret the Australian Curriculum: Technologies (ACARA, 2014) appropriately it is not about turning every child into a programmer or software engineer. It is about developing computational, design, and systems thinking as means toward creating preferred futures. For that to happen tools like Scratch can provide a useful starting point but we will need to move beyond that to engage students in designing and developing solutions to real problems that require computational thinking. Teachers who have limited experience of engaging in ‘digital renovation’ to adapt their own digital environments to be more suitable may struggle to imagine and implement suitably authentic learning activities (Lankshear, Snyder, & Green, 2000). Our real challenge may be in assisting colleagues to develop the necessary attitudes and aptitudes to take charge of the digital technologies in their lives and prepare their students to do likewise. If we can do that we may not achieve rapture but may at least maintain sufficient enthusiasm for the second coming of coding to avoid rejection.

References

ACARA. (2014). Australian Curriculum: Technologies. Retrieved from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/technologies/

Bagshaw, E. (2015, 29 May). Tony Abbott ridicules his own party in school coding gaffe,  The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/tony-abbott-ridicules-his-own-party-in-school-coding-gaffe-20150528-ghbdal.html

Donnelly, K., & Wiltshire, K. (2014). Review of the Australian Curriculum: Final Report. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from https://docs.education.gov.au/documents/review-australian-curriculum-final-report

Friedman, T. L. (2006). The World is Flat: The Globalized World in the Twenty-First Century. London: Penguin.

Jones, D. T. (2011). Residents and visitors, are builders the forgotten category?  Retrieved from https://davidtjones.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/residents-and-visitors-are-builders-the-forgotten-category/

Lankshear, C., Snyder, I., & Green, B. (2000). Teachers and Technoliteracy: Managing literacy, technology and learning in schools. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Merkel, R., & McNamara, R. (2015). A bit of coding in school may be a dangerous thing for the IT industry.  Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/a-bit-of-coding-in-school-may-be-a-dangerous-thing-for-the-it-industry-42259

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Sterling, L. (2015). An education for the 21st century means teaching coding in schools.  Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/an-education-for-the-21st-century-means-teaching-coding-in-schools-42046

Stuckey, B. (2015). Teaching coding in schools: absolutely necessary or another fad to waste teachers’ time?  Retrieved from http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=1076