Why I’m not excited about the latest coding announcement

Politicians are funny people. They seem to be completely obsessed with short term thinking while saying things like we need to look at the bigger picture. For example, every so often when a multinational company complains that they can’t find workers, some politicians decide that the answer to this problem is to introduce coding into the primary and secondary school curriculum. As the years go on, the media become frenzied about this and everyone decides that schools now need to teach coding in schools. Everyone that is, except teachers interested in technology in education.

Over the last 24 hours, I have been reading the comments on social media about Richard Bruton’s announcement that he is recommending that coding is introduced into the primary curriculum. It seems he believes it should become a subject in its own right or it should be integrated into numeracy (as our mathematics curriculum is beginning to be renamed for some reason.)

Ciaran Cannon, a TD who I generally admire, has been very fast in celebrating this announcement, much quicker than I have been with this response. However, I have little to add to my previous article, which appeared in the Irish Independent, the last time coding in schools was in the news.

More interestingly, I’ve been reading comments from teachers who have been using coding as part of their classroom for a number of years and, in general, it’s been gratifying to see them. There are so many problems, both theoretically and practically with doing this, that it’s difficult to know where to begin. However, I will try.

1. Broadband

If Richard Bruton wants us to be programmers, he needs to give us decent broadband. Any coding at primary level is generally done online and with a significant number of schools working off ridiculously slow speeds, the idea of doing anything on the internet in some schools is a non-starter.

2. Hardware

Schools have received little funding for hardware since 1997 unless they have opened new classrooms. While I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest the government buy every child a laptop, they need to provide schools with some level of infrastructure so that every child has access to a piece of technology and the tools they require.

3. Coding is not the answer

This probably should have been my number one reason but wanted to get the first two out of the way as they are the practical reasons. Coding is a narrow aspect of computing. While technology encompasses almost everything we do, coding does not. Coding is a skill which evolves over time and the coding we would be teaching children in primary schools will be obsolete by the time they will use it as adults. What we should be focusing on are the skills of coding – the thinking behind coding.

I explain this in teacher courses in the following way.

I stand at the top of the room and ask the teachers to instruct me to jump.

I will usually be told to jump. I then ask them, what if I didn’t understand what a “jump” was. How would they be able to explain this to me. They might say, “bend your knees” and I offer them, what if I don’t know what “bend” was.

It goes on so they understand that coding is really breaking down a problem into its most basic parts in order to build up the steps you need to do what you want. (Once they figure out how to break down a jump into simple instructions, I generally jump in exactly the opposite way they expect, which then leads into breaking down the instructions to include directions, etc.)

We need to teach children how to think like a coder. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will need to write a line of computer code. They need to be able to think creatively, to problem solve, to break down instructions into simpler parts. They need to know how to sequence and how to group instructions together. They need to be able to think about conditional logic (even something as simple as if I hit my friend, he will feel sad.)

4. Teachers aren’t coders and they shouldn’t need to be

If we are going to teach children to code, teachers need to be given the confidence to help this happen. This involves training…and not necessarily in coding. The training needs to be in creating situations where problem solving occurs all the time.

5. Coding isn’t maths

It irks me to hear that coding would be integrated into maths. This goes back to my earlier point of politicians rushing their thinking. Yes, there are some mathematics involved in computer programming but, more importantly, logic is the key tool in coding. Logic is not only used in mathematics; it is used in almost every aspect of life. By tying coding to mathematics, all you get is an even narrower focus into an already narrow focus and, worse, further alienation towards mathematics, as if we haven’t enough disgruntlement towards the subject already.

 

Having said all this, if coding is to become part of our new life in primary schools, we need to do it properly. I would propose that before the politicians take their advice from multinationals or the Daily Mail (see below), that they speak to the teachers who have been using technology in education every day for several years.

There are several teachers who have been coding for nearly ten years. Personally, I have been using coding in school since 2009 and there are several other teachers who have done the same thing. Many teachers have ventured in more depth into coding in schools programming robots, Raspberry Pis and Makey Makeys. This year I dipped my toe slowly into Arduino.

From what I can gather from teachers like these is that Richard Bruton’s announcement is not completely unwelcome but needs to be taken with a big dose of caution.

However, rather than simply complaining, I think I’m going to make a start in creating ways to introducing coding properly in primary schools before it gets hijacked by the buzzwords of politicians and industry and media pressure. If we are to introduce coding into primary schools, edtech teachers need to be at the centre of its creation and it shouldn’t start with a single line of code.

 

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