This is the presentation I did to introduce the Teaching Kids to Code stream at the Future Schools Conference 2015.
Hello World! I’m Amanda Hogan. I’m a second-career teacher who has come from IT to teaching a little later in life. I teach at a girls’ school and am doing my darndest in a small way to break down some of the barriers to and get girls excited about tech. I like to think I’m a life-long learner and I’m a bit of a maker. My colleagues think that I might be building an army of nerds from my own two primary aged kids. I get to be your chair for today in the best stream of the first Future Schools conference.
I want to talk about the opposing views about kids and coding. These debates have been in play since Papert first wrote Mindstorms in 1980. One high profile detractor is Larry Cuban – an education academic and sometimes edtech commentator. He wrote the book “Oversold and Underused” about the period of time when the investment in technology in education far outstripped the use of it. He spoke of the US but much of what he said was relevant here. There was a period where schools had lots of computer labs and even maybe the early 1 to 1 programs where the amount of technology increased but not much else changed.
He’s since agreed that this is no longer the case but for a time he seemed to be one of the few people questioning the value of all this technology. I enjoy reading his work as it helps me to question what I do at my school and ensure I’m acting in the best educational interest of our students. It’s important that as we teach our students to think critically about their studies we also think critically about our teaching.
Cuban has recently weighed in on the Teaching kids to code movement with an article titled “All students should learn to code. Right? Not so fast.” In the article Cuban calls those who believe that all students should learn how to code “True Believers”. Unfortunately it’s not a compliment. He means that we believe uncritically that kids should learn how to code. That we only “believe” without scrutiny or proof. He harks back to the 70s when logo was first being introduced to schools and claims that the efforts were a failure because they didn’t deliver the promise of transformed education. Since it didn’t work then, is his reasoning, there is no reason why it should work now.
I think he’s wrong. I think that programming is an essential literacy <pause> that our purpose for being here today is to show our evidence for why this is important, to talk about the wins and challenges and to weigh the possibilities with a critical mind. I also get to be a little fan-girl giggly about introducing Gary Stager to the stage in a minute.
I much prefer Dougals Rushkov’s take on things. He is a media theorist who believes (and wrote a book about it) that if we, as a society, are not literate in how hardware and software work fundamentally then we are at the mercy of those of us who do. I’ve heard this argument reversed also… We don’t need to know how to code because it’s the software engineers’ job to make software that’s so intuitive that I don’t have to understand what’s going on to use it. This kind of thinking worries me. If we are dictated to by the companies who make the software then in some small way they dictate the way we engage with the world.
Rushkov’s book is also along these lines. It’s called “Program or be Programmed: Ten Commandments for a digital age” and is really worth a read to understand his ideas that there is always a lag in communications between those who control the media and those who use it; from the creation of text, to printing, blogging and now coding. There was a time after humans invented text when there were only an elite few who could read, then the printing press was invented and many could read but only a few could be published, then the interactive internet was invented and many could publish (though it is a little unsure at times how many are reading our publishings) but few understood and controlled the platforms on which we publish.
It’s interesting to think about the possibility that if we receive our information pre-filtered and vetted by whichever search engine or aggregator we are using, does that mean we’re getting the whole story? If we don’t understand the filtration process does that in some way undermine our ability to form valid opinion and exercise our democracy?
Despite my geeky snippet of Python in a previous image I don’t actually think it’s important that all kids can code fluently. I’d rather use the word “program” than “code” to mean can solve problems algorithmically as opposed to can type correct syntax in one or other language.
Algorithmic thinking is a form of problem solving that breaks problems into their smallest components to find ways to proceduralise their solution. Employers have said this is a more and more valuable skill for workers in the knowledge and information industries. I also believe it helps my students to analyse and form arguments in other subjects. Maybe it even helps them to think.
Donald Knuth (Ka-nooth) (no really I looked at his website and it’s in the FAQ under How do you pronounce your name) put it far more eloquently than I ever could when he wrote “Computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty. A programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better.” My only critique is that we need to add “she” in there somewhere.
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