Computer Programming in Schools – How should we teach it?

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A recent Edutopia article, Program or Be Programmed, got me thinking about the place of computer programming in schools. In this article Mary Beth Hertz, a computer teacher, from Philadelphia bemoans the fact that many schools are dropping computer science. Yet the article identifies some interesting tools that teachers, parents and young people might find of interest. In particular Hackasaurus and htmlpad look interesting and could prove useful in Irish primary and post-primary classrooms.

The article also contains a link to a YouTube video by author Douglas Rushkoff, who has written a very interesting book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.

In this short video clip Rushkoff makes some interesting observations in relation to those who can programme and those who are programmed. He argues that there is an emerging elite, those who control the medium because they can programme and there is a need to address this. But he believes as a society we need to understand how programming works or else we will be used. Interesting ideas and smacks of the notion of a potential digital divide.

While others are arguing that we need to teach programming because it promotes 21st century skills as it can lead to employment opportunities in the future.

Programming requires critical thinking, math skills, communication skills, problem solving, creativity and perseverance. These are all the things that companies can’t get enough of these days when looking for new talent.  Mary Beth Hertz

In this article Mary Beth points to Scratch and how this wonderful tool from MIT can be used with primary, post-primary and even College students. There is wonderful work being done in Ireland with Scratch by organisations such as the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, Lero, MissionV and others in this space. I also note that the NCTE and LERO have teamed up to offer professional development to teachers on Scratch and this is to be welcomed.

However, a note of caution – are we clear why we want teachers to teach Scratch? What is the rationale for teaching Scratch in schools? Is it to teach computer programming or is to provide young people with a key digital literacy skill for the 21st century? Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch, has equated the use of computers and tools ,such as Scratch, with ‘finger paint’ as they allow creative people to make things. Scratch in the hands of a creative teacher or student opens all sorts of opportunities and in the process they learn how to program. Learning to program is important but it is not the only benefit – young people can develop 21st century skills and showcase their creativity.

Scratch and other such tools have tremendous potential in schools but we need to be clear on how we plan to use them. In the 1980s there was a lot of emphasis on teaching Logo programming in schools but it was not for everyone. So I hope that if we are providing CPD for teachers on using Scratch that we are taking a broader perspective and providing them with the knowledge to use this tool as a type of ‘finger paint’ right across the curriculum. Teacher creativity is everywhere and we should be encouraging them to consider how Scratch can be integrated throughout the curriculum – and in particular how it can support the enhancement of literacy and numeracy skills. And if we get some children enrolling in Computer Science courses down the line that is wonderful but at a minimum they will understand how programming works. This is a key literacy to have in today’s digital society.

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