Should Coding be made Compulsory in Irish Schools?

The “Make Coding Compulsory in Schools” debate has been simmering gently over the last year both in Ireland and the UK as we move towards a new definition of digital literacy. No longer is it enough that users simply “use” technology effectively, the new digital literacy calls for users to become developers of their own digital content, understanding the programming languages that operate our “must have” gadgets and drive the modern world. It’s a debate that both fascinates and infuriates in equal measure as the arguments for and against bounce back like an endless game of Pong. That said, it’s definitely a debate worth having and one where I’m still listening to all of the arguments.

clip_image002The first problem I have with the compulsory push is that word – “compulsory”, it has all the joy of a dose of castor oil about it. Let’s face it, the words “compulsory” and “fun” rarely appear in the same sentence. Not that life or learning for that matter has to be one long fun fuelled party but from experience learning is more effective when it’s engaging and stimulating for both the student and the teacher. One of the reasons why the Coder Dojo movement has been such a phenomenon is the fact that the children attending are self selecting to a certain degree. They’re there because they want to be there; they have a desire to learn to programme. Those who love it will stay, those who don’t will no doubt move on at some point, having positively benefitted from the experience of a fantastic learning community. Amongst those children who stay will be those who will excel at coding and will, with the right supports, go on to do great things. And that’s the inherent beauty of Coder Dojo – you have a bunch of kids who are highly motivated to learn, supported by dedicated mentors with a passion for programming  – all of which creates the perfect learning environment for those children who want to code. But do all children want to, or, more importantly, need to learn programming? 

One of the major arguments in favour of having a compulsory programming element in either or both of the primary and post primary curriculums is that it’s central to digital literacy and that our children are losing out if they don’t develop these skills from an early age. Some see coding as fundamental a skill as basic literacy and predict that in years to come those who have not yet learned to code will be seen as illiterate. I’m not sure if you can or indeed if you should compare literacy with the ability to code as most people need to learn to read and write just one language in order to communicate effectively; meanwhile there are several coding languages, all with a different syntax so how do we define the level at which someone is identified as being digitally literate. How many programming languages do we need to learn and to what degree of proficiency in order to be considered digitally literate?

Having seen first hand the enormous educational benefits and increased student engagement by teachers using coding in schools through the MissionV programme, in my view all children should have the opportunity to learn to code at school at some point. It shouldn’t be left to chance that  children encounter a teacher who is interested in the subject or have parents who will bring them each Saturday to a Coder Dojo meet. We have to make certain that we don’t create a two tiered system, with one section of our children developing high level digital skills and a second that are seriously lagging behind. Children’s long term life chances are critically linked to their educational attainment and if digital literacy is the new educational currency then care must be taken. Making coding part of the everyday school experience is the only way that we can guarantee that all children, regardless of background or circumstance, get to dip their toe into the world of programming languages. Languages which drive everything from our TVs to smartphones to cars.

So am I saying it should be compulsory? Compulsory suggests shackles, a standalone subject that is ring fenced; an approach which has plagued the development of IT in education in Ireland. Coding and indeed technology when used in a teaching context should be fully integrated and embedded into the curriculum. In other words it’s not enough learning to programme for programming sake, it should be more about programming to learn, using coding skills to explore new ways of learning across a variety of subjects. Learning is so much more powerful when it has relevance, purpose and context. Even at second level as a new coding short course is being developed it should be challenged based where students get to learn a whole host of other ancillary skills such as problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking. So that even if programming isn’t your thing you are still learning key skills that will help you progress into employment across a variety of disciplines, not just IT. It is not enough for our children to know some basic code, we need to ignite children’s love of learning by demonstrating the power of the programming and how it drives the world around them. As Stephen Howell, Computing lecturer with the Institute of Technology Tallaght and author of Scratch from Scratch said in a tweet back in May 2012:

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So if coding is to become a core subject in the Irish education system which areas should it encompass? According to John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University in an Observer article in March 2012:

“There will be lots of interesting discussions about the key concepts that students will need to understand, but here’s one possible list for starters. Kids need to know about: algorithms (the mathematical recipes that make up programs); cryptography (how confidential information is protected on the net); machine intelligence (how services such as YouTube, NetFlix, Google and Amazon predict your preferences); computational biology (how the genetic code works); search (how we find needles in a billion haystacks); recursion (a method where the solution to a problem depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem); and heuristics (experience-based techniques for problem-solving, learning, and discovery).”

One country we might yet learn from who have taken the bull by the horns on the coding in school debate is Estonia. In September 2012 the country launched a pilot programme for teaching coding in their public school system. When fully rolled out to the whole school population 100% of students from the ages of 7 to 16 years will have had the opportunity to code at school. The ProgreTiiger program is a public private partnership with IT companies involved in a support capacity. Central to its success will be its teacher training programme. Not sure about you but I’ll be eagerly awaiting the results.

Right now there seems to be a real desire for programming in schools  but we need to get its implementation right across all levels with appropriate CPD and peer support for teachers. Taught poorly, coding in schools could do more damage than good. It would be a travesty if coding became a “yawn” subject shoehorned into a curriculum that’s already bursting at the seams, and all in the name of ticking the box entitled “Progressive”. We need students to be excited by the prospect of learning to code and the ability it offers them to create, manipulate and understand their world. And, we need teachers too who “get it”.  It’s simply not enough to say to teachers you must teach programming and let them get on with it. Teachers will need appropriate training and support. Beginning with the teacher training colleges a CPD roadmap has to be developed that is fit for purpose. This is too big an issue to get wrong. Let’s hope we get it right.

Articles of Interest:

Why all our kids should be taught how to code

Computer Programming for All: A New Standard of Literacy

Compulsory coding in schools: The new Nerd Tourism

Programmers, Programmers, Programmers, Programmers & Online Learning

Technology in classroom still in the Dark Ages” – Are we Really?

Should UK Children be Taught How to Code?

Learn to Code:

Google Code University

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