Among technology leaders, the movement for coding in the curriculum of primary and secondary students in Australia is fast transforming – to a clarion call. Last week, Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, added his party’s endorsement, stating that every young Australian should have a chance to read, write and work with the global language of the digital age.
But while there is some support, there is still a great deal of resistance. In my work as a Board Member of the non-profit organisation, Code Club Australia, I meet with children, parents, teachers and business and government professionals, to introduce them to the Code Club program and to respond to any concerns they raise. The experience is always the same; the children and their parents absolutely love the program and are eager to immerse themselves more deeply in the activities.
Resistance to the program comes from professionals who raise questions about the dullness and complexity of learning to code, as well as from teachers who feel inadequately equipped to introduce coding, This resistance isn’t something to be dismissed as irrelevant. These are genuine and appropriate issues to raise. But there are misconceptions about coding education programs, and barriers to introduction which are gradually being overcome.
Whatever You Teach Now Will be Out Of Date Soon
It’s certainly true that the dominant coding languages used today will be surpassed by other languages in years to come. But there are similarities in the structure of programming languages which are, and have been, consistent for decades. That’s why we talk about coding as teaching ‘computational thinking’.
In the Code Club program we start with the visual tool, Scratch, developed by MIT. With that tool children learn how to create an action sequence, and to see how computers ‘think’. The kids don’t even think of it as a ‘language’ as such. Instead, it’s a chronology of actions and consequences with the logic and syntax of computational thinking underlying their learning – giving them the confidence to adopt newer languages as they emerge, because the structure of the language is sustained.
It’s Not Creative
This is probably the fault of early advocates for coding in the curriculum. Because most of the attention on coding is focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, there is a widely-held belief that coding is not useful in any other subject area.
As forward-thinking arts and social studies teachers across the world will attest, coding education facilitates skill development in story-telling, logic and general creativity. In the Code Club program, kids learn to create games they want to play giving immense scope for creative exploration in digital artistry, design and narrative development.
Further, for children who suffer from learning difficulties due to dyslexia or perhaps developmental problems, coding can bridge the communications chasm that written and auditory learning methods fail to cross.
It’s For Boys
As a woman in technology, you cannot image a misconception that annoys me more. The reality is that girls and boys share the same cognitive skills overall, and any variance in aptitude for the more logical elements of coding is balanced by proficiency in creative and problem solving abilities.
The general poorer performance of girls in mathematics globally (as identified in the OECD report last year) is primarily attributable to social factors including ethnicity and culture, but also confidence. Because girls are not encouraged to take on maths and coding subjects, their trust in their own abilities is compromised. This has led to a general decline in girls choosing careers in science and maths.
Among the schools who have adopted the Code Club programs at lunch time and out of school hours, the gender split is 50/50. And girls love it.
Children Will Become Antisocial
The nature of coding in education is that it is a social activity. Kids naturally work in groups on coding projects, and seek each other out when trying to solve problems. We have found the most efficient structure of coding classes is to pair up students on tasks so that they work collaboratively on solving problems.
The concern over antisocial behaviour from too much time in front of screens is not going to be overcome by denying kids access to those screens. It’s like banning books; you just send the activity underground. What you can do to combat the isolating aspects of screen time is to broaden participation so that it becomes a shared experience.
There’s No Evidence that Learning to Code is Beneficial
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: coding makes children better problem solvers. The research has been trickling in for decades now, but the most recent research is showing that coding education is improving the efficiency of problem solving among learners.
There is also some neuroscience research showing that the density of grey matter in the brain around the parietal cortex is increased among people who learn multiple languages – including coding languages. But while this is also interesting research (indicating that the brain treats coding as a language), we can’t make any assumptions on learning benefits. All we can say is that early neuroscience research has provided a basis for explaining why problem solving may be more efficient among learners of coding.
The Curriculum is Already Full
A barrier rather than a misconception, it is absolutely true that teachers are struggling to get through the existing curriculum in the classroom. To introduce a coding program, there needs to be a serious discussion about ‘what gets left out’, or how coding can be integrated into existing learning activities.
It is my belief that coding should be integrated into learning more broadly, as the creative and problem solving elements of coding apply in all subject areas.. All it would take is collaborative development of coding activities for different subject areas.
Teachers Are Not Adequately Trained to Teach Coding
This is exactly what the Code Club Australia teacher training program is designed to address. In late 2014 the Telstra Foundation funded Code Club to conduct training programs around the country to skill up teachers and volunteers to run Code Clubs While we are running these events around the country, as a non-profit we have limited resources, and we need schools to free up staff to come to the training programs.
We are consistently developing and improving training materials, and we are seeking locations to conduct training, volunteers to come and help with the training process, and the support of industry to continue the mission of improving coding education.
Children Don’t Have Technology and Internet Access Everywhere
This last barrier to participation is not insignificant. Children in rural areas with limited network infrastructure and devices, as well as kids from poorer homes, are less likely to have the basic kit they need to learn to code. But even this barrier is not impossible to overcome. Emergent technologies are enabling internet access through community mesh networks, improved mobile connectivity and even projects like Google’s internet balloons. And as more and cheaper tablet devices are released on to the market, participation in coding education is becoming more affordable.
These emergent technologies won’t completely overcome the access and equity barrier, but they go some way to addressing it.
Children who learn to code now will be best placed to fill the massive skills shortage facing Australia in coming years in the STEM disciplines. But they will also be problem solvers beyond STEM industries, and they will be creative thinkers, too. Coding is not just a technical skill. It is an active learning method. And it is the antithesis of passive consumption of digital content. The value of learning to code is that children will be better able to build a better world. Isn’t that something worth fighting for?
For more information on Code Club Australia click here
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