Why we don’t need to start teaching coding in primary schools

Ciaran Cannon is one of the most innovative politicians I know and he is passionate about education and technology. While he was a Minister in the government, he created the EXCITED movement, which showcased some of the best examples of technology use in Irish schools as well as some great discussions on the subject. He is one of the few politicians who engages regularly with teachers through social media, most notably, Twitter and he is well worth following. I was rather hoping that he would take over from Ruairi Quinn in the post of Minister for Education but, alas, it was not to be.

Image from Ciaran Cannon's Twitter profile
Ciaran Cannon (Image from his Twitter profile)

However, there’s one thing we disagree on. Ciaran Cannon would like primary schools to teach computer science as a subject and I don’t. We’ve debated this on Twitter a little bit and I think we both agree on the same outcomes but not the way of going about them. Today, Ciaran Cannon wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Independent outlining why he feels we need to start teaching code in our primary schools. Luckily for him, as a politician, he can get published in a national newspaper with his opinion. Sadly, for me, I’ll have to make do with this blog post!

To be fair, we both agree on almost everything he has written in his opinion piece. I think we should give children “computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.” I also agree that children can’t become “passive, uninformed users ,” and I believe projects such as the Hour of Code are valuable. However, where we disagree is when he states:

[su_quote cite=”Ciaran Cannon”]Leaving computer science out of that list of subjects [that children learn] is no longer acceptable, in fact it wasn’t even acceptable 10 years ago.[/su_quote]

One major absence from the 1999 curriculum, compared to the UK equivalent, was the subject of Computer Science. I trained in the UK and taught the subject. In it, children were taught how to format text in Microsoft Word and to create fancy animations in PowerPoint. There was little in the way of thinking but lots in the way of learning skills that might be adapted to other subjects but generally weren’t. In fact, computer science was taught as a separate subject and was not integrated with the rest of the curriculum.

Collaborative Thinking: Image from Creative Commons Some rights reserved

In Ireland, technology was used to support the curriculum, rather than it being a subject in its own right. I’m not sure whether this was a deliberate move from the NCCA or a lucky accident but what it meant was technology was supposed to integrate into every aspect of the curriculum. While there are many reasons why this took a long time, by now in 2014, there are very few teachers in Ireland who are not using technology to support the curriculum in some way or another.

The trouble, I guess, is that teachers might be falling into the trap of children “consuming” the technology. For example, through teacher-centred tools such as Interactive Whiteboards and Visualisers, children do not create their own understanding and merely are learning through traditional 20th century methodologies. The iPad more so than other tablet devices has had some impact in primary education recently, but rarely have I seen schools using it to create learning and instead an over-reliance on Apps that other people have made overshadows their great power. (As an aside, there are some examples of excellent iPad use from Cormac Cahill in Cork but this is unfortunately an exception.) Other examples of common usage of technology in schools are showing YouTube videos,  displaying PowerPoint presentations to teach a topic and lessons on touch typing.

However, I still think the curriculum has it correct. We don’t need to introduce computer science as a standalone subject. We need to help teachers find ways to integrate ICT into their teaching of the current curriculum subjects. A class blog is a brilliant literacy tool. Podcasts sort you out for oral language. A decent Internet-linked camera can provide the most interesting of Maths Trails. The Internet is the best reference tool you can get for the social sciences. Brainstorming is a skill that is enhanced by online tools such as Padlet. The huge power of technology is it allows pupils to communicate, collaborate and create with pupils all over the world. European projects such as eTwinning and Erasmus allow children to learn different aspects of different cultures in a way that couldn’t be done before the advent of technology.

OK, technology can enhance the curriculum to make it more creative, but what about coding?

It is often reported that we don’t have enough people in Ireland who can computer code. It is proclaimed that we need to train young people in computer programming so that when they are older they will get jobs. Some people would argue that coding is now as important skill as reading, writing and speaking and thus it should be taught as early as possible to children. I disagree. I do believe that using technology is now as important as the 3Rs and argued this in an article written over 4 years ago about making technology a 4th R (Ríomhaire). My main argument was:

[su_quote cite=”http://anseo.net/douglas-adams-the-fourth-r-and-learning/”]We should not be focussing on how to use technology but we should be focussing on how we use technology.[/su_quote]

When it comes to coding, in a very similar manner, I don’t think it’s important to teach children how to code. I think it’s important to think about how we code. Let me explain.

I studied Computer Science in college and computer programming (or coding) was part of the degree. Coding isn’t really that difficult – there’s very little one needs to do except sequences, conditions and loops. A good programmer doesn’t just know how to code. They have something extra – the ability to solve a problem. All of us in our class were competent at coding as that’s the easy part. The classmates who became very successful did so because they were good at thinking rather than being better at coding. I can give a really simple example of how anyone can code but a good problem solver will do better.

From Wikimedia
From Wikimedia

If you were asked to give instructions to draw a square, you might give the following steps:

  1. Draw a straight line of x cm
  2. Turn 90 degrees and draw another straight line of x cm
  3. Turn 90 degrees and draw another straight line of x cm
  4. Turn 90 degrees and draw another straight line of x cm to join up to make the square.

This is perfectly adequate and is an example of good programming. However, someone who can think at a higher level might say:

  1. Repeat the following 4 times: draw a line x cm long and turn 90 degrees

This achieves the same result but is a much higher level of thinking; and this is exactly what we need: children who can think at this level so if they are interested in computer programming in the future, they have the necessary skills to take it on. How we code, is basically a synonym for How we think. In the above example, both answers are correct, but the second one is thought out much more. However, I’m sure there are much more creative ways to come up with this – here’s two examples.

We need to start asking our pupils to solve problems in a creative way and integrate these problems into all subjects across the curriculum. Sometimes, a computer will be a valuable tool to achieving this and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes, writing a computer programme will make the problem easier to solve and other times it won’t. The most important thing pupils need to learn about problems is how to break them down into smaller pieces and then tackle them in different ways.

Coding is only a very small way of being able to do this and there’s no harm in it being taught in some way in primary schools as part of the current curriculum. For example, how about getting children to create a dialogue in the programming language Scratch on the topic of their favourite TV show? How about extending this to ask the children to find out Ireland’s favourite TV show. The skills required in this extension are similar to those of coding but don’t require children to learn how to code.

I think it’s really important that we don’t add computer science as a subject to the curriculum or we’ll end up making it a discrete subject where children will blindly follow whatever textbook publishing company decides is appropriate to learn and it is unlikely to get integrated into other subjects, much like what happened in the UK. What we need is for ICT to remain subject-neutral and to enhance teachers’ knowledge and skills in utilising the power of technology through the various subjects in the curriculum. Learning to code is not the answer. Learning to think is.



55 thoughts on “Why we don’t need to start teaching coding in primary schools”

  1. Have to disagree with you Si. Coding should be taught the way penmanship was taught in our day, or composition. Use the skills throughout the curriculum but there has to be a time and a place to teach them.

    • I don’t think coding is a skill everyone needs to have as opposed to being able to write. I think everyone needs to be able to use technology as opposed to being able to code.

  2. Excellent article Simon. We did a project on coding for BT Young Scientist -Primary Section-two years ago. Found Scratch to be limited in what it could do. Scratch could be a lot more user friendly also. Computers and hype is not a good mix!

    • Thanks, John. I like Scratch but agree with you about limitations. I think the hype about coding needs to calm and we need to focus back on thinking and creativity.

  3. Excellent argument thank you for this. So much is expected of schools and teachers. Codes of any kind provide fascination and imagination – the alphabet is a code too and I have for along time thought that a different approach could be to explicitly teach the alphabet as a code to build the written words that we speak.

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