The Case for Teaching Students to Code

guest post by Trisha Beck DeOre

teach students to code

Image courtesy of tiramisustudio / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As technology permeates every facet of our lives, there seems to be growing consensus that twenty-first century literacy requires digital literacy. Digital technology now impacts nearly every industry. Yet according to Hadi Partovi, founder of the nonprofit Code.org, 90% of schools do not currently teach computer science. Why not?

1. Schools Assume—Incorrectly—That Students Are Already Digitally Literate.

Many school administrators will point to computer labs or carts of iPads and assume that their students are digitally literate. As Chris Stephenson, director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, notes, “Too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science . . . [but] having access to a computer isn’t the same as learning computer science any more than, you know, having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry.” True literacy involves reading and writing, yet most students only know how to “read” digitally. They never learn even the basics of how a website or app actually works or how to re-create and modify the media themselves.

 2. Coding Can Be Intimidating.

Jon Mattingly, cofounder of Kodable, a coding game geared toward five- to eight-year-olds, recognizes that many teachers and parents see value in teaching coding but that they aren’t sure when or how to introduce it to kids. He points out that coding is essentially a language, and children learn it best the younger they’re exposed to it. Mattingly created the Kodable app in part to help demystify teaching coding and to introduce coding to kids in a fun, structured, developmentally-appropriate environment. Kodable looks and feels like a game, yet by playing it, kids learn to manipulate basic functions to solve a problem—in this case, to complete a maze.

3. The Creative Benefits of Coding Are Often Overlooked.

Many programs that teach students coding emphasize workplace benefits, such as the increase in demand for computer programmers. Yet this angle might actually be hurting their argument. Most students won’t become programmers, and knowing that computer science may improve future job prospects isn’t a key motivator. In addition, teachers and parents repeatedly voice frustration at the idea of teaching limited technical skills at the expense of teaching broader fundamental skills, including creative thinking and problem solving.

Those concerns seem warranted: Research since the 1950s suggests that creativity is the single most accurate predictor of lifetime achievement—even above IQ. Recent longitudinal studies show a large decline in the creativity of school-age children beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Professor of Education Kyung Hee Kim, the largest decline is in “Creative Elaboration,” or the ability to expand on an existing idea in an original way. Yet, instead of presenting a trade-off, teaching coding may help reverse this sobering trend.

Mitchel Resnick, Professor of Learning Research at MIT and founder of Scratch, sees coding not as a discrete set of technical skills but as “an extension of writing.” In his article “Learn to Code, Code to Learn,” Resnick argues that although not every student will write professionally, we teach all students to write because “the act of writing also engages people in new ways of thinking. As people write, they learn to organize, refine, and reflect on their ideas.” Coding offers the same learning opportunities. Resnick points out examples from Scratch, a free online community he developed for kids where they use basic coding techniques to create and share animated projects. He notes that one Scratch member learned coding skills, but also “how to divide complex problems into simpler parts, how to iteratively refine her designs, how to identify and fix bugs, how to share and collaborate with others, how to persevere in the face of challenges.” Part of what makes Scratch and similar student coding platforms appealing is that they are inherently personal and therefore relevant to students’ lives. As with writing, students who code are actively expressing their own ideas. In addition, the collaborative aspect of the program allows students to view other projects, identify desirable effects, learn how those effects were created, and reproduce those effects, all the while expanding on and adapting others’ ideas in original ways for their own particular purposes.

For most adults, coding is esoteric and incomprehensible. Yet once we start to think of it as a language and not an end in itself, its broader educational and expressive applications for students seem worth a little tolerance of ambiguity on our part.

Trisha Beck DeOre is a senior editor and curriculum developer at Nieman Inc.