Coding should NOT be a new ‘literacy’. Our students deserve more than that.

In my 16 years of teaching in primary schools I have not seen any ‘new thing’ garner quite as much attention from schools, governments and parents as coding and computational thinking has over the last few years. Everyone seems to be aware that we should now be teaching coding, many government systems are aware of it and have implemented new curriculums to teach it. The problem I see most is that no one can really tell me exactly what it is for. Yes, I am aware that “… problem solving …. future jobs …. critical thinking …. 21st century skills”. There is nothing wrong with any of these answers and they are, I’m sure, true. But, what do we actually want for our learners in our schools? What are they learning coding for and to what end? The danger I keep seeing is that coding/computational thinking when termed as a new ‘literacy’ rapidly starts to look like a subject!

Some of you may ask what is wrong with that. For me, it’s the legacy and compartmentalisation that all of our other ‘literacies’ in schools often carry. Language, numeracy, science, they all find themselves tarred with the same brush of being a literacy in many systems around the world. They become important enough to be standardised, pages and pages of curricula are written and before we know it exams and testing appear to measure ‘success’. A set of outcomes become guaranteed for certain students within the limited mold. This would be a real shame for something that I feel has massive application for students creating and shaping their own world using technology.

Which brings me to thinking about my 4 – 11 year old students. We’ve spent 3 years getting them pretty fluent in block based coding tools and various concepts of computer science. But the thing that makes me proudest and most impressed is when they do things that were not on the curriculum we wrote for them. Last year a group of 10 year old students launched two mobile apps on the app store, we taught them no part of that (youtube and community forums did that). Another group of students discovered a far better way of coding our open source robots using a tool they’d never used before. There are lots of other little examples of students creating something with code as part of their own interests and inquiries. None of these things would have happened without the coding concepts and bits they had learned at school, but they probably wouldn’t have happened with a tight computer science curriculum telling them what they need to know in a series of lessons. The students that are actually demonstrating critical thinking, problem solving and proper 21st century skills are the ones that are self-directed and exploring. Problems that are worth solving are the ones they find and need to solve to achieve something they have set out to do. Not the faux-problems we created for them within a task. 

We are lucky that our school’s curriculum is not steeped in too much legacy but the structures of typical school subjects still exist in places. After 3 years, it makes me think that even our rather loose concept driven curriculum for coding still has far too many forced ‘learning opportunities’ that are not going to benefit that many students enough for the time they take. I am optimistic though as having a new thing in school does allow us a little more latitude to not apply legacy education paradigms to it. So I find myself with the ability to look to what we actually want from for our students at the end and work back. These few years of bringing computing to primary schools have been great for our learning as tech leaders. This is a discussion I’m just starting but I know already what I don’t want anymore. Standardised coding lessons where kids learn the same things and regurgitate the same projects. I think, if we want to grow the students own agency and allow them to pursue their interests then we have to provide resources, provide tutorials and mentorship as needed and give them the time and opportunity to learn these things themselves in primary school. For some students that might mean they only learn the basics, which is absolutely fine as they will be focussed on areas of passion outside of coding. But for other students it will allow them to far exceed the narrow curricular goals we currently set and allow them to explore areas we hadn’t thought of and construct their own understanding. I’m also very excited by the idea of having class teachers give students more opportunity to create software solutions in other curriculum areas and units of inquiry across the school.

The early years exploration lessons we currently do with coding are good foundational things and I don’t think they need to go. Students explore in a guided way and that’s important for really young students. But the mid to upper primary stuff could be so much more. At least I’d like to give them the chance to discover and innovate before they hit secondary school. Also, with the way maker centred learning is developing in small pockets of the school at the moment then I think there are far more opportunities for self-directed and decentralised learning where coding will grow. In the last few months I’ve seen a greater want to use robotics and microcontrollers in open learning activities around school, which will again be awesome for kids self-directed learning of coding stuff.

So, when I presented at a small summit yesterday and a teacher from another school asked if they can have a copy of our coding curriculum, half of me was reluctant to pass it on as it is now. I mumbled something about a re-write and said I could send on the concepts page for now and the rest later. I’m hopeful we will have a much more open philosophy document with attached resources, guides, tutorials and over-arching concepts to send on instead soon.

Whenever I see ‘Is coding a new literacy?’ or ‘How will we find space for it at school?’ it makes me think that they really mean ‘should we be teaching coding as a compartmentalised subject in our curriculum?’ My answer to that is no, we can do better for our students than to bring it into our legacy education model.

While writing this I had a thought-provoking interaction with @pammoran on twitter who really got me thinking in a broader sense about legacy in education and what we would do to design what education could be if we thought about the whole system rather than just trying to improve bits of it. She put me on to a wonderful story about Bel Labs in the 1950s conceptualising the mobile phone. Link here