Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts About This Coding Craze

In 1976 I set off to the University of South Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship to major in Math and Computer Science. In 1986 I was taking courses in computer architecture and the language ADA as I worked on my master's degree in Engineering. In 1992 I helped teach a computer class to teachers while being a graduate assistant and getting my master's degree in Education. I hope you believe that I get the importance of using computers as a tool.

Now, everywhere it seems, I keep reading how important it is for students to learn coding. I know the value of understanding the set up of code and algorithms. I can still remember my first assignment in the Fall of 1976 using PL1/PLC. It was to write a program to determine how many cars went through an intersection. The cars approached from each of the four cardinal points at different rates. The length of time the red, yellow, and green lights stayed on also varied. I may have loved math but this was a new animal and it hurt my brain.

But do we need to have every student take a coding course? And where, please tell me, do we get people qualified to teach these courses? I fear that the "Teacher as student" idea will trickle down here and will waste a lot of student time. Without proper guidance I see students going to places like Code.org and playing games. Oh they are being exposed to coding but are they learning the code or just the shape of the icon representing the code? And how many of the English, Math, Science, Social Studies teachers are going to really figure out how to work coding into their curricula?

Will administrators jump on board this coding train, having no understanding of coding themselves, requiring their teachers  to embrace this "coding stuff?" You bet they will. If there is funding and parent demand there will be administrators turning this demand on its head and requiring teachers to figure coding out.

I saw (and am still seeing) this with the topics of PBL, Inquiry, and (lately) Design. These are ideas that, when done well, are incredibly valuable and help students go deeper in their understanding of content. Because of publicity superintendents and principals get excited about things that will make their students be the best students. Suddenly they say things like, "This PBL stuff is good for our kids so lets get some training in it!" Grants get written and training begins. But soon the funding for the training dries up. And then we hear them say, "Now that we've trained some teachers, we need PBL to be done in EVERY classroom!"

But the schools/districts rarely get to the level where instructional coaches, assistant principals, and principals understand what they are seeing in the classroom.  It follows that these same academic leaders can't help their teachers grow in this new "PBL world" that they have created.

Will this happen in the world of Coding? Sadly, I'm leaning towards, "yes." Why? I'm willing to use myself as an example.

At my school parents and students demanded a computer science course. I was hired to teach Design Thinking, but I had a computer science background. So I was asked if I would teach a section of computer science. With very little time to come up with a plan, the school year started.  I decided that I would see what these students wanted in their computer science course. When I asked them I got the following: App Design, Web Page Design, Game Design, Coding, and Movie Creation. I let the students self-select into each of these areas and we spent the first semester exploring these topics with me as "facilitator of learning" and "calendar enforcer."

There was some good news from the semester.  Many of the students went way further than I thought they would go and learned more than I could ever have helped them learn. And, most of the students learned about what I expected they would learn in a self paced course. And, of course, there were some students who "also participated" in class. It was a pretty normal breakdown for students for any class and in any content. Nothing surprising there.

Still, I can't help but wonder what these same students could have done with a teacher who was at the school to teach students all about computers and coding. We're a small, academically oriented school with great parents and staff.  Hopefully, we will have a certified computer science teacher - or, at least, a person who loves to immerse themselves in all things computers. I'm not that guy. And, because I HAD to teach computers, I haven't put forth the effort required to make the course be truly awesome.

I find myself wondering: "how many teachers are going to be required to 'put coding into their course?'" If you aren't into computers, you aren't into computers. I love working with them and I want the latest app to use on my mobile device. But I'm not a person who spends hours coding. And I'm not a "maker." It isn't fair to my students to have me be their computer science teacher. They deserve better.

Schools and school districts are jumping on the coding band wagon. But do we suggest that all students learn coding when there aren't teachers in place to make it happen? It's hard enough to get a quality math teacher; or science teacher; or English teacher; or social studies teacher.  We need teachers who are passionate about their subject. Let's build capacity with computer science teachers before we suggest our students all take a class in coding.