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Should All Students Learn Computer Coding?

Article:“The Coding Revolution” by Annie Murphy Paul in Scientific American, August 2016 (Vol. 315, #2, p. 42-49).

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

04/19/2017

In this article in Scientific American, Annie Murphy Paul reports on the push to teach coding in K-12 schools. “Every student deserves a chance to learn this essential 21st-century skill,” tweeted Bill Gates earlier this year. He and others argue that coding is a new literacy, as important as reading and math. Some countries are jumping on the bandwagon, including the U.K., which in 2014 launched a requirement that every student learn to program.

But other educators argue that teaching coding to all students is neither practical (insufficient teachers and equipment, no agreed-upon curriculum) nor desirable. A better approach, they say, is to teach “computational thinking”– the underlying principles on which computers operate. “These are skills that everyone can use,” says Jeannette Wing of Carnegie Mellon University, “whether they’re using a computer or not.”

One school district that’s adopted this approach is South Fayette Township outside Pittsburgh. In Grades K–2, students use a block-based coding program called Scratch, dragging and dropping blocks containing discrete commands like Move 10 steps and Wait 5 seconds to get cartoon characters moving around. “We start with questions like ‘What are instructions? How do you give instructions so that a computer knows what you want it to do?’” says South Fayette primary-grade teacher Melissa Unger. “We have students ‘program’ their classmates, guiding them through a maze by holding up cards with arrows on them.” In Grades 3–5, students program motors and sensors and build Lego robots that respond to their commands. In Grades 6–8, students use CAD software to design their own inventions and use a 3-D printer. By seventh grade, they’ve transitioned to text-based coding, using the more complex and flexible language of professional programmers.

“This is about much more than coding,” says Aileen Owens, the district’s director of technology and innovation. “This is about teaching habits of mind that can be used to solve problems in any realm—habits like breaking down a problem into its component parts, running small experiments to see which approaches fail and which succeed, and working together with other people to find and apply the best ideas.”

“Proponents of the teaching of computational thinking,” says Paul, “believe it represents all the qualities that mere coding instruction lacks: a rich and deep intellectual discipline; a flexible set of mental tools that can be used in many and varied situations; and a body of knowledge and skills of genuine and lasting usefulness–in school, in the workplace, and beyond.” l




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