Coding for...the usual suspects
Is coverage of new coding initiatives just reaching the same old suspects, or are we (and should we be) drawing in new people?
This is the question I want to look at now, following on from last week's blog which outlined some rough ideas about levels of activity in computer use.
There are broadly two camps in the push for more coding:
- Those who think we just need to put stuff out there, and let people get on with it – it'll probably be people working away in their rooms, and connecting via forums, etc. but that's fine, as is the fact that it'll be a relatively small and specialised group (including many of the 'usual suspects')
- Those who think we need to draw in new people – for various reasons including those talked about in the last post – in part by infusing the curriculum with Computing
Usual suspects arguments
I've seen or heard a number of arguments for not worrying too much about 'widening participation' in coding. I'm inclined to think they're all pretty flimsy but I'm open to other arguments or examples if anyone has them. I've outlined the ones I’ve heard below, with my responses:
Two arguments you'd rarely hear from a ComSci person
- The ‘nerds online’ situation with little co-located classroom contact represents the reality of those who work in computing Represents the reality of computing as a solitary task, and in any case, it doesn’t matter too much because:
- Everything people learn in ComSci now will have changed in 5 years, so there is no point in the people who aren’t going to use it learning it.
The reason you’ll rarely hear these two from ComSci people is because neither is true. On the former, most projects involve some form of collaboration and of course even if individual projects don’t, that doesn’t mean that pedagogically collaborative methods aren’t the best to teach/learn ComSci. On the latter, one of the claims of the new ComSci movement is precisely that the fundamental concepts won’t change, while the specific programs used in ICT lessons (which we now focus on) will. I’d slightly moderate that by pointing out that the programs are unlikely to radically change in the sense that we’re likely to always have things called word processors, and other things called browsers, etc. but the significant point here is that whether or not you’re going to be a ‘Computer Scientist’ when you grow up isn’t particularly significant because the core concepts and skills will remain the same.
We want the best
This sort of argument partly arises because some of these programs have been specifically designed as challenges for the brightest (or in the case of the RPi, to try and boost application numbers for Computer Science degrees). They suggest that:
- It’s only worth targeting those pupils who will be good at/have a natural aptitude in ComSci
- It’s important to have something to challenge the brightest (and we don’t need to worry too much about ‘letting in’ others on it).
A related set of points suggest that…
Coding is something special
- Coding requires a very specific set of skills. Some people can do it, and others can’t, and sometimes even quite bright people cannot (I recently heard someone make the claim that “you can tell by the age of 7 whether a child will have a natural aptitude for programming”).
- The curriculum is in a mess/not challenging/dry/ill targeted; Computer Science is a creative way to introduce problem solving, abstract thinking, etc. to the brightest
I’m doing a bit of reading on the 3rd of these at the moment and I hope to write a blog on it in the next few days. Briefly though, it’s not clear what we think the point of education is, if what we’re going to do is target only those who – on some sort of baseline assessment – appear to be the best.
On the latter point regarding a need for a stretching subject, and the inadequacy of the rest of the curriculum, I can to an extent see the concern. However, again, if we think this stuff is important then surely we should be pushing it to as wide an audience as possible. It might be that we need to think about having a ComSci qualification for different groups, and it might also mean that the broad – integrated – curriculum covers less, or somewhat different material. Indeed, as I suggested last week, it could perhaps in some places focus more on Philosophy for Children – in teaching logic – than on formal programming skills. Fundamentally I think this complaint arises from a pretty narrow perspective – the rest of the curriculum is a bit of a mess, don’t touch mine. But if that’s the view, well so much the better for opening up discussion about what we want our education system to look like, and the need for problem based learning, creative thinking, argument skills, and so on across the curriculum.
Having said that, there is a related point which I have slightly more sympathy with which makes the point that…
We need to act now
- Everyone is dithering over a curriculum, we need to be getting on with this stuff now.
While this is a perfectly reasonable point, and plenty of people are “getting on with it” in very constructive ways including by implementation in individual schools, and pushing for change, they’re not the people I’m considering here. Instead it’s the people who are happy to just let things continue, and happy to just hit the same old suspects. Unfortunately with the Govt guidance unclear for the foreseeable future, and the commensurate exam board uncertainty things are unlikely to improve on this front. However, I’m inclined to think that, if we think coding is important (and I have some qualms about this), then the pressure needs to be up for cross-curricula change, and an appropriate curriculum for students of all abilities.
Widening participation – important progress
The overarching concern here is that we try to avoid reproducing existing divides. Both in terms of interest in computer science, and engagement across ability levels – this reflects my comment above regarding the need to think about what sort of whole school curriculum we want. My concern here is that
if the end goal isn’t broader than just hitting ‘nerds’, then we don’t really need to do very much – they’re already interested, and spending more money on them might not be the best use of funds, particularly given a) the claims for benefits being made, and b) the potential for thinking about whole school change – both of which could have broader implications and benefits.
I certainly don't want to denigrate what projects like the Raspberry Pi Foundation are engaged in – I've met people who've become interested through the RPi, they've got a lot of the usual suspects on board in very supportive ways, and of course they've also reawakened an interest from some ex-cons (to continue that analogy!) – the people who remember programming on the old BBCs, for example. But, if we’re going to push for more coding, I don’t think the arguments above regarding the acceptability of limiting this hold.