Home > Development > Do we really need to teach our kids to code?

Do we really need to teach our kids to code?

There is currently a petition on the UK Government’s e-petitions website:

Teach our kids to code

Start teaching coding as a part of the curriculum in Yr 5. If it can be introduced as a part of the central curriculum in Year 5, then by the time those kids are drawn up through the education system, there would be far less of a disparity between the sexes – and maybe even an increased number of young people with an ability to manipulate open data, relate to code and challenge each other to design and build the digital products that we have not even begun to imagine. Year 8 is too late, we are losing the female coders and we need this generation to help us code a better country.

Petition #15081

Although I agree with the sentiment behind it, there are fundamental flaws that lead me to disagree with this petition. I have stated this on Twitter, and have been asked by several (quite surprised) people why I, as a developer who grew up in the environment of the home computer boom, am objecting to other people potentially following my career path. This post is for me to explain my objections.

Open up the code to any software and what you will be presented with is, fundamentally, sets of algebraic functions. So my first objection starts with a simple question: at what age did you learn algebra?

If your schooling was anything like mine, it was taught at the end of year 6, or in the first year of secondary school (since relabelled year 7).

Now, the QCDA guidelines for Key Stage 2 state the following requirement for level 5:

They construct, express in symbolic form, and use simple formulae involving one or two operations

Attainment targets for Mathematics, QCDA

These guidelines are written by Government advisors – people who have spent their entire lives dedicated to understanding and educating children. Level 5  is the level that these experts would expect the higher-ability children at the end of year 6 – that is, 11 year olds – to achieve, yet this petition is based on the majority of children having the ability (not the teaching) to go far above and beyond that almost two years earlier.

My second objection is a common one when discussing teaching, and related to resourcing. For teaching children up to the age of 11, a teacher has to have a wide range of knowledge about a vast number of subjects: not just mathematics, but history, geography, religion, chemistry, physics, personal development and a whole host of others. On top of that, they also have additional responsibilities that are not generally recognised outside of the schooling environment. (You honestly think they have 6 weeks off in the summer? Get real.) They simply do not have time to learn how to program on top of all of this; the most they can offer, and many schools do, is an ICT club that allows those with an interest to pursue the subject in their own time.

This, incidentally, is quite a common theme of petitions. I’ve seen previous calls for teachers to teach all three sciences separately. If every single request were met, by the time the school day ends it would be time for the next to start; what we have currently is a workable balance.

Move on to secondary school, and the teachers become more concentrated around individual subject areas. Who remembers their science teacher or their history teacher? That’s because they had a subject.They are specialists, and – if programming is to become part of the curriculum – this is where it should be introduced.

Do not start teaching children to program at year 5. Teach them about computers by all means and show them what they can do, but fundamentally teach them problem solving skills, and that the computer is a mere tool.

  1. September 9, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Excellent post with two very relevant points made: most children are not capable of it; programming is an abstract concept, and also that teachers do not have the time to teach something as specialist as this; not when basic Maths and Literacy skills are constantly being criticised. I agree completely with your concluding point; it’s the problem-solving that needs focusing on for transferable life skills.

    (I would like to add that many schools have electronic devices that allow a form of programming from an early stage: Roamer, Bee-bot, Pro-bot, etc. They may also have basic software to teach children about control. But formal programming is ricidulous)

  2. December 1, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Like the objectiveness of your response to the petition and agree with your appraisal of the current situation in both Primary and Secondary education. During my years teaching in Primary Schools before the National Curriculum Inquisition was set up a more flexible pedogogy was in place which allowed plenty of room for a problem solving approach to learning. The enthusiasm for engaging in the process of learning that was generated by a single ZX-81 was enormous. Once the children saw that they could control what appeared on the screen they imagined new things they wanted to do with this new found power. They wanted one of their own to do what they wanted with. Great for my educational purposes even I was problem solving !.
    From this early start the BBC came along then we progressed to using the LOGO as envisioned by Seymour Papert then along came the programmable robots and the development of Technic Lego. The schools were and are seen as a market for , ‘ Educational products ‘ but it’s not the only place in which children and for that matter we all learn. The most important factor is the richness of the learning environment.
    The research I conducted about the uses of computers outside of school showed that anything we did in school was dwarfed by that going on outside and that it was more expensive for the schools system to do it, that same old story, government inertia to implement anything new. They could have had one per child.

    So now the cost of having an almost open development system are within the means of almost everyone with the creation of the RaspberryPi and maybe that will will give rise to ways of transitioning from the concrete to the abstract.

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