It Takes More Than an Hour

Last week we celebrated Computer Science Education Week, with many schools offering it’s very popular Hour of Code activities to their students. And we heard from many politicians, business people, and ed leaders calling for all students to study coding as part of their regular school program.

But is that necessary? Or even a good idea?

The Guardian news site evaluated exactly that issue when they asked Should Kids Learn to Code? Their question is prompted by the fact that the UK government has added computer programming to the curriculum for students in all their schools beginning next fall.

In Great Britain, as well as in the US, one of the primary arguments for having kids learn to code is economic. They are trying to grow their tech industries, something, of course, many states on this side of the Atlantic would like to do. New York City has announced that “computer science will be compulsory in the city’s schools within the decade” and other areas are looking seriously at similar requirements.

However, as with the many exaggerated claims for the number of STEM jobs that go unfilled due to a lack of trained graduates, you have to wonder how many programmers will be needed in either country.

Excitable industry claims about creating millions of new jobs by 2020 (tactfully described by one well-placed industry source as “more a campaigning tool” than anything) may not hold water, but the UK Commission for Employment and Skills still estimates that another 300,000 digital jobs could be created by 2020.

Certainly the number of students learning to code in the UK by 2020 will far exceed the number of “digital jobs” available, which is likely an exaggerated number from that “excitable industry” anyway.

Then there is the other major justification to have computer science training for all students: to help them understand how our increasingly software-driven world works (or fails to work in some instances). That is a rationalization I can actually support – but not if the approach taken is the same as for teaching mathematics in most American high schools.

Just as there are no good reasons, academic or economic, for every student to follow the standard path from Algebra I through Calculus, the standard computer programming curriculum is not appropriate for helping future adults understand the digital world.

In any case, I also wonder about the impact of all the Hour of Code events from last week. And last year and the year before. In the schools around here (and I suspect elsewhere), the kids get their hour playing with Scratch or robots or Star Wars-based tutorials and then return to the normal school program.

If the people who believe kids should learn the concepts of code are serious, it’s going to take more than an hour a year. But it also needs to be part of a major overhaul to the standard K12 curriculum.

One Hour, And No More

logo.pngThis week, many schools here in the overly-large school district have been participating to some degree in Hour of Code activities. Nationally we’ve seen lots of media stories around the event1 and tons of traffic on coding related websites.

But what happens next week?

For vast majority of schools and students, this particular exercise will be long forgotten and Hour of Code put back on the shelf until this same time next year. Very few schools will incorporate learning computer programming into their curriculum, especially not in those “core” subjects in which the spring tests are already beginning to loom.

I don’t accept the premise that every student needs to learn how to program a computer, just like everyone will not need Calculus, Chemistry, or even college.

However, every student should graduate from high school with an understanding of how the device in their pocket, the one collecting and transmitting all kinds of personal data, works. Along with basic ideas from mathematics, especially statistics, science, and social studies. Plus good communications skills and an awareness of the real choices they have in life, including college.

So much of our traditional K12 school curriculum is focused on mechanical processes students will quickly forget and on collecting points towards a pass to the next level, not on understanding concepts they can actually use for the rest of their lives.