Among the Canadian provinces Nova Scotia was an “early adopter” of incorporating coding into its Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. Basic coding was introduced in September 2015 to all students from kindergarten to Grade 3 and Education Minister Karen Casey has been boasting that Nova Scotia is already “a national leader” in teaching computer coding to elementary school kids. That’s a bit of political puffery because, in doing so, the province is actually following a few other educational jurisdictions, including Great Britain (2014-15) and the State of Arkansas, and only slightly ahead of British Columbia and Finland.
In announcing $1-million more in 2016-17 funding for the Coding for Kids project, the Nova Scotia Department trotted out a pair of Grade 6 students to demonstrate how to program “beebots” — small, yellow-and-black robot toys shaped like bumble bees. A cleverly titled Canadian Press story on the photo op by Keith Doucette captured the moment with an ironic twist: “‘Beebots’ to teach coding in Nova Scotia classrooms.” A recent series of CBC Radio interviews featuring Ryerson Communications Technology professor Ramona Pringle merely confirmed the impression that coding was being promoted as another vehicle to advance “play learning” rather than introductory computer programming.
Teaching “coding” to young children is the latest exemplar of so-called “21st century learning” and it amounts to introducing basic “programming” in the early years, instead of waiting to offer “computer science” in the junior and senior high schools, as was the case from the 1960s to the early 1980s. That early curriculum essentially withered and died with the arrival of mass word processing and the spread of computer applications courses.
While teaching coding is heavily promoted by the global high tech industry and local off-shoots like Code Kids.com and Brilliant Labs, the emerging coding curriculum philosophy and activities stem from other sources. Leading advocates such as best-selling author Douglas Rushkoff, former UK coding champion Lottie Dexter, and CBC Tech columnist Pringle see coding as a “new literacy” symbolically described as “the Three Rs plus C.”
In a summary of his 2011 book, Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff put it succinctly: “As we come to experience more and more of our world and one another through our digital interfaces, programming amounts to basic literacy…. Once people come to see the way their technologies are programmed, they start to recognize the programs at play everywhere else – from the economy and education to politics and government.”
Introducing coding has generated a robust and enlightening debate seemingly everywhere but in Canada. The Year of Code initiative launched in 2014 in the United Kingdom drew plenty of critical fire and actually claimed a victim, its chief promoter Lottie Dexter. After flaming-out on the British TV show Newsnight, her rather giddy performance was became fodder for skeptics who saw the coding curriculum initiative as an “elaborate publicity stunt designed to falsely inflate the UK’s tech credentials.”
Critics of the British coding initiative focus on the wisdom of latching onto the “latest language” and introducing it to very young students. “Coding is seen as the new Latin,” claimed Donald Clark, the former CEO of the firm Epic Group and a self-described technology in education evangelist. ” (Coding) is a rather stupid obsession where politicians and PR people, none of whom can code, latch onto ‘reports’ by people who have no business sense or worse, a regressive agenda.” One British technology expert, Emannuel Straschnov, goes further, claiming that today’s coding and programming languages will likely become obsolete in the future.
Coding skeptics are clear on one key point of criticism. The early adopter educational jurisdictions suck as the U.K., Nova Scotia and Arkansas, lack enough teachers with the coding experience and relevant computer science knowledge to effectively introduce the new programs of study, across the board, from kindergarten to high school. A frontline teacher in Bristol, England, spoke for most when he decried the “lack of support” and distinct feeling that “it wasn’t clear what was going on” with the initiative until far too late in the implementation.
Software engineer Tristan Irwin of Sioux City, Iowa, sees a deeper problem stemming from the confusion over what we are actually teaching in the schools. On an April 2011 Quora discussion thread, he drew a sharp distinction between the “programmer” and the “coder,” noting that the former was a creator, while the latter was essentially “an assembly line worker.” As Software Engineering has become more commodified, he added, there’s less demand for programmers and more demand for coders. His analysis strongly suggested that teaching coding may only succeed in producing a whole generation of “code grinders” in the workplace.
Prominent Mathematics educators like Barry Garelick are sharply critical of the new coding curriculum and its associated pedagogy. In August 2016, Garelick took direct aim at the Nova Scotia initiative. He’s particularly concerned about its dumbing-down of “coding” into “pictoral symbols for commands” and the total absence of explicit instruction in the recommended teaching strategies. Most Math teachers fear that “coding” will further erode classroom time for Math and do little or nothing to prepare students for true computer programming, AP-level Computer Science, or a STEM career.
The Nova Scotia coding curriculum, outlined in the August 2015 NS Information and Communication P-6 Guidelines, are surprisingly skimpy, especially given the dollars now allocated for “innovation and exploration kits” and tech toys for every elementary school. For P to 3, for example, the ICT guideline identifies nine “essential learning outcomes,” only two of which relate to technology productivity and operations. The clear priority is on teaching “digital citizenship” and “computer applications” rather than on basic coding.
Making coding mandatory from K to 9 is not proving to be the preferred implementation model. In the case of British Columbia, coding will only be compulsory from Grades 6 to 9 and supported by $4-million in teacher training and equipment/resources funds. It is integrated into a much broader #BCTECH Strategy and will not be rolled-out until September 2018. In Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), coding is not a stand-alone initiative but rather an integral part of the system’s K-12 STEM Strategy designed to foster collaboration, creativity and innovation.
Why the rush to introduce coding in the early grades — and what will it supplant in the crowded curriculum? Is the current version of coding just another example of teaching “discovery learning” with simplified coding and high tech toys? Where are the teachers coming from to deliver the more challenging Mathematics-based aspects of computer science? How much sense does it make to introduce elementary level coding without a broader commitment to preparing students for careers in STEM or related technical fields?