As we continually review and evaluate our learning programs, teachers across many levels are increasingly pondering the best way to improve student learning in the use of computers and the possibilities and approaches to learning for our students.
In an article, “The Coding Revolution” published in the August edition of Scientific American, Annie Murphy Paul makes some interesting observations on the teaching of coding or computational thinking.
“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 maths. The UK in 2014 launched a requirement that every student learn to program and many schools in Australia and New Zealand are offering coding.
But other educators argue that teaching coding to all students is neither practical nor desirable. A better approach might be to teach computational thinking – the underlying principles on which computers operate because these are skills that everyone can use, whether they’re using a computer or not.
Students might use a block-based coding program like Scratch, dragging and dropping blocks containing discrete commands like Move 10 steps and Wait 5 seconds to get cartoon characters moving around.
They start with questions like ‘What are instructions? How do you give instructions so that a computer knows what you want it to do?’ Students program motors and sensors and build Lego robots that respond to their commands and, later, use CAD software to design their own inventions and use a 3-D printer. By year seven or eight, they might transition to text-based coding, using the more complex and flexible language of professional programmers.
This is about much more than coding. 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 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.
Bringing together computational thinking and coding skills may be the answer with students gaining a deeper understanding of the way their devices operate and their potential – both of their devices and themselves!
Mr Adrian Scott