Thursday, February 2, 2012

Problems with 'Coding is the new Latin'

I train geography teachers how to use Google Earth software to enhance their teaching, give me 2 hours with anyone who can operate a browser and I can have them recording virtual flights zooming down from a space shuttle view of the earth to a street view outside Big Ben in all its glory.  Not only is this attention grabbing and fun, it gets over a central problem of Geography - understanding scale.  So I've been interested in a recent discussion about teaching ICT in UK schools.

The Problems: The government is consulting on a change to the ICT syllabus based on discussion that has been going on in the circles of digerati (e.g. John NaughtonRory Cellan-Jones).  Some key points of this discussion:
  • ICT teaching in UK schools is boring and not creative 
  • It focuses on teaching kids to use Microsoft office programs in an unimaginative manner.
  • The number of students taking ICT in the UK is falling  
  • The UK games industry is successful in the UK but it is finding it difficult to get UK recruits with knowledge of programming and the STEM subjects (report).
The Solution: A particular solution to this problem is offered:  We need to encouraging coding in ICT teaching, it would deal with all the above problems because coding is creative, students will then be inspired to study computing at higher levels and the games industry will have the programmers it needs.

My problem with this is that it is the only solution being offered.  The government’s consultation document sensibly talks about 'digital literacy still being important' but careful reading of the blogs and listening to the sound bites reveals the emphasis is elsewhere:
'Children should be not just using Apps but making Apps'
Michael Gove At BETT this January.  
‘Coding is the new Latin, we need to give kids a proper understanding of computers if they’re to compete for all kinds of jobs’
Alex Hope, co-author of the Next Gen report

An Alternative:  What no one appears to be talking about are the advantages of getting school students to use software.  Just because Microsoft Word exercises aren't lighting up the creative juices in our schools doesn't mean that ALL teaching about how to use software is boring.  At the top of this post I discussed some of my work with Google Earth as an example but that isn't the only one.  

Photoshop Tennis: The most impressive TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) example in schools I ever heard about was 'Photoshop tennis', students were given an image in a forum, one by one they then customized it using Photoshop (it could have been any image processing software of course)  posting their new customized image to the forum so another student could build on it.  The humour and skill the students showed in this software based exercise was excellent.

The advantage of classroom activities using software creatively rather than programming activities is that in many cases, programming for a beginner is abstract and complex.  It’s difficult to get students to produce code that can do something useful within the tight schedule of a school lesson because of this.  That’s not to say it’s impossible but it is difficult.  In addition to the abstract complexity of coding, debugging is an enthusiasm killing activity for school children in my experience.  That isn't to say that programming doesn't have its advantages, using software you are necessarily limited and have to accept a certain loss of freedom.  Certainly for the cleverest school students, I can imagine that programming is an excellent way to give them worthwhile educational challenges.  

Discussion:   This hasn't been an argument against the use of programming in schools, I think that, used carefully, programming has a lot of value.  I’m also convinced that school students should understand what programming is and what it does.  My point is that there is no discussion amongst the digerati of how to best to use software in the school room, the discussion has become anchored around how much better programming activities will be than learning boring Microsoft spreadsheets.  

 John Naughton makes a good point, ICT has now become so common place that separating it out from other school subjects is as flawed as saying that ‘books’ should form a school topic.  I’ve heard many teachers say that they would love to use Google Earth in their Geography teaching but that they can’t access the school computer room because ICT teachers block book them out.  Creative use of software would be much easier if ICT links were made between computers and the other school subjects, my examples in this post emphasize the use of ICT in Geography and Art teaching. 

Trials and Evidence: There is a final, bigger point to be made.  You may have noticed I haven’t cited any empirical evidence for my argument that software can be used creatively in ICT teaching, I’ve just used ‘IMHO’.  I’m not the only one, in the blogs and reports I’ve read if empirical evidence* is mentioned at all, it’s given a low priority.  An example is the Next Gen report, although it says deep in the text that further study is necessary, none of its 19 recommendations mention the need to test teaching techniques in schools 

What we really need to do is to come up with a number of ways of to teach ICT in schools and then test the ideas rigorously in classroom trials.  If we fail to do this we run the risk of swapping one deeply flawed curriculum for something that is no better.   

*and I’m specifically talking about evidence about what works for ICT teaching rather than testing how to teach coding or how video games can be used to promote STEM teaching.