Learning to Code may be Enough — if it happens
I highly recommend Shuchi Grover’s piece in EdSurge news (linked below). She makes a great point — that the goal of learning computing goes beyond learning to code. It’s not enough to learn to code. She talks about the challenge of learning to code:
There are similar themes in Roy Pea’s 1983 paper with Midian Kurland, “On the cognitive prerequisites of learning computing programming.”
Even among the 25% of the children who were extremely interested in learning programming, the programs they wrote reached but a moderate level of sophistication after a year’s work and approximately 30 hours of on-line programming experience. We found that children’s grasp of fundamental programming concepts such as variables, tests, and recursion, and of specific Logo primitive commands such as REPEAT, was highly context-specific and rote in character. To take one example: A child who had written a procedure using REPEAT which repeatedly printed her name on the screen was unable to recognize the efficiency of using the REPEAT command to draw a square. Instead, the child redundantly wrote the same line-drawing procedure four times in succession.
Coding is hard. Coding has always been hard. We want students to know more than just code about computing.
I’m not sure that Shuchi is right. Maybe learning to code is enough — if it happens. When I studied foreign languages in secondary and post-secondary school (Latin and French for me), there was a great emphasis on learning the culture of a language. There was an explicit belief that learning about the culture of a language facilitated learning the language. Does it go further? Can one learn the language without knowing anything about the culture? If one does learn the language well, did you necessarily learn the culture too? Maybe it works the same for programming languages.
Our human-centered computing PhD students who focus on learning sciences and technologies (LS&T) are required to read two chapters of Noss and Hoyles 1996 book Windows on Mathematical Meanings: Learning Cultures and Computers. They make the argument that you can’t learn Logo well apart from an effective classroom culture. As Pea and Kurland noted in 1983, and Grover has noted thirty years later in 2013, students aren’t really learning programming well.
What if they did? What if students did learn programming? Would they necessarily also learn computing? And isn’t it possible that a culture that taught programming well would also teach things beyond coding? Maybe even problem-solving skills? David Palumbo’s excellent review of the literature on programming and problem-solving pointed out that there was very little link from programming to problem-solving skills — but for the most part, students weren’t learning programming. I don’t really think that that would work, that learning to code would immediately lead to learning problem-solving skills. I do wonder if learning to code might also lead to learning the other things that we think are important about computing.
There is a positive evidence for the value of classroom culture. Consider the work by Leo Porter and Beth Simon, where they found that combining pair programming, peer instruction, and Media Computation led to positive retention and learning (as measured by success in later classes). Porter and Simon have also noted how students learning programming also develop new insight into the applications that they use. Maybe it’s the case that if you change the culture in the classroom and what students do, and maybe students learn programming and computing.