Teaching Code in the Classroom – Room for Debate – NYTimes.com

May 14, 2014 at 8:37 am 12 comments

Remarkable debate on the NYTimes website about “Should coding be part of the elementary school curriculum?”  All the debaters have very short statements, and they’re disappointing.

  • Hadi Partovi claims “By high school, it can be too late” and “Students learn fast at a young age, before stereotypes suggest coding is too difficult, just for nerds, or just for boys” — I don’t agree with either statement.  We have lots of examples of women and under-represented minority students discovering CS in high school. It’s not at all clear that students learn everything quickly when they’re young — quantum physics and CS might both be beyond most second graders.
  • But John C. Dvorak’s claim that “This is just another ploy to sell machines to cash-strapped school districts” is also clearly wrong.  The computer manufacturers are not playing a significant role in the effort to push computing  into schools.

Take a look and see what you think.  It’s exciting to have this kind of debate in the NYTimes!

Despite the rapid spread of coding instruction in grade schools, there is some concern that creative thinking and other important social and creative skills could be compromised by a growing focus on technology, particularly among younger students. Should coding be part of the elementary school curriculum?

via Teaching Code in the Classroom – Room for Debate – NYTimes.com.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jeanne Century (@jcentury)  |  May 14, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Yes – super interesting. And also notable how easily complex issues get reduced to simple soundbites that can be misleading in the press.

  • 2. richde  |  May 14, 2014 at 11:37 am

    (Beware of gross generalizations below)

    I was in Singapore last summer and went to dinner with students from the (new) Singapore University of Technology and Design. Nationalities were split almost evenly between Indians, Singapore citizens, and Westerners. The students from India had been coding since elementary school, and their conversation raced ahead. They talked about projects they had been working on for years, They knew every nuance of programming technology. The enthusiasm tumbled out. The Westerners (mainly North Americans) tried to keep up. The students who had grown up in Singapore were mainly silent. When I later found out that it is hard to scare up CS majors in Singapore universities, I wasn’t surprised.

    In Singapore parents and school counselors are biased toward business and finance as a pathway to success, so it is only natural that their children end up in business-related fields. We all know the difficulty in getting American students into STEM fields (although that seems to be turning around of late). But what is the driving force behind the Indian students? Is there one or am I reading too much into a simple dinner conversation?

    Oh, one other data sample. At one point in my career I had a bunch of PhD students from Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), a private university in the north. The students were all great and had amazing depth. I had personal contacts within BITS, and on a visit to the the campus, it seemed to me that every technical field had a substantial cohort like the one at the SUDT dinner: excited, knowledgeable, and very smart. STEM for these students was as much a social venture as an academic one.

    The common thread (I believe) is modeling success at a very young age toward the technical fields. It was clearly more than simply cool to be coding, it was what one did to fit in,and it had been that way since elementary school.

    So what is missing? These kids were creative. They had started companies and were drawn to a school of design. Social skills? Coding was the glue that held peer groups together. Instruction in grade school? Not one of them mentioned that.

  • 3. Diana  |  May 14, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    I think what this whole debate lacks is a strong research basis. I’ll respond to the same two points that Hadi made.

    Do kids learn faster when they’re young? We hear it all the time, but is it really rue? Two years of foreign language in middle school is equivalent to one in high school.

    Is it important that we target elementary school before stereotypes take over? Well, stereotypes have already made strong headway. Even toddlers know gender roles. The better question is whether introduction in elementary school is better at breaking down those stereotypes than an elective course in high school. Quite possibly. Classrooms in elementary school have better gender and ethnic diversity than elective courses in high school, and if everyone gets the chance to do it, then those barriers can be broken down.

    Instead of citing the learn faster when they’re young, I would cite the research that states that students’ reported interest in pursuing a career in science and engineering areas as 8th graders is a strong predictor of whether or not they will pursue a science career
    [11]. This means that students’ experiences prior to 8th grade are vitally important to recruiting students to careers
    into science careers, including computer science.

    Sure, there are anecdotes about females who find CS in high school or in college. Major decisions should not be made based on anecdotes.

    But, even if it’s the right thing to do, it might not be the right thing to do TODAY. We don’t have research about how students learn and what they should learn in K-6. Producing a curriculum and pushing it out to hundreds of schools is premature.

    Also, teacher training is vital. In math, a visibly insecure female math teachers creates insecurity in female students about their math skills. The same may very well be true for computer science (though there isn’t enough teaching going on right now to study it yet).

    This is a promising yet unanswered question that needs research, not a nationwide push before it is ready. So I disagree with both of you, and yet I also agree with both of you.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm

      I strongly agree, Diana — nobody’s drawing on any research in this debate.

      I’ve been thinking lately about this statement that you made:

      This means that students’ experiences prior to 8th grade are vitally important to recruiting students to careers
      into science careers, including computer science.

      I’m aware of the research that suggests that children make some career decisions as early as middle school, but I’ve been wondering about the granularity of that decision. Sure, kids might decide “I’m an artist” or “I’m an engineer” or “I’m a scientist,” but do they distinguish between (say) electrical or civil engineer, or between a chemist, physicist, biologist, or computer scientist? Do middle school kids even grok a difference between these subdisciplines? I wonder if, to get kids into CS, we should be promoting STEM in middle school? If a kid chooses STEM in middle school, do we have the chance of getting them to aim for computing later?

      • 5. Raul Miller  |  May 14, 2014 at 1:10 pm

        I’m not sure I follow some of this reasoning. For example: many music careers require people with strong backgrounds in computing and electronics, and this holds true for a variety of other fields as well. Meanwhile, it’s well known that one of the best ways to get a job in industry is family connections or some other form of personal contact. Furthermore, the distinction between “computing” and “STEM” seems to be more an issue of labeling than practicality. Computing involves math, technology, science and engineering, it’s not the whole of all of these activities, but nothing else is, either.

        Of course, it’s also true that non-computing education is critically important. Anyone who expects to get by on nothing but computing is in for a rude shock.

        The tragedy is that some people find existing educational methods to be counter-productive. This probably has roots in inadequate child nutrition and other problems. Computers alone will not solve these problems. But having some classroom presence for computers can be a positive thing for students – I’ve seen this hold at the high school level and it should also hold true for at least some at the grade school level, at least for the upper grades.

        Meanwhile, a reliance on anecdotes just means that not enough people have been trying to expose people at the gradeschool level. (That said: anecdotally, many of the highest paid professionals I know had exposure to computers at an early age… and also had connections with industry sufficient to get a high paying job at the start of their careers. A problem with cause/effect analysis is that there are far too many potential causes for us to consider, so we are left with a need to do what seems right.)

    • 6. Raul Miller  |  May 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm

      I think John Dvorak’s claim is spurious. A computer need not cost any more than a textbook. For that matter, I checked the price on a 6502 processor (used in the apple ii, which was popular back in the days when John Dvorak was getting started), and saw price quotes ranging from a penny to a dime. Obviously, that’s not a full system, but if you set your expectations properly, you can do quite a lot. (For example, I read guy claiming that a monitor for a raspberry pi would cost over $100 and then within a minute of searching I found a small display listed for $30 including shipping.)

      Now, it could be argued that cheap computer is somehow a disadvantage for educational purposes, but I’d argue the opposite: something simple and comprehensible is great for educational purposes.

      It could also be argued that this kind of knowledge is obsolete. But I think that that kind of argument shows a deep ignorance about the nature of computing, and about the quality of education people are currently getting.

      Really, though, what we are seeing here is how good people are at making excuses. Most corporations depreciate their equipment for tax purposes in only a few short years and then eventually throw it away. And this has been going on for decades. Any school with people that really want computers and a little patience could acquire older models with some patience and persistence and some encouragement. That’s not really the issue.

      I think the real issue is that computers can be frustrating to deal with. A loose connector can render it useless. Documentation is typically written without any audience feedback, or for a different audience. Parts fail in various ways and someone needs to have the courage to deal with that. Software needs a lot of patience to write, and more patience to understand, and most of it winds up being mostly useless crud for most people. And of course people will always find things to complain about.

      Basically, some people just don’t want to make this happen. They have other things they would rather be doing instead (like maybe think about things rather than try doing them). And that’s their right, but I think they should at least be honest enough to admit that they are being lazy and impatient.

  • 7. James  |  May 15, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    Before reading a single response over at the NYT, I could already guess that at least one would post the commonly told falsehood about “30% of computer science majors in 1985 being female” or whatever they round it to.

    That’s based on like a typo in one table somewhere once, despite the fact that journalists keep repeating it. Could you maybe be the one to help shake things down?

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  May 16, 2014 at 9:51 am

      James, I graduated with my BS in CS in 1984, and my perception was that my CS classes were 30-40% female. I have multiple sources that I consider trustworthy suggesting the 30-40% female proportion in the early 1980’s. Maybe they’re all citing the wrong erroneous source. What evidence do you have that that’s wrong?

      • 9. Keith Decker  |  May 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm

        I agree with Mark (I also graduated in 1984). I will see if I can find a yearbook picture of our Data Structures class to count (embarrassing singing telegram…long story :-). Also, I worked in the Software Technology Program at GE from 85-87, and that was also at least 30% (or more) female (I’m pretty sure I have pics from there too to double check). At the time EE (my roommate’s major) was very male, and ChemEng very female.

    • 10. Raul Miller  |  May 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      This matches my memory and experiences, and the structure of my social circles also. And it matches other related information, for example a quick search found: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~women/resources/aroundTheWeb/hostedPapers/Syllabus-Camp.pdf

      Maybe what we are seeing here, though, are conflicting discussions involving statistics (and experiences) collected in different countries?

  • 11. Interesting Links 19 May 2014 | Dot Net RSS  |  May 19, 2014 at 5:56 am

    […] NY Times debate – Computing in the Classroom –  What do you think? Mark Guzdial takes exception to some statements on both sides of the issue at his Computing Education blog. […]

  • 12. fgmartin13  |  May 20, 2014 at 6:56 am

    Re: the plot to sell computers to schools – that’s for PARCC and Smarter Balanced.


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