Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding: But mostly a video game (Elliot Soloway)

May 15, 2014 at 8:38 am 10 comments

Elliot gets it right in his NYtimes quote from this last weekend.  Young kids who code are probably not learning much computer science that might lead to future jobs.  Rather, they’re “programming” as if it’s a video game.  That’s not at all bad, but it makes less believable the argument that we need coding in skills to improve the future labor force.

The spread of coding instruction, while still nascent, is “unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education,” said Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. He sees it as very positive, potentially inspiring students to develop a new passion, perhaps the way that teaching frog dissection may inspire future surgeons and biologists.

But the momentum for early coding comes with caveats, too. It is not clear that teaching basic computer science in grade school will beget future jobs or foster broader creativity and logical thinking, as some champions of the movement are projecting. And particularly for younger children, Dr. Soloway said, the activity is more like a video game — better than simulated gunplay, but not likely to impart actual programming skills.

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Teaching Code in the Classroom – Room for Debate – Those Who Say Code Does Not Matter are Wrong

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  May 15, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Learning coding skills is nothing to shrug at. However, given the work of Margolis, Goode, DiSalvo, Grover, and Varma (not together) – that the impetus has to be developing students’ notion that careers for computer scientists exist, that they are worthwhile, and that students believe/feel/understand that they are the sorts of people who can do those jobs. This goes back to Tai et al’s findings that career wishes/aspirations at an early age (middle school) age are more indicative of future careers than test scores — as well as the simple fact that our actions don’t arise in a vacuum and that we build on our previous interactional histories (Bijou, 1970) – interest in CS being no exception (e.g. Margolis et al., 2008).

    Bijou, S. W. (1970). What psychology has to offer education – now. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3(1), 65–71.

    Margolis, J., Goode, J., Holme, J. J., & Nao, K. (2008). Stuck in the shallow end: Education, race, and computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Tai, R. H., Liu, Q., Maltese, C., V, A., & Fan, X. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312, 1143–1145.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  May 15, 2014 at 10:44 am

      Don, your point makes me think of the issue I raised with Diana Franklin (previous blog post comment thread). We know that middle schoolers choose “career paths” around 8th grade, but how refined are those? Can they distinguish “scientist” between biologist, physicist, computer scientist, or chemist?

      Similarly, I believe that knowing that there are jobs available in the field you’re interested in is important for student interest. But how well-defined does that notion of “job” need to be? To contrast with the literature you cite, I think of Mike Hewner’s work which showed that CS undergrad majors at three different universities had very little notion of what kind of job they wanted to get and what they would do. Mike even caught some students telling him contradictions, various activities and job plans that were mutually exclusive.

      One of my ongoing research questions is “What is authentic?” I believe in the value of authenticity (in all of Shaffer and Resnick’s facets), but I’ve also published a paper saying that MediaComp isn’t really authentic — it’s imagineered. I think about the “job prospects” for elementary school children similarly. They’re important, but how important, how detailed, and how authentic are open questions.

      • 3. Diana  |  May 15, 2014 at 2:43 pm

        The question of how precise the notion of a job needs to be is an interesting one. At that young of an age, I don’t know whether the notion needs to be accurate. There was some work (don’t know the citation) about identity. If someone feels identity as someone in a career, then they are more likely to pursue it. So when they do science experiments in school, they can say “you’re a scientist now!” This makes students more likely to pursue it. In the absence of any activities for which we can say “you’re a computer scientist now!”, we lose that.

        I see your point is that perhaps “scientist” contains “computer scientist.” I’d be very surprised if that were true. Biologists and chemists use lab coats, need goggles, etc. Computer scientists, who are portrayed in the media all the time, do nothing like what scientists do. They are never called scientists there.

        When students make their college major decision, they clearly don’t lump all STEM together – biology is over 50% female, engineering / CS less than 20%.

        One question I’ve had for a long time, and I just don’t know how to get the data to answer – CS majors have slowly migrated from math departments and Letters/Science colleges to colleges of engineering. Has this reduced the number of females entering? If it’s listed in L&S, does that make people view it as more like a science? And if it’s in engineering, then is it lumped with engineering? I have only one data point, and I know not to make big proclamations from that. My undergraduate degree is “computer science and engineering”, offered by the college of engineering. I was the only female. The alternative, computer science, was offered by the college of letters and sciences. It had many females.

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 15, 2014 at 3:02 pm

          I agree, Diana, that students making their college majors distinguish between different fields of science and engineering. I’m asking about eighth graders. Mike Hewner’s work suggests that decisions made about major have very little to do with jobs, but are instead, about enjoyment of the activity as a proxy for ability in the field. I don’t expect that 8th graders are more sensitive to discipline differences and detailed understanding of jobs than 12th graders.

      • 5. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  May 16, 2014 at 9:28 am

        I’ll have to give Hewner’s dissertation a closer look – but I will note that for us (having a virtual robotics activity that was regarded as engaging) and more significantly, extended CS0 efforts (using Alice as part of CAHSI efforts; Gates et al. ; Hug & Thiry) showed that although students might enjoy the CS activities “that was great! loved it!” there was no corresponding increase in interest in CS careers and studies

        Gates, A. Q., Hug, S., Thiry, H., Aló, R., Beheshti, M., Fernandez, J., … Adjouadi, M. (2011). The computing alliance of Hispanic-serving institutions: Supporting Hispanics at critical transition points. Transactions of Computing Education, 11(3), 1–16.

        Hug, S., & Thiry, H. (2011). CAHSI annual evaluation report: Academic year 2010-2011. Boulder, CO: Atlas Institute.

  • 6. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  May 15, 2014 at 9:55 am

    With a focus on skills, is it that the underlying premise is once again that CS is a meritocracy and all that’s needed are the appropriate skills?
    Consider –
    At SIGCSE 2014, Jane Margolis had to call a presenter to task – owing to his perpetuation of the myth that CS is a bastion of meritocracy.
    Lecia Barker had to collect mountains of data (enough for a series of books in other field) to suggest that something beyond simple ‘skill’ might be effecting CS attrition/retention rates. [Originally, I had chalked this up to CSed’s unfamiliarity with qualitative research, but now I’m less sure.]
    This occurred to me – as it occurred to me that perhaps quite not-coincidentally all the names of researchers investigation socio-cultural factors are not part of the boy’s club. [The next person I thought of was Cheryan.]
    Going back to the original point that “perhaps we don’t need coding skills [in elementary schools?] to improve the future work force” – certainly that may be true to an extent – but I think there is still great merit in having coding as an activity/culture in schools. [It seems to me that this was also more David Brin’s point (than perhaps problematic notions that everyone had access to programming tools).]

  • 7. Raul Miller  |  May 15, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I believe that the incomparable work of Oliver Heaviside shares significant commonalities with the idea of “programming as a video game”.

    The point is that if you are purely theoretical with nothing to test your ideas against, it’s difficult to distinguish between true innovation and trivial mistakes. Forcing yourself to express them in the contexts of computer algorithms has a value similar to (but different from) forcing yourself to express them in print.

    Of course, much of this work will still have other flaws – and, in fact, nothing is perfect – which I think bears on Dr. Soloway’s comment about these activities leading to further programming skills.

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

    […] Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding: But mostly a video game (Elliot Soloway) Interesting take on the pros and mostly cons of learning to code via what amount to video games from Mark @guzdial […]

  • 9. Coding as Game Play | Dot Net RSS  |  May 20, 2014 at 6:56 am

    […] Some of it brought on my the online debate at the New York Times recently. Some of it by the comments Mark Guzdial posted from Elliot Soloway on his blog. And some of it just from ongoing thoughts I have been having for a while. What do we […]

  • […] computing into elementary school?  Does industry want to hire kids who know Scratch and Alice?  As Elliot suggested, it’s mostly a video game to young […]


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