ISTE Debate: Should we teach computer science in elementary school? #CSEdWeek

December 8, 2014 at 8:33 am 4 comments

Both sides in this debate make good points.  Of course, I’m on Pat Yongpradit’s side — computing education is very important and should be in all schools.  But I totally see his opponent’s position (and I’ve made similar arguments myself about why the US is not ready for mandatory CS education): it’s expensive, teachers are not well-prepared, and it’s not obvious (to schools or teachers) how computer science helps with the primary goals of literacy and numeracy.

I’m not saying that elementary students are not capable of using or even mastering code. But I believe that really teaching — not just introducing — coding is simply beyond the scope of what most K-5 schools and their students are able to do, and it’s even asking a lot of middle schools when both lab time and class time are so limited. What’s more, pushing students into the study of abstract concepts before they are developmentally ready will not make them any more prepared for the rest of the 21st century than they are now.

via ISTE | Should we teach computer science in elementary school?.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  December 8, 2014 at 9:19 am

    I think both of the articulations are lacking and unsatisfactory. That Pat’s is slightly better, doesn’t help.

    Let’s look at what K-5 children -need- (rather than what the adults around them want). Montessori had a good articulation early: “The goal of early education is to inculcate children into the most powerful epistemological ideas of their time”. This is a key insight and idea from more than 100 years ago: and it is wrapped around the qualitative nature of early learning and setting and retention of “mindset”.

    This is one of the many things that Seymour Papert was trying to accomplish. Many people misunderstand his emphasis of “powerful ideas” as “things that children should be exposed to”. What Seymour actually wanted was what Montessori wanted: for the powerful ideas to be the internalized epistemological basis for children’s thinking.

    We can use this perspective to assess the curricula for K-5. From the “children should learn to code” side, we see the curriculum quite missing what Seymour was trying to do: it is aimed at learning to program rather than learning about representations and relationships (i.e. “real math”).

    From the “it’s too much for teachers to handle side” we have to note that the current aims and practices are completely missing what math is all about (not to mention doing a very poor job on the “literacy” side). It’s a kind of societal and moral crime to limit children to the limitations of so many of the adults produced by the teaching profession and theories of what should be learned.

    Yet, the teaching to code “misses the math” just as much in its own way.

    School is controlled by school boards, parents, principals, and teachers — and these present a formidable barrier to what children actually -need- vis a vis the 21st century.

    When we were working on inventing personal computing and internetworking in the 60s and 70s, we thought that these would provide a stronger and more convenient alternative to school than public libraries. (And I think they are, and can be.)

    But the catch is that the “signal to noise ratio” today on personal computers and the Internet is so bad that it requires an enormous amount of discernment and effort to even find the “good stuff”. That search engines try to show “what’s most popular” rather than “what’s the best” is a huge barrier for what should be obvious reasons.

  • 2. lizaloop  |  December 9, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Bravo Alanone1! You’ve brought several key points to the fore. As Montessori and Papert told us, it’s about powerful ideas – and, I’ll add, skills. Building on your comments, let’s address three follow-on questions: 1) Why are we considering teaching coding to small children, 2) Should we teach coding universally in the public schools, 3) Are there other resources we could use to infuse coding into the popular knowledge base?

    1) Little Kids. IMHO, job training and “pre-math” are the wrong reasons to introduce coding to elementary school children. Rather, youngsters need to acquire the experience of self-efficacy that telling a machine what to do engenders, to develop skill in building mental models, to acquire systems thinking and to understand of when and where attention to nitpicking detail matters. With such skills in place it’s much easier to teach arithmetic and these coding skills transfer to many other areas of academic and practical life. I’ve seen coding taught to young children in a manner that develops these abilities but I’ve also seen it do damage. Coding can be taught through rote memorization, drill and kill, and the assignment of programming tasks conjured up by a teacher who assumes there is only one right way to achieve the intended machine output. Teaching coding is a means to some valuable ends but it isn’t “teacher proof”.

    2) School Mandates. There will be several results if we mandate the teaching of coding in all schools. Teachers will have yet another demand on their already stretched resources. School topics for which there is less community enthusiasm will lose attention within the curriculum. Uncreative approaches to coding are likely to be adopted. Those students who have no aptitude for systems thinking will be provided with yet another opportunity to fail. Parents and non-parental members of our communities will not have access to the same coaching in coding that their children enjoy. I am in favor of universal opportunity to learn to code, for young and old alike. I question whether public elementary school in the right venue. If a teacher want to offer coding in conjunction with other academic subjects, of course, do it. But don’t require it.

    3) Other options. Commandeering the public school curriculum is a way to impose one’s values on the next generation while effectively shifting the burden of action from the advocate to the public school teacher. That teachers are already overtaxed is a criticism of the school system as a whole, not a condemnation of the individual teacher. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s we taught programming in libraries, museums, after-school programs, boys and girls clubs, recreation centers, even juvenile halls — anywhere we could get access to kids. Parents and others joined in. Admittedly it was the elite that took most advantage of these community resources. Agreed, it was hard work and required fund raising to sustain. But the tech industry is now rich and can afford to underwrite such efforts. The chance to create one’s own computer games is a motivational magnet that attracts slum kids, limited-English speakers and kids already failing in school just as strongly as the privileged. With outreach and local action we can reach them. We can use this attraction to elicit voluntary engagement in learning and civic life free of the stigma of compulsory school. It was the kids and their parents who brought coding into schools, not the other way around. When the non-school community dropped the ball on the schools, the teaching of programming died out. There’s a lesson for us all here.

  • 3. lizaloop  |  December 9, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Reblogged this on HCLE Virtual Museum – the blog and commented:
    Weigh in on this 40 year old debate.

  • […] to me because it has me re-thinking my beliefs about elementary school computer science. I have expressed significant doubt about teaching computer science in early primary grades — it’s expensive, there are even more teachers to prepare than in secondary schools, […]


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