It would not be an understatement to say that coding is now the biggest force in STEM education.
Back in 1995, in an interview for Channel 4, Steve Jobs said that “Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think”.
Some 20 years later we are witnessing his vision being realized with a lot of back-wind from organizations such as Code.org, Girls Who Code and She Codes. Coding is not only flourishing in schools, but also in after-school and summer-time activities.
Tynker, an online service for teaching coding to kids is a great example. Their modding Minecraft course has a great appeal for all those gamers out there who just can’t get enough of Minecraft, and they are not the only ones, or the first, for that matter. Learn To Mode started their coding courses for Minecraft a couple of years ago and are also offering their courses to in-school and afterschool programs.
This flux in supply is a direct entrepreneurship response to the flux in demand, backed by the Obama administration with its Computer Science for All initiative. It now seems that you can’t graduate without taking a coding course. Moreover, it also seems that without coding skills, your relevance to the workforce is insignificant. Now that’s a troubling message! Jordan Shapiro, a known blogger on global education and a Forbes contributor, raised some interesting points for thought, criticizing the “Computer Science for All” initiative in his Forbes article. While his points are definitely valid, they do not direct educators towards the ‘right thing to do’. When it comes to coding courses, the question of How and What should only come second to the Why.
So why teach coding?
Steve Jobs put it in a nutshell; It teaches you how to think. But this argument raises an important question. Are we not already doing that? Are we not teaching our kids to think? Then what on earth are they doing in class some 1200 hours a year? That is a frightening thought. And if coding is the only answer, then the answer is even scarier than the question. If coding is not interesting for our children, will they not learn how to think? Will those children not have a place in the workforce?
To provide a better answer we need to go back a few steps, even before Steve made his quotable statement. Back in the early 80’s Prof. Gavriel Salomon investigated the role of computers in education. In his report he made an important distinction about computerized learning environments. His distinction between learning about or with computers is crucial. While learning about limits to specific knowledge base and usually applicable for training goals, learning with allows greater range of learning.
Learning with, rather than about, is appealing to a greater number of students, extends their ZPD and can supports interdisciplinary approaches as is in STEM. That is why learning STEM with robots is much more important than learning about robotics. But is this what President Obama meant? In his 2016 state of the union he explicitly said “make them job-ready on day one”. Does that trigger learning with or about? What do you think?