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Learning to code vs. coding to learn

Michael Trucano's picture
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This week over a million students around the world will participate in the Hour of Code, an annual event designed to excite interest in computer science and computer programming. This reflects a growing interest in some quarters to promote efforts within schools to broaden awareness of what it means to 'code' (i.e. write a set of step-by-step directions that instruct computers to do something) and to help students develop related skills.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many leading technology firms have been keen proponents and supporters of this educational coding 'movement'. While such support has been particularly pronounced and high profile in the United States -- many of the prominent organizations have close ties to and/or roots in Silicon Valley -- this is long past being only a North American phenomenon.

Citing the increasing importance of coding skills, and IT jobs more broadly, to their national economies, policymakers in many countries are considering national coding education efforts of various sorts – and a few education systems have already begun to implement related initiatives. From Trinidad and Tobago to Indonesia to Nigeria, 'coding' is being introduced into classrooms and curricula around the world in various ways, both informally and (increasingly) formally as well, for better and/or for worse (depending on your perspective, and the particular nature or rigor of the specific initiatives).

This phenomenon is notably observable across Europe, where, rather famously (at least within the communities of people who care about and pay attention to such things), Estonia and the United Kingdom have introduced coding curricula for students beginning in early primary grades (the UK has actually made this mandatory – as has Slovakia, for what that’s worth). Each year in October, serves as a continental focal point and showcase for many of these sorts of national and regional efforts. A recent report from the European Schoolnet (Computer programming and coding - Priorities, school curricula and initiatives across Europe [pdf]) features results from a survey of 21 ministries of education about their current coding-related initiatives and plans for the future. To date, 16 European countries have integrated coding into their curricula at some level (with Finland and the Flemish part of Belgium expected to do so in 2016). While the focus of most of these countries has been at the upper secondary level, coding is increasingly to be found (or soon to be found) at the primary level at a majority of these countries as well. The report highlights a number of important related pedagogical questions that are emerging out of European experience:

  • How to design effectively the learning processes and outcomes involving coding?
  • Which concrete activities (and programming languages) are most appropriate for different students, according to their age, interests and capacities?
  • What are the particular merits (and limits) of adopting a cross-curricular approach to teaching coding or a discrete computer science subject?
  • How to refine assessment, in particular where coding is integrated in a cross-curricular approach in other subjects?

It also highlights many challenges related to training and support for teachers. While many of the startups developing the tools and services that make the coding movement possible are in the United States, Europe is in many the ways at the center of actual related activities in schools.


“Coding”, it is said by some, is the “new literacy”. The ability to write and understand computer code, some contend, is increasingly fundamental to understanding how to navigate one’s way through, to say nothing of succeeding in, a modern society where more and more of our lives are enabled and/or constrained by the actions of devices and information systems that run on computer code.

I expect that few people would argue that efforts to expose some students to ‘coding’ (and to develop some related skills) is a bad thing. That said:

Should *all* students learn how to code?
All? That’s ridiculous! some would answer.
All? Absolutely! others respond.

I’ve sat in on a number of related discussions in ministries of education and at education policy forums around the world. At times, it can seem like members of these two groups are not only on different pages, but reading from totally different books. Those people just don’t get it, I’ve have heard representatives from both groups lament about each other after the conclusion of such meetings.

For what it’s worth, and in case it might be of any interest to others, here are, in no particular order, some of the most common arguments I hear made both in support of, and against, educational coding initiatives: