American Schools Need Way More Than an Hour of Code

The “Hour of Code” that has swept America off its feet this week is fine and all, but what happens after that hour? America children are wonderful consumers of technology, apps, devices, and screens. It is generally not until high school that they may encounter a sustained experience in programming skills. The topic is rarely visible in the middle schools and practically completely non-existent in the elementary schools. Sure, there are pockets of success here and there, but even within districts that may say they teach these skills to students there is no uniform curriculum for it. One class does it while the neighboring class doesn’t.

Here’s why the American approach is both outdated and dangerous: learning to code teaches you how to think. That is hard to visualize if you’ve never coded. Programming helps develop design and problem-solving skills that are foundational for later academic success. Rewriting spelling words 3x in ABC order doesn’t do that. Nor does monotonous skill-n-drill math homework sheets. Our approach of avoiding, rather than embracing, programming skills is dangerous because we are risking leaving an entire generation of would-be-coders behind. Young children are actually interested in this. They love seeing how things work, how to make them move, and how to deliver commands. Their inquisitive minds are ripe for these experiences. Instead, we are focusing more on other more testable skills like close-reading and break apart math. While those may be necessary as well, it should not be at the expense of learning a vital skill to the world economy right now and in the future. These stand alone hours and days (I call them ‘side-shows’) are really useless. It might pique a child’s interest in the topic, but then what? Can they continue coding on school time? Can they get a loaner laptop from the school to take home and continue coding? Can they skip a math worksheet if they can make the purple alien fly across the screen instead? What is the point of what we are doing now with programming in schools and what goals or problems are we looking to solve? Right now, I believe we are just looking to check the box as more of a PR stunt; “Do your students code?” Yes. We have computer science week because American schools don’t yet see the value in getting ALL students to learn to program. Add the fact that there is no standardized test for it and you can piece together why we’ve failed our children to date.

According to the the recent joint ACM and CSTA report, “Running on Empty”: “In 2009 and 2010, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) conducted a joint study and found that most public schools in the U.S. focus only on the consumer aspects of using computers.”

Meanwhile, here’s a sampling of what schools in the rest world are doing.

In Estonia, the new programming initiative is looking “to turn children from avid consumers of technology into developers of technology.”

In England, the entire computer technology curriculum was redeveloped so students as young as 5 are learning programming skills in the classroom and algorithms. No need for a hour of code there and some fancy posters and political photo-ops.

In Hong Kong, they are looking to have programming taught in at least 20% of the primary schools by 2016.

Even in tech-rich Singapore, they are starting to move towards teaching the little ones how to program. For years, they’ve been like American kids and viewed as just consumers of technology.

There are thousands upon thousands of programming jobs right here in America. A recent search for just one term (computer programming) returns over 58,000 job listings in just one job listing site. Change the search term to app programming, mobile programming, software developer or any other relevant combination and you will find thousands upon thousands of openings. Many of these won’t be filled by Americans. At what point to we seriously look at ourselves and ask why? The American job market has been dubbed as being in bad shape, but improving. All along thousands of ‘high-tech’ positions have remained open and there for the taking. Our society wasn’t ready to fill the need. Our society was (is) still looking for the job descriptions of the 1980s. Will we allow this to happen again in the next version of the worldwide digital revolution? Will our young students be able to develop and create ‘things’ like this:

Forget the hour of code. Really. Do your students and children a favor and give them hours of meaningful coding instead. Weave it into daily school activities. Encourage them to spend less time tapping away at Angry Birds and more time figuring out what makes the birds fly.

Get your students and children learning programming with these resources:
Tynker
HopScotch
Scratch  and ScratchJr
Move the Turtle
Learning to code while playing Minecraft

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