Tuesday 25 April 2017

Teach primary pupils how to think rather than how to code

In my opinion

Simon Lewis
Simon Lewis

Simon Lewis

As a principal who is a former computer programmer, you would think I'd be delighted to hear calls for primary schools to teach computer science as a subject.

In Ireland, back in 1999, it was decided that technology was to be used to support the curriculum, rather than it being a subject in its own right. I'm not sure whether this was a deliberate move or a lucky accident. While there are many reasons why it took a long time, there are very few teachers in Ireland who are not using technology to support the curriculum across every subject in highly creative ways.

Examples include a class blog as a brilliant literacy tool; podcasts are wonderful for oral language; and a decent internet-linked camera can provide the most interesting of maths trails. Furthermore, the internet is the best reference tool you can get for the social sciences.

It is often reported that we don't have enough people in Ireland who can computer code. Therefore, some people argue that coding is now as important a skill as reading, writing and speaking, and thus, it should be taught as early as possible.

However, I don't think it's important to teach children how to code. I think it's important to teach children how to think. Coding isn't that difficult - there's very little one needs to know, except for sequences, conditions and loops. A good programmer doesn't just know how to code. They have something extra - the ability to solve a problem. In college, all my classmates were competent at coding but the ones that became most successful did so because they were good at thinking rather than being better at coding.

We need children who can think at this higher level, so if they are interested in computer programming in the future, they have the necessary skills to do it well. We need to start asking our pupils to solve problems in a creative way and integrate these problems into all subjects across the curriculum. Sometimes, a computer will be a valuable tool to achieving this and sometimes it won't. Sometimes, writing a computer programme will make the problem easier to solve and other times it won't. The most important thing pupils need to learn about is how to break problems down into smaller pieces and then tackle them in different ways.

Coding is only a very small way of being able to do this and there's no harm in it being taught in some way in primary schools as part of the curriculum. For example, getting children to create a dialogue in the programming language 'Scratch' on the topic of their favourite TV show, or how about extending this to ask the children to find out Ireland's favourite TV show? The skills required in this extension are similar to those of coding but don't require children to learn how to code.

It's really important that we don't add computer coding as a subject to the curriculum or we'll end up making it a discrete unintegrated subject where children will blindly follow a series of step-by-step guides, much like what happened in the UK.

What we need is for information and communications technology (ICT) to remain subject-neutral and to enhance teachers' skills in using technology creatively via the various subjects in the curriculum.

Learning to code is not the answer. Learning to think is.

Simon Lewis is the principal of Carlow Educate Together National School. His blog, Anseo.net, explores issues in primary education in Ireland and has a readership of over one million per year

Irish Independent

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