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Opinion: 'We don't need to teach computer science and coding in our schools'

Learning to code is not the answer. Learning to think is, writes Simon Lewis.

Simon Lewis Principal, Carlow Educate Together National School

ONE MAJOR ABSENCE from the 1999 Irish curriculum, compared to the UK equivalent, was computer science. I trained in the UK and taught the subject. In it, children were taught how to format text in Microsoft Word and to create fancy animations in PowerPoint.

There was little in the way of thinking but lots in the way of learning skills that might be adapted to other subjects but generally weren’t. In fact, computer science was taught as a separate subject and was not integrated with the rest of the curriculum.

In Ireland, technology was 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 but what it meant was technology was supposed to integrate into every aspect of the curriculum.

While there are many reasons why this took a long time, by now in 2017, there are very few teachers in Ireland who are not using technology to support the curriculum in some way or another.

Computer science as a Leaving Cert subject

Computer science is to be fast-tracked as a new Leaving Cert subject from September next year. However, I think the current (1999) curriculum had it correct. We don’t need to introduce computer science as a standalone subject. We need to help teachers find ways to integrate ICT into their teaching of the current curriculum subjects.

A class blog is a brilliant literacy tool. Podcasts sort you out for oral language. A decent internet-linked camera can provide the most interesting of maths trails. The internet is the best reference tool you can get for the social sciences. Brainstorming is a skill that is enhanced by online tools such as Padlet.

The huge power of technology is it allows pupils to communicate, collaborate and create with pupils all over the world. European projects such as eTwinning and Erasmus allow children to learn different aspects of different cultures in a way that couldn’t be done before the advent of technology.

Coding at primary level

My main argument was that when it comes to coding, in a very similar manner, I don’t think it’s important to teach children how to code. I think it’s important to think about how we code. Let me explain.

I studied computer science in college and computer programming (or coding) was part of the degree. Coding isn’t really that difficult – there’s very little one needs to do except sequences, conditions and loops. A good programmer doesn’t just know how to code. They have something extra – the ability to solve a problem.

All of us in our class were competent at coding as that’s the easy part. The classmates who became very successful did so because they were good at thinking rather than being better at coding. I can give a really simple example of how anyone can code but a good problem solver will do better.

If you were asked to give instructions to draw a square, you might give the following steps:

  • Draw a straight line of x cm
  • Turn 90 degrees and draw another straight line of x cm
  • Turn 90 degrees and draw another straight line of x cm
  • Turn 90 degrees and draw another straight line of x cm to join up to make the square.

This is perfectly adequate and is an example of good programming. However, someone who can think at a higher level might say:

Repeat the following 4 times: draw a line x cm long and turn 90 degrees

This achieves the same result but is a much higher level of thinking; and this is exactly what we need: children who can think at this level so if they are interested in computer programming in the future, they have the necessary skills to take it on. How we code, is basically a synonym for how we think. In the above example, both answers are correct, but the second one is thought out much more.

Solving problems in a creative way

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 problems is how to break them 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 current curriculum. For example, how about getting children to create a dialogue in the programming language Scratch on the topic of their favourite TV show? 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.

I think it’s really important that we don’t add computer science as a subject to the curriculum or we’ll end up making it a discrete subject where children will blindly follow whatever textbook publishing company decides is appropriate to learn and it is unlikely to get integrated into other subjects, much like what happened in the UK.

What we need is for ICT to remain subject-neutral and to enhance teachers’ knowledge and skills in utilising the power of technology through 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. He has been helping primary teachers make the most of ICT for over 15 years on his website Anseo.net. You can find more about Simon on his site, simonlewis.ie or any of his social media profiles: Twitter: @simonmlewis; Facebook: anseoDotNet; YouTube: anseoDotNet or Instagram: anseoDotNet.

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About the author:

Simon Lewis  / Principal, Carlow Educate Together National School

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