Coding in the classroom: time to call a halt to the digital bandwagon

Do we really need to train a generation of coders at primary school?

“Before we blindly jump on this digital bandwagon, why don’t we check if it’s going somewhere first?” Michelle McBride of Scoil Chill Ruadhain, Brooklodge, Glanmire, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

“Before we blindly jump on this digital bandwagon, why don’t we check if it’s going somewhere first?” Michelle McBride of Scoil Chill Ruadhain, Brooklodge, Glanmire, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

The interactive pen has replaced the chalk and the smartboard has left the blackboard for dust. Technology lights up the classroom, but are we in danger of being blinded by its glare?

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has picked up the torch by suggesting coding be introduced into the curriculum at primary level.

For many people, this seems like yet another exciting advance towards the bright digital future. But, for those of us who actually work in the classroom, it feels suspiciously like a shortcut through a terrain that has not yet been properly mapped.

In short, we should look at fixing some of the bugs in our current operating system before updating it with a new and untested version.

A recent study on the impact of technology on learning found that while there was no doubt that technology engaged and motivated young people, it also found that “more effective schools and teachers are more likely to use digital technologies more effectively”. It’s the teacher that counts, then, not the technology.

A child may be learning algebra on an iPad but that doesn’t mean she has more chance of understanding it.

Yes, coding offers exciting opportunities for learning in schools. The truth is, however, that learning isn’t always exciting. Sometimes the only joy in the problem is in the solving. But we must be able to do our problem-solving without plugging in first.

One underlying difficulty that arises from Richard Bruton’s suggestion is the time it will take to train teachers and successfully implement it on a national level.

Setbacks

The Department of Education envisages that this new facet of the curriculum will be up and running in all class levels, not accounting for possible and probable setbacks, by September 2019. That’s four years from the date it was first published.

Coding is a far more complex language than our mother tongue. Some teachers have already taken courses on coding and include it in their teaching timetable during or, more often, as an after-schools club.

“Scratch”, a coding course, has been available for many years as a form of professional development to teachers who have an interest in this area. This training has been a personal choice rather than a prescribed requirement. Those who want to code can, be they teacher or child.

However, not all teachers have the same interest in coding. For some it’s music or art or Irish that draws the crowd. And, while they might not want to be “that” old dog, for some learning how to teach coding may be a trick too far. Even if teachers lap it up like excitable puppies it will still take time.

Judging by the rate at which Apple releases new phones, isn’t there a chance that by the time we are all sufficiently trained, the coding world will have moved on and the training will be as redundant as your old iPhone 1?

The very foundations of the Irish primary school curriculum encourages us to embrace the different intelligences within the school community and to try to nurture them all. Coding is a specific area. A niche market in the classroom.

Ken Robinson, an English educational adviser, has stressed the importance of nurturing difference and creativity in education. He calls on education systems to “reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity”, to use the gift of the human imagination wisely by “seeing our creative capacities for the gift that they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are”.

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Robinson argues that public education systems “originally came about to meet the needs of industrialism”. Are we now in danger of trading industrial for digital?

Some might reason that it would be splendid to have a population of skilled workers. Maybe. But do they all have to do the same thing? Not all children go on to pursue something they practised in primary school as their future career. Tin whistle is taught in school. How many professional tin whistle players do you know? Children create works of art from clay. When was the last time you made something from clay?

Decipher

Allowing our children access to a rich and varied curriculum, taught by teachers who are as engaged as their students, is what will give our children the ability to decipher coding in the future – if they choose to. The point is not that coding shouldn’t be taught in schools but more that it shouldn’t have to be. Education should be driving the technology, not running on auto-pilot. So, before we jump blindly on this digital bandwagon, why don’t we first check if it’s going somewhere?

Michelle McBride is a teacher at Scoil Chill Ruadháin, Brooklodge, Glanmire, Co Cork

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