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All students should learn to code. Right? Not so fast.

Tyson Navarro, 10, of Fremont, Calif., learns to build code using an iPad at a youth workshop at an Apple in Stanford, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
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President Obama announced on Saturday that he wants Congress to approve $4 billion for a new initiative to bring computer science to more schools to ensure that students are competitive in the 21st Century job market. You can read about his plans in this story by my Washington Post colleague Emma Brown, who quotes Obama as saying in his weekly Saturday radio address:

“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘R’s.’ ”

Some people might argue that financial literacy (or a number of other subjects) should take precedence over computer skills for all children, but Obama’s move certainly gives power to the “Code for All” movement. I have published over the last few years a few posts questioning whether all students  need to learn how to code. Here is a post I published in 2014, but that seems relevant now. At the end is a link to another post that supports the “coding for all” movement.

Here’s the 2014 post:

It’s the newest thing in education, at least for the moment: teaching kids to learn to code computers. In fact, there is a growing chorus in the business and education world for all students to learn to code and program computers. It is the 21st century, after all, and it’s a computer world. But education historian Larry Cuban says not so fast. In this post, Cuban looks why the growing call for all students to learn to code won’t work out as supporters hope. Cuban was high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This post appeared on his blog. (Coding and programming are not exactly the same thing but Cuban says that for this piece they can be seen as interchangeable.)

By Larry Cuban

Here is part of  a recent “Letter to the Editor” in the New York Times:

In the 21st century, every student should learn to program, for three reasons. Computational thinking is an essential capability for just about everyone. Programming is an incredibly useful skill: fields from anthropology to zoology are becoming information fields, and those who can bend the power of the computer to their will have an advantage over those who can’t. Finally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 71 percent of all new jobs in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) during the next decade will be in computer science.
Computer science is the future. Is your child going to be ready for it?

Written by Ed Lazowska, a University of Washington professor holding the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering, the letter responds to a New York Times article about teaching coding in schools. Clearly, a champion of programming, Lazowska typifies the unharnessed enthusiasm for teaching children to acquire computational thinking through programming. He is a “true believer.”

In a related post I pointed out the gradual disappearance of cursive writing from the elementary school curriculum as an instance of reformers abandoning a traditional subject because they see schools as engines of  economic, societal, and political change in the nation. They do not see schools as “museums of virtue” where cursive writing would be taught to every second and third grader. Instead, these reformers advocate  that young children and youth be taught programming languages as tools for computational thinking, a 21st century skill is there ever was one. I used the example of Logo, an innovation introduced into schools in the early 1980’s as an earlier instance of school reformers as “true believers” in teaching coding to children. They wanted to alter traditional teaching and learning. That innovation flashed across the sky like a shooting star and within a decade, had nearly vanished.

Now, the “true believers” are back. Even though the context and rationale for having K-12 students learn to code differs from then and now, the outcomes will be the same.

Contexts differ

Forty years ago, Seymour Papert and his MIT team wanted to restore progressive ways of teaching and learning so that students could construct their own meaning of ideas and their experiences. Learning to move “turtles” around on a screen was a way for students to think logically and computationally. These MIT scientists wanted to dismantle institutional barriers that schools had erected over time — the rules, traditions, and culture — because they retarded student learning. Logo, then, would be a vehicle for transforming teacher-centered schools into student-centered ones.

For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to early 1970s had ebbed just as  reformers began piloting programming in a few elementary schools. In just a few years, Logo became a boutique offering because a “back to basics” reform had seized civic and political leaders and the window for new ventures, anchored in the work of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, had closed. Traditional forms of schooling and teaching were back in vogue.

Shortly afterward, the Nation at Risk report (1983) warned leaders that unless schools became more effective — the United States would languish economically and other nations would leapfrog over America to capture global markets. By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more rigorous curriculum frameworks, and began testing regimes. Not a welcoming climate for Logo-driven reformers like Papert and his colleagues.

Ever since Nation at Risk, reformers-on-steroids have successfully pushed higher standards, testing, and accountability. Different reforms fitting that mold arrived in the federally funded Race To The Top, state-adopted Common Core Standards, and the spread of new technologies.

Here is where coding as a way to equip young children and youth with the computational skills that will prepare them for the labor market in the 21st century is the reform du jour. Monied activists pushing the teaching of programming in elementary and secondary schools are the new “true believers,” ones who get snarky when past similar reforms like Logo get mentioned.

Coding as a boutique reform

“True believers” are seldom reflective so do not expect a glance backward at why Logo became virtually extinct failing to last beyond a few schools where children continue to program using Logo-derived languages. Why?

The reasons are instructive to current enthusiasts for coding:

1. While the overall national context clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that schools as institutions have lot to say about how any reform is put into practice. Traditional schools adapt reforms to meet institutional needs.

2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding , for the most part, catered to mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class students. They were (and are) boutique offerings.

3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding.

4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer and the research supporting such confidence is lacking.

Surely, those interested in spreading programming in schools now–including “true believers”–should take a look at Logo and draw both inspiration and lessons from this earlier reform.

And here’s a link to a piece that was in response to Cuban, titled, “Why the ‘coding for all’ movement is more than a boutique reform”