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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Learn to Code in Kindergarten?

Sure, if learning to code means, you know, learning.

August 1, 2019

I am a pretty well-established ed tech skeptic, believing that all too often the “tech” takes precedence over the “ed.”

As part of that, I’ve also been less-than-enthused about the “learn to code” movement, sometimes pushed as an alternative to foreign languages in K-12 schooling. My criticism has been rooted in a fear that “learn to code” is coming from an instrumentalist place, that (some) children need to learn to code so they can have futures as coders, while others will get the privilege of owning and running the companies which those other children write code for.

We know that access to technology is not enough to close any existing achievement gaps. In fact, technology can be a driver of increasing those gaps as poor kids are trained to run the machines (learn to code), while rich kids are encouraged to design them (technology makerspaces). 

But a comment on one of last week’s posts (the one about typing) has me rethinking some of my resistance. A commenter going by “Laura Blankenship” said about introducing programming in grade school, “We definitely believe in the importance of understanding how your computer works, how to build something with code, etc…”

I had a proverbial light bulb moment because put this way, the purpose of coding is the same purpose I hold for writing. I want students to work with writing in a way that allows them to see who writing works. The focus on experiences in The Writer’s Practice is to explicitly orient the doing away from judging the end product and instead privileging the process as a way of better understanding writing as a tool for communicating with specific audiences in order to fulfill their present needs. 

Learning to write is learning to think, with the writing as a tool for expressing one’s ideas. 

I had been thinking of programming as merely a skill you possess after reaching a level of proficiency, something that only takes on meaning if it, for example, is something that allows you to secure a job that requires the skill or allows you to create a viable program on your own.

It seems so obvious now, but I was falling prey to the same narrow lens I decry in others when they look at writing instruction through the lens of proficiency and training students to pass writing imitations through standardized assessments. 

But of course programming is a way of thinking, as is being a scientist, or historian, or mathematician, or artist, or what have you. The Writer’s Practice is framed around just that, a “practice,” the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits of mind of writers, and these same dimensions attach to all of these other fields.

recent study by the Stanford History Education Group found that students who are helped to learn to “read like historians” do better than others when it comes to decoding assessments that require them to apply the kind of thinking historians engage in when working with primary sources.[1]

Knowing how the programs on their computers are constructed seems like a worthwhile thing even if a student never writes a single line of code outside of school. To understand the architecture is a form of power, and while I cannot claim my individual experiences with students as dispositive to the whole, many of them use their computers and phones uncritically, and prove to be not great problem solvers when it comes to operating in the digital realm. 

At times, I think I have an advantage having had to adapt from a world of rotary phones and typewriters to one of interconnected devices. I’ve often had to troubleshoot something, and in so doing, would learn a little bit about the inner workings of the software or machine.

(Remember having to “defrag” your hard drive? Even that tells you something about the nature of digital storage.)

Of course, teaching coding, like teaching writing, can be done badly in such a way that none of the salutary effects I’m imagining are achieved. To ask students to jump through hoops to prove proficiencies as so many must do with writing is a sure route to giving them a surface-level familiarity with some aspects of coding without helping them to think and act as coders.

So much of the rhetoric around what students “should” be learning is framed as necessary “skills” to be attractive to employers. By defining learning this way, it is inevitably reduced to a credential which may not be consistent with actually having learned much. 

And of course knowing how to code is no guarantee of a secure future. If everyone learns to code, the skill doesn’t seem so special anymore. Everyone learning to play the flute or make ceramics or build architectural models could serve the same purpose as everyone learning to code as long as we’re focused on the learning.

If students are going to learn to code, it should be because learning to code is a good way to help them learn how to learn[2].



[1]At its heart, the task is to draw inferences from observations of historical documents. Students who are solely exposed to content and not allowed practice with this reasoning did not do as well on the assessment. Drawing inferences from observations is one of the fundamental parts of the writer’s practice as well. 

[2]Learning to write, done well, is the best route towards achieving this, but I’m obviously biased.

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