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April 11, 2013

Why Johnny Can’t Code

14469151_sMy children attend one of the top-performing public school districts in the state of Massachusetts. Massachusetts, in turn, has the top performing public school system in the nation by most accounts (though that is a matter of some debate). Why, then, is technology education in my town - and so many others like it- so lost in the woods? Let’s back up. It goes without saying that there’s a massive transformation going on in our society. We’re witnessing a tectonic shift in our economy from manufacturing to knowledge-based industries and the pervasive use of technology and computers across industries and professions, from manufacturing to medicine and everything in-between. Considering all that, you would assume that the focus of our K-12 technology curriculum would be producing students who are very comfortable using technology in all its forms - computers, mobile devices and so on. But you’d also want to produce students who aren’t merely technology consumers (“I buy Angry Birds and play it on my iPad”) but technology creators (“I wrote a game that’s better than Angry Birds, and sold it on the AppStore.”) This isn’t a crazy idea. After all, our language arts curriculum isn’t just designed to just produce students capable of “using a pen and paper” and “creating grammatically correct sentences.” We aspire to graduate students who are capable of formulating and expressing original ideas in words and writing. Sure, it doesn’t always happen, but we aim high. Unfortunately, in my town and in most towns in the U.S., just the opposite is true when it comes to technology education. Consider Massachusetts. The Bay State’s vision for technology education is articulated in the Massachusetts Technology Literacy Standards and Expectations, a 2008 document published by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE for short). This document isn’t law, but it lays out the basic guidelines that most districts use to craft their own technology curricula, so it carries a lot of weight. The Standards and Expectations document hits some of the right notes - it talks about teaching students about the impact of technology across a variety of disciplines: ethics, health and safety, society, etc. Students learn about issues like plagiarism (and how Internet-based research can make it easy) and cyber bullying. All good. There’s a lot of focus on using computers as research tools - students in grade 6 to 8 need to “demonstrate effective searching and browsing strategies when working on projects,” “collect, organize, and analyze digital information from a variety of sources, with attribution” and “use and modify databases and spreadsheets to analyze data and propose solutions.” All good. In grades 9-12, the bar is raised a bit higher. Students are asked to be able to create multimedia projects like slide presentations, podcasts and the like. They’re asked to do more sophisticated layouts using word processors, and some advanced spread sheet operations like the use of pivot tables and formulas. Advanced search strategies (aka “Google dorking”) are in there, as well as demonstrating “a basic understanding of addressing schemes (e.g., IP addresses, DHCP, DNS.” Fine. So what’s the problem? First: too many of the State’s benchmarks in these standards are skills that don’t really need to be taught. The use of search engines, skills for navigating a graphical interface, using word processing programs and adapting to new devices are skills that most young people - digital natives - absorb naturally, without the aid of an instructor. We could just as easily add “walking upright” and “speaking” to the Kindergarten benchmarks, but there’s no need - kids already learn those things before they arrive at school. Re-teaching skills to students in 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th grade that they mastered in third grade just creates bored and disinterested students, right? If you have doubts, ask a teenager. In my opinion, what we need are benchmarks that take into account a student population of digital natives, and that will push students not just to consume technology, but to truly harness it and shape it to their own needs. In short: kids need to code - and have fun doing it. The question is: should schools be in the business of teaching students how to program? You’d think “yes,” but new research says “maybe not.” In a presentation this month at a conference for SIGSCE (The Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education), researchers at The University of California, San Diego presented a study of 40 girls (ages 10 to 12). The researchers created a game - CodeSpells - designed to teach Java programming. Students were asked to play the game in a “non -institutional” setting (that is: not a classroom), with a goal of engendering “the sense of sustained, playful, creative exploration driven entirely by the learner.” Their findings? The girls mastered the basics of Javascript after just an hour playing CodeSpells. Of the six groups of girls observed, 90% of their time was spent exploring the 3D world and/or 10290928_sediting code (as opposed to, say, chatting amongst themselves). “Subjects did not ask “What am I supposed to be doing?”, nor did they seem at a loss for activities to engage in. The simple directive to “do interesting things” was sufficient for inspiring subjects to give structure and shape to their own activities. In other words a “learner structured” mentality developed within the lab in which the acquisition of knowledge was driven by student interest, not the curriculum or the instructor. The researchers say that their work has implications for the growing field of educational coding, including kid-centered development frameworks (or IDEs) like Scratch (from MIT) and Alice. In other words - we need to teach kids to code - to be technology creators, not just consumers. The problem is, school probably isn’t the best setting to do it in. That’s food for thought.

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Paul Roberts is an experienced technology writer and editor that has spent the last decade covering hacking, cyber threats, and information technology security, including senior positions as a writer, editor and industry analyst. His work has appeared on NPR’s Marketplace Tech Report, The Boston Globe,, Fortune Small Business, as well as ZDNet, Computerworld, InfoWorld, eWeek, CIO , CSO and He was, yes, a guest on The Oprah Show — but that’s a long story. You can follow Paul on Twitter here or visit his website The Security Ledger.

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