ALP wants to teach kids how to program, and I agree

I checked in on one of my workshop classes this morning to see how everyone was going in the final week, to remind them of the remaining help sessions and to check that they’re on track to complete their group assignments.

There weren’t many students in the class, what with it being week 13, but of one of the students was very proud of the fact that she’d lifted her marks on the problem solving tasks from 1/10 to 8/10 over the course of the semester. She told me that going back over the last few workshops helped reinforce the coding that she needed to be able to do in order to complete the assessment.

She plans on transferring into medicine, which is typically not a career that requires programming. At the end of the semester, with only one piece of assessment remaining and the decision made that she will change out of science, she is still putting a lot of effort into understanding the statistics and learning how to program is reinforcing this and allowing her to engage deeper than if we were restricted to the stats education I had in first year ten years ago where we spent a lot of time looking up the tails of distributions in a book of tables.

Maths and statistics education (for students not studying maths/stats as a major) is no longer just about teaching students how to do long division in high school and calculus and point and click statistics methods at university. While some degree such as Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and IT have traditionally been associated with some amount of programming, it’s becoming more and more common for maths and stats service units to include MATLAB or R as a means of engaging deeper with the mathematical content and understanding solutions to linear systems and differential equations or performing data analysis and visualisation. Learning to program leads to better understanding of what you’re actually doing with the code.

Computers are everywhere in our students’ lives and in their educational experiences. Due to their ubiquity, the relationship students have with computers is very different to what it was 10 years ago. Computers are great at enabling access to knowledge through library databases, Wikipedia and a bunch of other online repositories. But it’s not enough to be able to look up the answer, one also has to be able to calculate an answer when it hasn’t been determined by someone else. There is not yet a mathematics or statistics package that does all of the data analysis and all of the mathematical analysis that we might want to do in a classroom with a point and click, drag and drop interface.

To this end, I teach my students how to use R to solve a problem. Computers can do nearly anything, but we have to be able to tell the computer how to do it. Learning simple coding skills in school prepares students to tackle more advanced coding in quantitative units in their university studies but it also teaches an understanding of how processes work based on inputs and outputs, and not just computational processes, it’s all about a literacy of processes and functions (inputs and outputs). Learning to code isn’t just about writing code as a profession no more than teaching students to read is done to prepare them in their profession of priest or newsreader. Coding provides another set of skills that are relevant to the future of learning and participation in society and the workforce, just as learning mathematics allows people to understand things like bank loans.

Tony Abbott does not sound like he’s on board with the idea of giving kids the skills to get along in a world in which computers are part of our classroom the way books were when he was going through school. While reading, writing and basic mathematics skills will continue to be important skills, literacy is more than just reading comprehension. Information literacy, being able to handle data, and being able to reason out a process are even more important thanks to the changing technologies we are experiencing. Not every student is going to be a professional programmer, an app developer or big data analyst, but coding will be a skill which becomes more and more necessary as computers become more and more a part of our workplace not just as fancy typewriters or an instantaneous postal system but as a problem solving tool.

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