Dec 14 2013

10 PRINT “CODING IS OVERRATED”                       20 GOTO 10

I remember when I taught in Houston back in the early 1990s and felt it was a crime that my school did not offer any real computer programming course.  The best they had was something called ‘computer applications’ where students would spend the semester mastering things like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel.  I felt that students were being shortchanged by not getting the opportunity to program since this was something that I learned back when I was in 8th grade and which my own junior high school taught everyone in 9th grade.

Programming a computer is a great hands on experience where a class is, by its nature, student centered.  I remember my 9th grade computer class where we programmed challenges in BASIC on our Atari 800 computers.  My friend Jared and I were the superstars in the class and racked up many stickers on the wall chart that tracked individual progress through the challenges.  I remember one challenge that vexed me for a while:  the goal was to get a bunch of text like “hello, how are you?” and to have to computer take the letters and put them in alphabetical order, but to keep the spaces and the punctuation intact, so the output would be “aeehh, llo oor uwy?”

After my fifth year of teaching, many people don’t know this about me, I went back to school for my ‘real’ career in computer science.  I got a master’s degree in comp sci and worked for several years as a programmer.  I was decent at it and became of of the better ‘debuggers’ for, at the time, a very well selling desktop publishing program called Quark XPress.  But staring at a computer screen all day was giving me ocular migraine headaches and my wrists were getting very ‘crackly’ and I was just not feeling like I was part of the real world so I eventually found my way back into teaching, where I have stayed.

For the first five years I taught at Stuyvesant, I taught both math and computer science.  My friend Mike Zamansky had designed a course around three computer languages:  NetLogo, Scheme, and Python.  In a required one semester course for tenth graders, we provided exposure to three types of languages and while not every student loved this course, many did, and it was generally a rewarding experience (except when the computers were broken) to teach this course.  I would ‘lecture’ for about ten minutes each day, introducing them to a new concept and then have them work on a lab I designed while I walked around and provided individual feedback.

This week has been Computer Science (CS) education week, and many key ed reformers like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and even President Obama have spoken about the importance of computer science.  Obama goes as far to say “Learning these skills isn’t just important for your future — it’s important for America’s future.”

Now I’m the last person to ‘bash’ learning a little computer science.  I think every student should get an opportunity and I’m also impressed with the free courses that they offer on the code.org website, sponsored by Gates and Zuckerburg.  But when I read about how students learning to code is important to America’s future, I think this is taking things a bit far.

‘Coding’ as insiders call computer programming, can be both fun and challenging.  I’m all for something that motivates kids to concentrate and to problem solve, which, if taught correctly, computer programming definitely has the potential for.  But to sell it to the public by claiming that it is likely to be many student’s future careers is as far-fetched as selling music instruction or physical education as vocational training.

Just like in music and physical education, some kids will show little aptitude, most will show some aptitude, and a few will show a lot of aptitude.  Having been a computer programmer (we liked to call it ‘software engineer’ then, maybe they still do) I can tell you with certainty that once you get beyond the very basics, just like with learning a musical instrument, it gets very difficult very fast.

Pushing computer science as an interesting learning experience is fine with me.  I agree with that rationale.  I do like that there is free access to courses and there are actually some very good courses freely available on YouTube.  But let’s get realistic.  Like learning how to play the guitar, learning to code is a great thing to do as a hobby, but most people will never get good enough to make a living at it.

Not everything taught in school needs to be ‘useful’ or ‘marketable.’  Sometimes ‘thought provoking’ is all you’re gonna get, and for computer science, that’s enough justification for me.

4 Responses

  1. gkm001

    Funny title. I agree that “important for America’s future” is overstating the case. (What’s important for America’s future is that students are prepared for the responsibilities of self-government in a democratic republic.) But I’m not sure that a career in technology is open to only a few talented superstars, either. My husband makes a good living as a software engineer, and he likes to say it’s not that hard. I agree with your overarching point, however, which is that the quality of an education should not be judged by its market value (which we can only guess at anyhow), but by how well the students are able to cope with new situations as they arise, and to exercise sound judgment in making decisions. In that sense, computer science is not only thought-provoking; it is good practice in logic and in reasoning from premises to conclusions. Some students will be motivated to pursue it further and some will not; those who find it really enjoyable will probably be able to master the skills required to make a living at it, while those who don’t should go into a different field in any case. It is not the schools’ business to churn out some set proportion of computer science majors. It is our business to respect and nurture human diversity, which I feel I can safely say actually is important for America’s future.

  2. I was always a believer in supplementing math classes with spreadsheet projects. It provides a nice introduction to programming concepts like iteration. The built-in functions and easy graphing options help build intuitive feel for a wide range of mathematical ideas. Open source alternatives mean that any student with a home computer can have free access to the software.

    On top of all that, these are skills that students will actually use.

    Here are a couple of relevant posts:

    http://youdothemathkthrucalculus.blogspot.com/2012/11/homemade-pi.html

    http://youdothemathkthrucalculus.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-exact-chaos-spreadsheet-game.html

  3. Steve M

    It is ironic, but I would say that the inner-city students I taught ten years ago had a better grasp of basic computer use, including HTML and Java programming, than my current (suburban) students. That’s probably true for the population as a whole, as well.

    Pressing app buttons is the extant of most kids’ technological skills these days.

  4. I think teaching kids CS is a great idea because it’s such an interesting branch of mathematics. Kids love learning how electronics work and it’s a great way to teach critical thinking and problem solving.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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