via Facebook, original source unknown
So it’s that time of year again – and next week sees the CS Education Week and the Hour of Code. You’ve seen Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates encouraging kids to essentially play with Logo using Angry Birds & Plants vs Zombies, this year it’s the Disney Star Wars team and a virtual BB8 robot.
The KS3 students in my school will all be abandoning their usual lessons to have an hour of interactive coding*. It’s a fun, engaging way to give students a taste of what programming is about in addition to the programming and problem solving we already have in the curriculum and I think it’s as important to give every student the opportunity to get excited about computers and computing as it is to give every student the opportunity to try drawing, music, art, drama, design technology, etc… So I’m all for it.
It comes with a caveat, though. There is a danger that teachers will see a successful lesson in which the students come in, get told what to do by the computer, achieve it and leave happy. And this is a dangerous precedent.
The Hour of Code is extremely gamified, so the students will intentionally be rewarded, and the aim of the project is to give students a taste of success. There is a very clear route from start to end, so it’s virtually impossible to get lost along the way. And as a tool to engage young people (or not so young people, for that matter) this is a key element. Make it too hard, too slow, too dull and you lose people.
The danger comes because it is easy to see this successful lesson and try to repeat it. Sit the kids in front of Code Combat, Code Academy, Code Avengers, etc. Lots of gamification, instant rewards, easy route from start to finish and also a quick win in terms of planning. But this doesn’t help develop the resilience or the detailed technical understanding. The fixed start, end and check points mean that there is no freedom for students to learn at their own pace or to explore the elements they are particularly interested in or need to spend extra time on. Very often the step by step solutions don’t help students with larger scale skills of abstraction and deconstruction. It’s a good start but not a good end.
Dropping students in front of one of these systems and leaving them to it is a particularly easy trap for those with less confidence in programming to fall into, or those under pressure and without the time, support or understanding from above to help them gain the skills and confidence needed. The tools can be useful if used wisely and scarcely, but they are still not a replacement for the detailed and timely input that a highly trained and skilled educator can apply.
I had a kind of breakthrough, but this post is already getting long so I might save that for next week.
For now, I think the Hour of Code is a magnificent movement and I’m really looking forward to seeing the enthusiasm and energy across the whole school, as has happened in previous years. But remember that it’s a tool and it has a specific audience and a specific purpose.
*I can, do and will rant at length about the difference between ‘coding’ and ‘programming’ – and this is definitely the former.