Coding is not the answer (for every question)

23 Nov

There is a movement gathering steam at the moment with the aim of proliferating coding education, in itself a fine idea. Computers are everywhere, they are harder to detect than before and people need to know when people are using computers to game them – understanding a little bit of computer science is somewhere between very helpful to essential for these things – Defense Against the Dark Arts for the contemporary developed world.

Somewhere out of this movement has emerged a second movement proclaiming that teaching coding will teach people to think – seemingly an insufficient number of people were thinking until programmers started banding together to enlighten us.

Yes, part of my objection is to the slightly condescending way these people relate to the rest of us rather than their actual arguments, but there I still have objections to the content of their argument as well.They mainly stem from the fact that they’re arguing for programming as a way of teaching thinking as though other ways of learning to think were not available. In point of fact, the notion of teaching is at least as old as Socratic philosophy, and exists in a wide variety of forms, from Western and non-Western perspectives.

Sometimes coding proponents go as far as to suggest that coding is an ideal to learn maths or logic. Maybe they have a point about logic – formal logic studies maybe too esoteric for a lot of tastes.

On the other to recommend programming as a way of learning maths is kind of odd. You can only learn maths by learning maths. Natural aptitude for maths is highly correlated with natural aptitude for programming – it’s hard to imagine those weak at maths will have an easy time in programming.The strong ones will learn whichever they spend time on – either way time away from maths coding is just time away from maths.

This last is the crux of it – the proponents of coding in schools discuss the idea as though they are several hours per week of fallow time up for grabs. There are not. Something else has to go to make room for time spent coding. My personal guess is that most of the proponents of the coding in school idea are thinking of something in the humanities rather than a science or maths subject (although at least one self-identified software developer commenting on another blog wanted to reduce arithmetic teaching in schools – as if our society wasn’t innumerate enough!). I’ve read a number of data scientist cvs  – if I could change the education of that group of people, I’d be taking coding out and putting English lit in.


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