Coding classes should bring in everyone, not just children

It’s not just about getting a job. David Parry/PA Wire

The US and UK governments often mirror each other’s strategies when it comes to new education policies, and the recent introduction of coding into the school curriculum is no exception. From this September, all children aged five and up will have to learn to code, with the English coding revolution reflecting the vision encapsulated in President Barack Obama’s famous quote: “Don’t just play on your phone – program it!”

This change is being accompanied by a surge of resources aimed at helping children code creatively, with tools ranging from non-digital board games such as Robot Turtles to Google’s completely visual, character-free programming language. While some tools are commercially produced, others like The Missionmaker Core, have been developed through research and development projects in collaboration with schools.

It’s not just about the tools though. Concerns have been raised about the government’s inadequate training plans for teachers, and the risks of simplifying coding into procedural building blocks rather than conceptualising it as a new 21st century skill.

Mixed signals

The problem is that we’re getting our coding metaphors mixed up. Editor at Mother Jones, Tasneem Raja, argues that good coders are like good cooks who are able to create creative dishes out of some basic ingredients. Others compare coding to music and composing, there is a rhythm and melody to it. Another popular metaphor is that of poetry and art.

There are some important similarities between these metaphors: they all share the notion of working steadily towards proficiency. Those who code daily for hours are likely to be those who will be good at it. All three metaphors also implicitly point to audience awareness: a musician, poet or cook derive great delight from those they “code” for.

Code for and with the community

Another way of looking at coding is that of creating a story, built by a community. If we characterise coding in this way, we move the concept beyond linear code-writing to multi-dimensional coding, co-created by multiple authors, who actively make as well as consume the code.

Seeing coding as community-story projects can help answer questions around how to educate and foster a generation that loves coding rather than teaching a set of skills demanded by employers. It moves us to conceptualising coding as part of computing science which can be taught without touching a computer and which needs to be taught differently to different age groups.

Importantly, it implies that children and teachers have to collaborate to use online tools together. Teachers could code apps and websites with the children, for various contexts of use. We need more examples of apps which are innovative and meet specific needs, like we saw with the Devonport High School for Boys app, created by Plymouth students aged 14 and 15 for students, staff and parents to communicate better with each other.

Similarly, a group of students across year groups could collaborate on coding projects, borrow ideas and re-purpose them.

The power of the right metaphor

Seeing coding in this way might provoke a society-wide dialogue about empowering more people to become involved in the creation of the content they would like to see in the digital sphere. It could inspire politicians, the private sector or not-for-profit organisations to support free coding lessons to parents, grandparents and the general public, and so avoid widening the cross-generational digital divide even further.

It could also provide an accessible way in which to demonstrate the need for gender and racial diversity in the coding industry. With a new generation of community coders, we are less likely to see social software applications designed for and by predominantly young urban white men.

Metaphors have the power to create realities we would like to see. If we are ever to reduce the cross-generational gap in digital skills we have been experiencing since 1990s and the digital divides within generations on the rise since the early 2000s, using the metaphor of community storytelling seems like a good one.

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