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Hotly contested: Should coding be mandatory?

Schools in industrialized countries across the globe are having a debate: Should teaching coding and computer science be a mandatory part of curriculum? That discussion took place on a smaller scale at ISTE 2015, where four experts weighed in during a modified Oxford-style debate session titled Point-Counterpoint: Coding in the Curriculum.

Representing the “user lens” were Hadi Partovi, entrepreneur and co-founder of Code.org, and Stephanie Dyson, a 17-year-old senior at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Representing the “district lens” were Charlotte Chauvin, instructional technology resource teacher for Kansas City Public Schools, and Linda Curtis-Bey, executive director of STEM for the New York City Department of Education. Michele Molnar, industry and innovation writer for Education Week, moderated the debate. 

Is coding for every child?

Users’ points: Coding may not be for every child, but the choice is for every student. When you teach coding to early learners, you create an incubator. Students deserve the option to get involved in computer science, and in urban environments, school-based exposure may be the only opportunity to experience coding.

If we had the opportunity to wipe clean the slate on “what school looks like” and develop digital age schools, teaching coding and computer science (CS) would certainly make the list. Every child needs this exposure. It’s the job of schools to provide it.

Districts’ counterpoint: Yes, student exposure is beneficial, but after initial exposure to the possibilities and opportunities, several questions emerge: Where do we go with it? How do we organize it in large districts? What does it look like at the elementary, middle school and high school levels?

Beyond the agreement that exposure to coding and CS is a good thing, we have to ask how much and at what level? It also comes down to dollars. Where would additional funding for this type of instruction come from?

Will coding experience come at the risk of pushing out art and music? After all, there’s only so much time and money.

Districts’ point: This is a questions arts education departments are struggling with. There’s a constant tension about how to keep the arts in schools and how they fit into the STEAM movement. The concern is real.

Further, how do we add requirements within the timing of the existing school day? And if we add requirements, what exactly would we be replacing? If we’re discussing coding and CS, we may also need to discuss adjusting the length of the school day.

Users’ counterpoint: Yes, arts education might suffer, but perhaps it doesn’t have to if we take an integrative approach to teaching coding and CS. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

And we need to remember that computer science is a creative field in which students are actively creating something. It’s both vocational and foundational. The artifacts that come from computer science education, such as apps and websites, are creative, artistic endeavors.

Schools are already struggling with so many things. Should we mandate coding?

Districts’ point: If we mandate coding and CS, we’ve gone beyond the idea of exposure. There could be pushback from teachers’ unions, and there will be a need for additional professional development.
While mandating it at the high school level might be doable, there’s less flexibility in the lower grades. Again, it becomes a matter of how much we can do in a school day.

The reality is that districts have to make decisions, and subjects that are measured by state testing get the most attention.

Users’ counterpoint: Schools should make the decision based on what’s right for students. Making coding and CS mandatory is already happening is school systems across the United States and in the U.K. It’s a matter of who has the vision.

In some cases, nonprofits are funding the professional development teachers need, and that has been popular with teacher unions. The discussion should be less about funding and more about finding the will.

Want to weigh in on the CS in the curriculum question too? Add your comments to the Point/Counterpoint discussion forum Should we teach computer science in elementary school? in the ISTE Commons community.

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