Should Our School be doing Computer Programming?

By Gavin Molloy 

Computer programming for schools, from Junior Infants to Third Level, has generated a significant hype all over Ireland. It is creating a similar hype all around the world, but is it, to quote Macbeth, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, or is there actual substance to this hype? This author worked in London when the new computing curriculum was introduced and worked closely with teachers and students of all ages and skillsets – so let’s have a first hand look at computer programming in the classroom.

What is Computer Programming for schools?

Computer programming, also known as code or coding for schools, involves students learning about the core principles of computer programming languages; the sort of languages that professional coders use to build websites, create computer games, design the Sat Nav on your car, even the autopilot on planes or the technology that allows NASA to drive space buggies on science missions around the surface of Mars! Amazing, so where does it fit in in your classroom? Or an even better question is, does it fit in in your classroom?

It is fair to say that not all students are going to grow up to become programmers, perhaps only a minority will.  Just like not all PE students will grow up to become professional athletes, and not all English students will grow up to become authors. PE teaches us about winning and losing, teamwork, commitment; English teaches us to communicate, develop understanding and analyse; computer programming teaches us problem solving, resilience, maths skills, critical thinking, communication as well as increasing motivation to learn and supporting behaviour – and it does so in a way that is vastly superior to traditional methods of achieving these goals.

Computer programming for problem solving and resilience:

I have been in countless classrooms where students, even those that are typically disengaged, will develop tunnel vision trying to solve a problem in programming. The reason for this is because the feedback is instant and the rewards are relevant – they want to be able to create something, to be able to be some small part of their digital world.  For example, if they are trying to programme a character to move in response to the iPad tilting up, down, left or right and they press ‘play’ to see if their game works, and the character doesn’t move up when the iPad is tilted up then they know there is an error in their maths – and they will never be more motivated to solve a maths problem as they will be when their game isn’t working! Students programme the character to move using the X and Y axis, and will do so effectively as young as 1st class.

Computer programming to teach maths and critical thinking skills:

The example above refers to students as young as 1st class in primary school learning to master the X and Y axis, but it doesn’t stop here. Maths and critical thinking are the foundation stones of computer programming. Students will be mastering division, multiplication and angles, as well as more complex maths such as variables, functions and equations.

Computer programming to increase motivation to learn and improve behaviour:

I have never seen a subject (including other ICT strands) that engrosses students the way computer programming does. When delivered in a structured, progressive programme of work, the students will learn a host of key skills and they will be immersed in the learning throughout.

To sum up…

Computer programming when introduced with a realistic, progressive plan will be one of the most dramatic teaching and learning experiences you will witness in the classroom. The results will show elsewhere in student behaviour as well as in their learning approach to other subject areas and you will wonder how you ever taught without it. With the fantastic variety of options available for teaching computer programming to young learners, schools can realistically aim to have students achieving amazing things in the very near future – from Junior Infants up as far as Leaving Cert. This one is not a fleeting hype, this is our new world!

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