Teaching coding in schools: absolutely necessary or another fad to waste teachers’ time?

By Bron Stuckey

Coding is the literacy of the 21st century, according to Bill Shorten. It is so important the Abbott Government has allocated $3.5 million to support a ‘coding across the curriculum’ package in schools.

Mind you I have to slip in here that our prime minister, Tony Abbott, decried the Labor Party’s elevation of the status of coding until many loud and derisive voices pointed out his own government’s promise of significant investment in it.

Since Shorten’s declaration, the teaching of coding in schools has attracted much commentary. It is something many people have an opinion about it seems. So here’s mine.

The idea that everyone needs to taste, explore and tinker with coding is easy to understand, but as to coding being the ‘new’ literacy of the 21st century, well I am not so sure. I think I would prefer science was the new literacy. This would, of course, include coding.

Someone said to me this week that because of the enthusiasm and focus on design and coding in schools their children are now convinced they will work in a design job or in the industry. I always worry when hype takes over and things become the new sexiest thing to do, even when I cautiously believe in their importance.

An educator I greatly admire, Alice Leung, recounted to me how her students were recently interviewing Dr Karl Kruszelnicki when this topic was raised. Dr Karl suggested that knowing how coding language works should be as important as learning to read and count. Alice points out that he was talking about “knowing how coding language works” and that is very different to being proficient in coding. There are many different coding languages, and they change all the time. You can become adept at one of these languages if and when you need to use it. But a taste of the basics (pun intended) to understand how coding works could be advantageous to all.

Many years ago I learned Basic, which is a simple coding language. I never use it now but I still appreciate what learning it taught me about the logic and computational thinking that goes into programming. Schools should be aiming for students to know enough to be able to appreciate and understand what coding does.

But I do wonder why learning about coding should suddenly be the responsibility of schools. Coding really isn’t an everyday practice in the way reading and maths are. For the majority it’s probably more like understanding a car engine. You don’t need to be able to strip an engine and rebuild it to drive a car but if you basically understand how a car works you can drive and maintain it efficiently and effectively.

Yes we all do indeed use the products of coding. But no-one needs to know coding to play digital games or do a Google search. In my field, many people are adept at using academic searches but know nothing about coding. I don’t use a skerrick of my knowledge of coding when I shop or bank online.

Only the greatest devotees of a game would want to dive into programming, modding and theory crafting for example in games like World of Warcraft. The masses around the world are just content to play their game or use their app.

I just don’t believe knowing coding heralds an everyday advantage for everyone. To me it should be somewhere on the learning smorgasbord along with, but perhaps a little above, engaging in watercolour painting. I would not extol it as the great new literacy.

Maybe for most learners coding should be more like learning a second language, we should all taste it, and some of us will go on to immerse ourselves in it yet others will go no further than a basic cultural experience.

I have to admit I am a huge fan of groups like Code Club Australia whose mission is to support learning code, but through well structured, specialist led, after school, programs. I do think computational thinking and logic could be vital learning. The logic is perhaps more important than the specific language.

But, as you probably know because you are reading this, opinions on this topic are diverse. Recently I had quite a lively response to my views on coding on my Facebook page. This is what several respected educators had to say on the topic (shared with permission).

Tamara Rodgers (Evans High School), “I want information to be the new literacy. The ability to analyse, process, and create ideas from and into multiple sources. This can then be applied to ANY field – coding, science, arts, music, social interactions.”

Gerhard Moliin (RMIT GeeLab), “As already many times mentioned, coding is not for everyone, what about design thinking? Art? Writing? The best software companies have experts in all those areas who are able to communicate and work efficiently together, because they understand each other’s area. If we just learn coding and everyone has to code nowadays, how will they be able to work with designer, artists etc.?”

Malyn Mawby (Abbotsleigh), “Drawing the line is difficult and I think curriculum writers tend to err on the side of ‘more’ – and I mean that for all subjects including maths, english and science – there’s so much that’s worthwhile to learn but do we really need to learn everything in school?”

Dean Groom (International Football School), “They need to decide: do they want to use the machine (know how it works, what it can do technically, socially) or are they happy to be users. The issue is not education/curriculum but ongoing cultural amnesia where people are not supposed to think or be concerned about media and technological data flows.”

Natalie Denmeade (freelancer), “These days with cloud computing and task focused apps it is much much easier A 3 yr old can do it! The interfaces, input and software/UX design are improving every day. The future is voice controlled / body input Virtual Reality. Computers will be so smart they will laugh at our ‘coding’ ability.”

Jason Zagami (Griffith University), “Likewise having an understanding of coding allows students to do basic programming and engage with and create new technologies such as the Internet of Things, computer games, online information collections, and a huge range of existing and emerging technologies that can be utilised in every aspect of their lives.”

All of that said I am left with two big questions that come with the idea of teaching coding in schools. Where should coding be positioned in the already overcrowded curriculum? And bottom line, where do we get the teachers with the knowledge and passion to teach it?


BronHeadDr Bronwyn Stuckey, is a Specialist in Gamification, Community of Practice and Open Badges. She has been engaged in educational community and gameful practices in learning development for the past 15 years. She has worked to explore virtual worlds, games in learning and how we can cultivate identity, agency, citizenship, leadership, and community. Bronwyn earned her PhD in researching the core factors supporting successful online communities of practice. Since leaving lecturing and learning design in the higher education sector (OTEN, UOW, QUT, UWS) her research, consultation and design have been in gamification and game-inspired designs for professional learning and communities of practice.

Bronwyn has consulted in K-12, adult and workplace learning contexts in relation to communities of practice, games based learning and aspects of gamification. She is a co-facilitator of the Open Badges Australia and New Zealand (OBANZ) community and has for the past 2 years researched the efficacy of open badges in re-imagining and re-framing academic learning programs and contexts. She is a postdoctoral research fellow of the Arizona State University Center for Games & Impact and is global leader in the gamification for community and identity cultivation. Bronwyn is also lead member of the Sydney Education Technology Group  working to support edutech startups and to make Sydney the hub of educational entrepreneurship.

8 thoughts on “Teaching coding in schools: absolutely necessary or another fad to waste teachers’ time?

  1. Anthony says:

    Bron, a collagues prompted me to read your article after I wrote a piece about the new technologies curriculum (http://anthsperanza.global2.vic.edu.au/2015/05/31/embracing-the-new-technologies-curriculum/)

    You raise 2 essential questions in the conclusion of your piece. However, these are in no way related to the title of your article, which to be honest, sounds like it has been designed to troll.

    However, you raise some relevant points and clearly you are in favour of the opportunities that coding brings. What seems to be underestimated is the need for this to be on the agenda for contemporary education, with the insight that in 5, 10, 20 years to come when our students leave formal education, that the world as we know it will have shifted even further as a consequence of advancements in technology.

    Surely, people that understand systems, can work with big data, and manipulate technologies effectively will be in a better position than those who cannot. This is why, I think, authors talk about this as a fluency because in essence it is.

    For the record, I think that coding is not the answer itself; rather, combined with Computational and Design thinking skills and mindsets that allow students to explore, analyse and create meaningful products and solutions.


  2. Bron Stuckey says:

    Anthony, I think we are essentially on the same page on this. And I agree 100% with your statement “Surely, people that understand systems, can work with big data, and manipulate technologies effectively will be in a better position than those who cannot. ” Systems thinking and big data are very important but understanding them is not predicated on knowing coding. Coding is one entry point perhaps but not an essential component of systems thinking or design thinking. I’m interested in your use of the term “fluency”. What does one need to be fluent in? If systems thinking ( the meta concept) is the fluency then I am all for it but if it is java, perl, C+++ whatever the coding language then I am not. The 3 Rs should be not reading, writing and ruby on rails 🙂

  3. Ellen Jameson says:

    It’s great to see this post pushing back on reflexive adoption. Blindly rushing after a trend precludes the informed planning that must go in to making the curriculum balanced and useful for students.
    That said, teachers with the passion and knowledge to teach coding will only exist in large numbers within the next generation of teachers if coding is taught to them as students now. This seems like a catch-22, but in fact it may not be. When I was in second grade I had a teacher who did a terrific job using LOGO, which inspired me to go home and code in BASIC on my own. I only found out years later that she herself was really uncomfortable with math and programming. Her skill as a teacher completely trumped her lack of passion for the subject.
    Good curricular support can ensure that doors are opened to students who might later go on to use basic coding skills in a wide variety of contexts, where, if coding is not an everyday practice, it is a high-yield everymonth or everyquarter practice. In such contexts, coding might even have utility as frequently as LA critical analysis and writing skills. It seems worthwhile for the debate to eventually settle on some practical middle ground in between preparing for all-out software development and minimal conceptual exposure. Students can only make real choices about goals involving coding when they have enough experience to imagine a path to those goals.

  4. Bron Stuckey says:

    Hi Ellen – so cool to hear from you here. I also taught turtle logo and totally enjoyed it as part of the mathematics curriculum. For the most part I learnt it along with the kids. It was one part of my technology in mathematics program and became an exciting way into control of technology for some kids. But it was not for all kids. For some drawing in maths, physical activity in maths, using other manipulatives and games were their way in.

    The teacher you talked about in elementary/primary was a professional educator and we have very many of them in our schools. But they already face a curriculum brimming with things that are part of 21st century necessities. Offering a small taste of something is quite different to declaring something the new essential literacy. The bucket is only so big, how do they judge which issues, content or agendas warrant their investment (time, professional learning, resources) because they will really serve their kids best? When it comes down to it that’s all teachers want to do is serve their children well.

  5. I recently talked to a teacher about how he teaches coding and to a parent about her kids, who were super enthusiastic to learn coding at school.

    The teacher I talked to, organises “Making Games Workshops”, in which children can learn basic coding languages to make games. However, it is not the fact that the coding language is easy to learn and really simple, it is the way HOW he is able to communicate the WHY to the children. WHY should they learn basic coding? Basic coding is the first step towards game development, the dream of many kids nowadays. He is able to show them HOW they can achieve this through easy digestible lessons. However, he doesn’t teach them complex coding languages such as C++, which would be counterintuitive, nor does he let them code boring examples such as reservation systems (for example). He connects the content with what they love, which makes teaching coding so meaningful.

    The school has a similar approach. Before they start learning Javascript, they watch together documentaries and videos about Silicon Valley, the people behind all the apps, Facebook, Twitter etc. This is HOW the school communicates WHY coding can be useful and HOW they can also become app developer of their own. They are able to build a meaningful connection between the subject and real world applications.

    Even though both cases are not connected, they have one thing in common: they could communicate to the kids WHY coding is important and HOW coding can help them to make their dreams become a reality.

    Of course this doesn’t guarantee that all the students will become coder, but both examples demonstrate a meaningful integration of coding in the curriculum. And if you can communicate to even an artist that coding can also help him to achieve certain things, then we are on the right track.

    However, I sadly remember my coding experience in my school. We were taught PHP and all we did was programming a reservation system, which was extremely demotivating. The school clearly failed at communicating the WHY and HOW.

    I still believe that coding is not for everyone and that design and art should also be more emphasized, or at least schools should give students the choice to choose between those subjects. However, as long as schools,and/ or politicians, are not able to communicate the WHY and HOW and create meaningful bridges between coding and real world applications / children’s passions, then it will be just a burden for teachers and a waste of resources.

  6. Bron Stuckey says:

    I am wondering if coding is the new piano in every classroom that I once heard Alan Kay ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Kay ) speak of. His question was if we put a piano in every school can we claim they are musical? Is coding the new piano, electronic whiteboard, iPad (think LA scandal) as the visible or tangible addition that heralds great disruption? Doesn’t it depend on what is done with the initiative? We are all talking about coding or not but not the ways of integrating that might actually be of real value.

  7. That’s a really nice analogy Bron. This whole discussion reminds of the paper “Interactive whiteboards: boon or bandwagon?” (http://www.ore.org.pt/filesobservatorio/pdf/SMITH.pdf), which discussed the introduction of interactive whiteboards in the classroom and came to the conclusion that there is “clear preference for IWB
    use by both teachers and pupils. The government too,
    is keen to promote IWB technology.It remains unclear,
    however, as to whether such enthusiasm is being
    translated into effective and purposeful practice.”

    I think it might be a good idea to shift the discussion towards ways of integrating coding the classroom.

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