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(When) Should Students Learn to Code?

By Liana Loewus — May 15, 2014 1 min read
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Should computer coding be taught in elementary schools? That’s the subject of a recent The New York Times roundtable blog, Room for Debate.

Hadi Partovi, CEO of Code.org, of course, says yes. “To make computer science opportunities accessible to all students, we need to start in elementary school—where classrooms are split equally with students of all backgrounds, and the playing field is still relatively level.”

Technology writer John C. Dvorak says no way—kids should be developing more basic skills in elementary school. “Being hunched over a computer screen coding in some kiddy language to supposedly develop computer literacy is insane.”

And Becky Button, a 7th grade coder, says for sure—coding “is everywhere,” and kids need to “understand the language that is shaping their future.”

It’s interesting that the editors chose to home in on primary school because, as I’ve found in my coverage of the subject, there’s no consensus that coding should be taught even at the high school level, when students are much closer to the jobs in which they’d use these skills.

As my sources have pointed out to me repeatedly, coding and computer science are not the same. Coding is to computer science as multiplication is to math—just a piece of the puzzle. But for the most part, even the whole puzzle is not being taught in high schools.

Fewer than 20 states currently accept computer science as a core math or science credit (i.e., not an elective). And only about 2,300 high schools—of the more than 16,000 high schools nationwide—offer AP computer science. Last year not a single student took the AP computer science exam in Wyoming. (There are also still huge gender and race inequities among students taking computer science in high schools.)

As I wrote in February, measures to broaden K-12 students’ access to computer science are making headway in a growing number of states. But most of the measures being considered are, again, at the high school level.

So this all leaves me wondering: Should the conversation about teaching coding be focused on the elementary school level, as it is in The New York Times? Or the high school level, as it is among policy makers?

Or are we still asking a much more basic question: Should coding be taught at all?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.