Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Coding in National Schools Isn't a Good Idea

See, kids? Coding is fun!
The Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, has written to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to request that the NCCA consider the teaching of coding in national schools. This is a bad idea, for three reasons.

The Basis of Coding is Already on the Curriculum
The basis of coding is already on the curriculum. It is called “maths.” Maths and coding go hand-in-hand. If you can do one, you can do the other. Both work on the notion of orderly thinking. If this, then that. It is possible for a talented coder to have been poor at maths in school but that coder’s mind for maths will have clicked just when the coding clicked for him or her. The two are intertwined like Maguire and Patterson.

Sadly, we teach maths the same way we do most other things – arseways. OECD studies regularly show that Irish standards of literacy and numeracy are consistently poor. The Irish Times reported at the start of the year that Ireland ranked 18th of 23 countries in literacy, and 21st out of 23 in numeracy, among 16- to 19- year-olds. It also reported “about one in five university graduates can manage basic literacy and numeracy tasks – such as understanding the instructions on a bottle of aspirin – but struggle with more complex tasks.” University students.

These are terrifying figures. The OECD reports can be behind the curve timewise, and advocates of Project Maths will claim that once that initiative kicks in the results will go right up. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Project Maths course simply adds another layer of confusion to a subject that is intimidating to begin with. It’s a grim prospect.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All
The only way a minister could dream of better publicity than talking about this strange thing, ‘coding,’ would be if he or she were to announce that the DoE were bringing in some specialists from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as consultants to discuss adding transfiguration, charms and potions to the curriculum. Coder is the astronaut job of our times, the job that is done by pioneers who create the future.

But reader, a job market where the jobs are made up entirely of coders – or astronauts, or witches and wizards, for that matter – is not exactly ready to survive in the choppy seas of Ireland’s open economy. How many coders do we need per head of population? Probably not as many as we need nurses, or doctors, or teachers, or shopkeepers, or a thousand and one other jobs that are just as relevant if not quite as buzzy.

Short-Term Populism is the Curse of Irish Politics
Why, then, with a need for diverse skills in an open economy, with basic literacy and numeracy red-letter issues in education, to say nothing of dealing with eternally bolshy teachers’ unions and getting teachers trained as coders, did the Minister write this letter to the NCCA? It is impossible to look into another man’s heart but the politician’s eternal quest for good publicity is a reasonable assumption.

Twenty-five years ago, gay marriage was a taboo subject. Now, Irish politicians are tearing the backs of each other trying to photographed having a pint in the Pantibar. Is this because a wave of social liberalism has swept through Leinster House? Or is it because every politician knows this is guaranteed good, criticism-free publicity and you can’t have too much of that?

The success of the coder dojo, a movement that introduces children to coding at an early age, has been mentioned as a reason for coding to be introduced at a more general level in primary schools. But a certain amount of – delicious irony! – what statisticians call “response bias” is at work there. The children who are doing well at coder dojos are the children who would do well at pretty much any academic subject, and who enjoy the priceless support of a home environment that encourages that sort of endeavour. The OECD stats suggest that such an environment is sadly atypical of the nation’s children in general.

But what difference do facts about literacy and numeracy gaps, diverse talents in a diverse economy or response bias make to a politician who wants to get in the papers? None at all. He or she is certainly due for claps on the back the next time he or she is out on the town, because politicians typically socialise with people who send their children to coder dojos, and ballet, and hockey, and the Gaeltacht. These people are also those who write for and edit newspapers, so it’s winner all round. And when the thing grinds to a halt, what odds? It'll be some other minister’s problem by then.