That Which Passeth for Understanding and Education, Dept.

Nova Scotia is part of a growing trend to teach young children “coding”–a 21st century skill which used to be called “programming”. Programming actually used to be taught in high schools in the 60’s, when FORTRAN was the main programming language, and keypunches were still used. It employed understandings of translating mathematical algorithms into computer language. That is not how this generation of “coding” works.

From the article about this phenomenon:

“In a corner of the Nova Scotia legislature, Grade 6 students Bridget Daly and Hannah Harley ponder how to program small, yellow-and-black robots shaped like bumble bees.

“The 11-year-olds from Rockingham Elementary School in Halifax are setting direction and speed for a race between two “beebots” at Province House — an example of what’s coming to all elementary schools this fall as the government expands computer coding in the curriculum.

“The girls said learning computer code is a welcome challenge, and hands-on technology like the beebots will be a help in solving math and science problems.

” “Instead of having to visualize it and thinking about it, you can use it without having any problems,” said Hannah.”

And therein lies the problem.

I just went through a dreadful PD session as part of teacher prep week at the school where I’m teaching. The moderator (a staunch constructivist, full of condemnation for approaches in which students “regurgitate facts” rather than “construct their own knowledge” and other mischaracterizations of traditional teaching) bragged to us how he taught first graders how to code or program using a computer language, to draw a polygon of any number of sides specified.

Later in the PD, he had us work with “coding” using a language that employed pictorial symbols for commands. He seemed to think that it taught programming because the problems, as it were, amounted to drawing figures and it taught you how to “tell the computer” to move forward a specified distance, then turn a specified number of degrees, move forward again, and you could instruct it to repeat that sequence any number of times. As you progressed through the exercises, the program gave you harder problems and added more commands to your arsenal, including “lifting pen up”, “putting pen down” so you could draw lines that were not continuous with what you were drawing. He said it was well-scaffolded and thought such scaffolding was great. I agree scaffolding is good, but all the scaffolding in the world was not going to teach what computer science really is about under this approach.

The high level pictorial language actually was translating the commands into Java script, so you weren’t really learning the base language, any more than working with a spreadsheet is teaching you the underlying machine code that makes the spreadsheet work. Of course he had us work with the programs by ourselves rather than him offering instruction. That’s the constructivist way. It was OK if we received direct instruction from a fellow student, however. Why receiving instruction from a teacher is somehow “impure” but receiving instruction from a fellow classmate is not is beyond me but so are most of the bad practices that pass for education. And make many PD vendors rich.

6 thoughts on “That Which Passeth for Understanding and Education, Dept.

  1. There is nothing wrong with occasional hands-on projects and engagement, but what are the individual learning, homework and testing requirements, and what other work is eliminated or reduced because of the time spent on “coding?” It better not be done in math class, because what’s described has little to do with math. I see nothing in the linked articles to show any rigor or continuity towards the AP Computer Science course and a STEM career. At best it may lead to vocational school but not to college, where typical computer science degrees require calculus, linear algebra, and discrete math. Engineering has even more math requirements and robotics in college is typically done there. As Barry explained before, K-12 educational pedagogues are trying to claim that those college requirements are not necessary. If K-12 educators can’t prepare kids for true STEM careers, then they apparently want to redefine and dumb down reality.

    This top-down, group, hands-on process may be nice for an after school program (as with Lego Mindstorms programming), but not in a regular curriculum class. That leads to vocational learning, not college level preparation. How do students learn about broad areas like discrete math, data structures, and algorithms? This is the fundamental problem with PBL and all other hands-on learning of basic knowledge and skills. That approach never covers and ensures all of the necessary formal knowledge and skills that can then be applied to a wide range of problems and to a college STEM degree. Educators don’t seem to understand the different educational needs of the ‘T’ (technical or vocational) part of STEM and the SEM (science, engineering, and math) part. And when they add Art to make STEAM, they completely show their ignorance of what it takes to succeed.

    Music in schools is usually done in bands, orchestras, and choirs. However, proper preparation and success is always dependent on those students who get individual private lessons outside of school. Those lessons focus on scales, fingering skills, tone quality, and musicality. That success can never be achieved with a project-based in-class group approach. The same is true for any academic topic. Group project work might be nice, but it needs to be kept separate from a traditional and individual broad-based in-class study of a proper breadth of knowledge and skills. PBL techniques that try to drive learning using projects are fundamentally flawed. Proper skills will never be achieved. Kids will become hackers rather than properly-trained professionals. Industry does not need hackers who have not studied the literature and who try to recreate the wheel – badly. We don’t need young prima donna coders who haven’t or can’t read the literature on robotics, physics, and engineering statics and dynamics.


  2. Your assessment of the Coding Initiative in Nova Scotia rings true, SteveH. Launching a system-wide initiative to introduce Coding in the elementary grades was proposed by the Business-Education Council as part of an attempt to seed “entrepreneurship” in the schools. Judging from the initial pilot project, featuring “Beebots,” the project has fallen into the hands of elementary educators with little or no background or inclination toward Mathematics or Applied Mathematics. The CBC Radio interview series, featuring Ryerson Communications professor Ramona Pringle merely confirmed that impression. Listening to her on air, one would think she had just taken a puff from the constructivist/play theory pipe.

    Today’s CBC Nova Scotia Information Morning interview with MSVU Mathematics professor Genevieve Boulet provided a much needed corrective. Entrusting the introduction of Coding to teachers with little or no Math background is problematic. Implementation will make or break this initiative and, so far, it’s looking like another missed opportunity.


  3. Pingback: Coding Curriculum Initiatives: Where Does Coding with ‘Beebots’ Lead Our Kids? | Educhatter's Blog

  4. Beebots (the write-ups and videos I found were just awful) are at best, a fun toy for kids in Kindergarten. I find no specific curriculum sequence proposals online for coding in K-12. Is it done in class or after-school? If it’s done in class, then what material is eliminated to create space for the new topics, and what, specifically, are the curriculum goals and testing for each grade? How does this series lead to AP Programming in high school and do they clearly instruct and prepare these kids for college CS requirements in math? Having programmed over a million lines of code in the last 45 years, taught math and CS at the college level, and been a parent coach for my son’s First Lego League, I made sure that my son knew that the main goal was success in all of his regular honors and AP classes, not robotics or Project Lead The Way or anything else that educators think is an easy, engaging path to success.

    Everything I read about “coding” by K-12 pedagogues is overly-simplistic and silly. They have no clue what it takes to get to a STEM career. Learning to hack a project for a deadline is not a proper path for properly learning a subject area. It’s bad enough that some colleges have dropped degree requirements for taking a data structures course.


  5. Pro-Bot seems to be the next step for Beebots students, but it is still not programming in the sense that you create and save a program on the computer to download to the device. Those with an aptitude for defining concrete sequential steps are going to want to move on far before others. If this “coding” is done in class in K-6, good luck with that. Differentiated instruction generally does NOT allow for acceleration of material and skills. A better approach would be to offer it as an opt-in after-school club for early grades (K-3). After that, one can start a robotics club after school – not just a First Lego League club. The problem with FLL is that it is project (goal) based where not everyone gets to do programming. Everyone has their own jobs (like research, writing, and art) to try to simulate jobs in the real world. This is an extraordinarily wrong way to teach and learn new material. All kids are supposed to be developing all skills, not specializing.

    Robotics might warm the cockles of a hands-on educational pedagogue’s heart, but programming is far more than that. You could have a simple pen plotter hooked up to a network (at the same cost as one Pro-Bot) and use real programs to work up coding skills from simple pen-up, pen-down, move, and change angle commands. Kids can learn how to draw graphs and plot data, or draw pictures. Robotics does not define “coding.” Of course, you can also draw the pictures on the computer screen and do animation, but let’s just waste more time with hands-on learning with toys, because that will make difficult learning easy and fun, right?

    However, coding is just a rote skill, right? We’re told that learning math by doing is rote – just like “coding” BeeBots. What is understanding in robotics or coding? The silliness and simplicity of all of these ideas is overwhelming. It takes someone with content knowledge and skills to define a proper K-12 (after-school opt-in) sequence for learning computer science. There is a curriculum, knowledge and skills wall between K-8 and high school. Curricula need to be driven down to the lower grades from AP classes, not up from the bottom by content-less educational pedagogues. The problem in math is that AP calculus is only driven down to 9th grade, and some schools offer algebra I in 8th grade, but it now takes tracking at home or with tutors to prepare kids for that. We just have the absolute silliness and low expectations of curricula like TERC and Everyday Math in K-6. There is a non-linear jump in expectations (skills and content knowledge) that takes place in 7th and 8th grades that is now hidden by tracking at home. No amount of BeeBots or whatever will fix that. There is a fundamental systemic flaw in K-8 education. BeeBots is just so trivially simple and I see no curriculum pathway to AP Computer Science. The same is true for math and other subjects. Parents are forced to track at home because of K-6 full inclusion, and that increases the academic gap.

    If coding (anything) is done in class in K-6, it has to be at a trivial low level due to full inclusion. There will be no allowance for acceleration of material, just “enrichment”. If it’s done after school as a club, there will be some allowance for acceleration (potentially from helper parents who have a clue), but the best students (as with those students who get to algebra in 8th grade) will be those who get tracking or help at home. K-8 education has to deal with this fundamental full inclusion flaw. A good place to start looking is El Sistema in music. Kids from pre-school age in the barrios get access to content experts in music for private lessons where content skills and knowledge are pushed and accelerated. These are just the things that we parents do at home with private lessons and enforcing basic math skills. We parents track and cover all of the silliness of K-6 educational ideas. My son’s school probably uses him as their poster boy for Everyday Math. Nope. Just ask us parents what we do at home or with tutors or private lesson teachers.


  6. If we change math into some sort of hands-on math robotics toy, will skills magically become non-rote and lead magically to understanding? Coding robots teaches programming understanding? If we change BeeBots to animated pictures on a computer screen, is that OK? I could write a program to do that. Students could then put their code into a (saved and editable) text file that could be interpreted and run. Maybe it could be compiled so that kids might “understand” the difference between compiled and interpreted code. They could define shapes other than a BeeBot shape. They could define multiple shapes to operate on the same screen. They could have different programs for each shape that run concurrently. Kids could build and share libraries of different BeeBot shapes. After an on-screen simulation, students could downloaded the code to separate robot toys so they can touch them with their hands. Does that improve learning and understanding? If learning is driven by group engagement and fun, does this drive or obviate individual homework assignments and testing? Process does not automatically generate results. There needs to be feedback testing and high expectations. You cannot “trust the spiral.” There is a extraordinarily wide gap between silly K-8 pedagogical ideas of learning and what is expected in college and real jobs. Besides, in a few years, “coding” in a BeeBots sense will be a completely unnecessary skill for most careers. Scripting will be gone and even Excel VBA programming. Generalized program tools will be available to mix and match without programming.


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