Coding Classes Aren't Good Enough

Teaching coding does not solve the problem.

When a school puts a coding class on the schedule, some kids jump on it -- but most of them look for something else. That’s not what we need. It’s not sustainable. We need all the kids to learn to code. Coding should not be treated as a vocational skill: It’s a basic literacy.

Coding needs to be taught in a class all the students are required to attend; but that’s obviously impossible. You can’t just add a required computer science class to graduation requirements -- not that state legislatures haven’t tried.

Because we don’t have the teachers to teach the subject, either. Laws don’t teach students: teachers teach students, and we don’t have anywhere near enough teachers to teach all the students to code. There are less than 5,000 coding teachers in the whole country -- compare that to 250,000 high school math teachers.

And I, for one, think programming is at least as important as math in today’s world. So we have a lot of work to do.

The good news is, we can, in large part, relieve the burden on computer science teachers. With new and friendlier technologies, math teachers can use computer programs as teaching tools to teach math. They don’t need extensive training, it’s a turnkey solution that can fairly easily be plugged into an existing math curriculum.

For example, students can learn about absolute values by writing a program that calculates the absolute value of a number. They can learn about prime numbers by writing a program that determines if a number is prime; and so forth.

It takes a few coding lessons to reach the point of being ready to solve math problems with coding, but these lessons go quickly -- and again, this isn’t something reserved for the “smart” kids, or the kids who are interested in computers. It’s just math class, and it’s something all the students can reasonably be expected to do.

It’s certainly helpful to have a computer at home, but houseless students, and those without computers at home, can get access to computers at school at the library. We’ve just started a pilot in which all students in a small program are learning to code. The students are low-income English-language learners from a rural Mennonite community. They’re doing fine.

In time, our expectation is that coding will become normalized -- an ordinary part of school. In fact, it seems likely that we’ll find that it’s actually easier to teach math (and also science, health, etc.) using programming. It’s engaging to students and gives them a sense of mastery to solve problems that way. It’s the kind of thinking they’ve grown up with.

It’s actually a little harder to teach the instructors, especially since they are so busy and overwhelmed these days. Many teachers, and especially older ones, grew up with much less computer exposure than students today. But it’s nothing they can’t overcome. They have adult learning skills to compensate, and they are naturally drawn to teaching tools that engage student interest.

So let's grow beyond coding classes! Teach the students to code!