The great language and coding switcheroo

This article came to my attention yesterday (click headline for link).

coding

Don’t get the headline wrong. What it should read, is ‘Updated curriculum replaces languages with coding’. Basically the school is sidestepping its requirement to provide students with language education in years 5-8 (a state Department of Education policy) by calling coding a language, and a universal one at that. We can remove the ‘universal’ part of the debate in a few  minutes by conducting an online search of ‘what is the best coding language’, and then (if you can) do it in another language. You’ll quickly see how very un-universal it is.

So let’s move on to the crux of the argument which is that code is a language. Although leaders in education often make a connection between coding and foreign languages, experts in computer sciences, language education, and linguistics have put forth strong arguments that coding is not a language in the same sense as a foreign language (see here for in-depth article). The position of code.org, a major US non-profit organisation whose very aim is to increase the teaching and learning coding in schools, is that coding is not a language. They believe that aligning the two could undermine student access to coding. And of course, it undermines student access to language education.

In any case, when the Australian Curriculum: Languages was developed, and when the Queensland state government extended its reach of compulsory language education for its students, coding was not what they had in mind. Foreign languages provide unique cognitive and social benefits. This is not to say that coding does not, but it brings different benefits. Both are important. We live in a digital world, and we live in a global world. For students, they should have access to both in their early years, and as they continue to develop their own sense of self and what they want to do in the future, have the option to choose both if they wish.

This nice little loophole was used a few years back in the United States, where some jurisdictions were avoiding their obligations to provide access to language education to students by calling coding a foreign language. One case has been confirmed in Queensland, and whispers tell me that more have done the same, or are considering a similar approach.

The crowded curriculum is always the scapegoat. We can’t do everything. No, we can’t. But the federal and state government has made clear their position, and that is that languages are an important part of educating well-rounded citizens of the future. And in my opinion, there lies the problem. The position is clear. The good intentions announced. The report written.  The targets set. But the hard yards that are needed to reach the targets are never made (40% Mr Abbott, was that ever going to be a possibility?). What we need are qualified and proficient teachers, which require dedicated pre-service training and continuing education. What we need is for language education to be supported in schools, and yet language education is often marginalised. What we need is language education to be valued in communities, and this is something that cannot be achieved when students are not given access to quality language learning.

So what’s the option for schools? Support teachers? Give them more opportunities to develop their professional skills or knowledge? Allow an equitable timetable so that students can continue their language studies? Allow a smaller class for a few years so that a program can grow?

No. Let’s put that in the too-hard basket and replace it with something else, something with more whizz and bang. (That’s not to say it’s no less important, but the marketing is excellent).

But the whizz and bang will fade, I know from experience. I was a language teacher in Queensland for many years. In my final few years I was also a computer technology teacher in the junior school. I taught introductory coding. I see some similarities, not in the content of the two subjects, but in how students react to it. In the beginning they are so excited. They think big. They think they are going to be experts from the get-go. Their youthful naivety is a blessing and a curse.

In the language classroom they think they are going to be chatting away after a few months, that they’ll be able to have secret talks with their friends and mum and dad won’t know what they are talking about, that they’ll be able to go to Japan and become manga writers. Getting a job with a language as your only skill is extremely difficult.

It’s the same with coding. Some of my students imagined themselves making a new app that would sell millions, that they would get a job coding which to many of them meant playing games. This was even before the first lesson. They didn’t know anything about coding, but they’d heard the whizz and bang. Coding is difficult. It takes time and hard work. It is fiddly. Mistakes can be costly. Getting a job with coding as your only skill will be extremely difficult. You still need to know how to communicate with people. Often people from different countries and cultures.

I’ll end my post by going back to the newspaper article. It’s from a regional newspaper and it focuses on a particular state high school, which happens to be the one I attended in the 1990s. It’s the one where I studied German and Japanese for three lessons a week for five years by dedicated and passionate teachers. It’s the one which hosted the district German poetry competition where I won a huge poster of Neuschwanstein that I showed my daughter recently and we promised to go together one day. It’s the one that hosted a Japanese high school every year, and we hosted a student in our home, several of whom I keep in touch with today – 20 years later. It’s the one where the teachers spent their holidays taking me to Japan, a place I now live and work.

When I started learning a language I didn’t know what my future would hold. That is the same for all of our students. It is why we need to give our students in their formative years opportunities to develop foundational knowledge of all the things that we believe may help them in their futures. This includes foreign languages AND coding, not OR.

 

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OVER TO YOU …

*What do you think of schools replacing coding with languages?
*Is coding a language?
*How do you show the relevance and importance of languages in the STEM ‘revolution’?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our Facebook comments.

 

Image courtesy of tiramisustudio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 

 

 

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