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Tuesday
Aug072012

Where does programming fit in education?

It's great that programming is coming to the fore in UK education and that this new-found enthusiasm is starting to spread to the US.

But where does programming fit with ICT, computer science and maths? How central a subject is it?

What's termed ICT seems to be "how to operate your computer...or generic applications on it...or even past computing forms like calculators". Frankly children are often good at operating the latest tech--usually better than their teachers. Primary schools need to help, verifying that they can do basic operations and offer remedial, individual help if not, but this "operating your computer" should not be a subject per se and is far from programming in subject-matter and required skillset.

What about computer science? It's the specialist subject of how you optimise programs, programming, build large-scale software or even design new programming languages. Important though this is, attaching programming only to CS is too narrow a viewpoint.

Instead, programming is much more fundamental to STEM: it's the way you communicate technical ideas and processes in the modern world. It's as central as that.

You can view it as a superset evolution of mathematical notation, far more general and with the immediate consequence of machine computable results. Programs are the way you write down maths.

And so I believe programming is an integral, core part of maths education. It's the hand-writing of technical ideas and just like hand-writing is in the early years attached to learning English (if you're in England!), so core, basic programming should be attached to maths.

To be clear, I'm not talking calligraphy, but basic hand-writing. Calligraphy is the CS end--the subject in which you study programming in its own right, its nuances, detailed optimisation. Hand-writing is the basic tool, to let everyone communicate. Just like hand-writing is more generally applied than in English, programming is more generally applicable than is today's perception of maths' applicability in schools (though not than maths' actual utility). Whether in geography, economics or science, technical problem solving needs maths and the way you write down and do anything but trivial arithmetic is with programming.

I'm not knocking the new efforts with programming. Far from it. I'm all for getting programming into education under whatever guise is easiest. If making ICT "rigourous" is the politically expedient way, starting there is fine so long as we recognise it just as the start.

It would be folly indeed if in the very country where a mathematician invented the computer and effectively the concept of programming, we should fail to see the crucial integration of programming with maths education.

(Perhaps if Alan Turing had lived longer, computer science would have been generally considered a part of maths, not a separate discipline--just like mechanics or statistics usually are today).

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Reader Comments (7)

An interesting idea, "Where does programming fit in education?" I was thinking it fitted into language studies as each programming or type of coding has its own grammar. Also the programmer is instructing the computer and has to communicate in the correct way to gain the desired outcome. I have always thought of programming as a communication vehicle.

I have seen programming as basic as logo engage students and directly effect their self esteem like no other curriculum has done previously. They learn to communicate and feel power from their successes as well as developing resilience and persistence from making their programs work.

Programming is all about communication as is language so it belongs with languages.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Ashby

I totally agree with your assertion that "programming is an integral, core part of maths education. It's the hand-writing of technical ideas and just like hand-writing is in the early years attached to learning English (if you're in England!), so core, basic programming should be attached to maths". Perhaps we have spent too long as a country (the UK) focussing on individual subjects and need to consider combining the likes of STEM-based subjects into a larger area that makes greater use of collaborative teaching and learning.

An example might be the combination of Mathematics, Electronics and Computing lessons where the ability to produce accurate and concise solutions are key to success. The use of trigonometry in games design, probability in stock management systems to predict anticipated stock levels based on previous sales records and brining it all together to produce prototype hardware in a classroom. To me, it just doesn't make sense that (a) we have study some subjects but not others, and (b) students have to wait until after they have spent up to 12 years studying subjects that they lack interest in to then furiously study for an exam at A Level that they frequently sit after only 3 months' study.

Could we learn something from looking at the bigger picture? ICT (defined as how to use a computer) has its place - in lower schools for young children to learn the basics. Not everyone needs to be able to program a computer, but those who lack an appreciation for it will undoubtedly lag behind in many areas of employment where motivated or supported individuals who make the effort will potentially outstrip them. If they are never even offered the opportunity then how will they be able to decide whether they are missing out? We should look at who defines 'Computer Science' or 'Computing' for schools, how they come up with what they consider to be important and why assessments are created in they way they are. Only once this overhaul is completed can we look at more fundamental reforms where subjects merge organically into the likes of 'STEM' or 'Science and Maths'.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Torbitt

It was a woman that invented programming ..... why else would we say flippin' Ada

August 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpaul martin

I agree on the general usefulness of programming but saying computer science is a calligraphy of programming is like calling mathematics a calligraphy of basic arithmetic.

Please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_science (especially applied comp sci)

October 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristiaan Scholtz

"Frankly children are often good at operating the latest tech--usually better than their teachers. Primary schools need to help, verifying that they can do basic operations and offer remedial, individual help if not, but this "operating your computer" should not be a subject per se and is far from programming in subject-matter and required skillset."

- now of course things will always be the best. I am sure things will be so cool and awesome.

September 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpmp courses

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