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Teach children planning and problem solving not programming

When I first heard that children in secondary education (11-16 year olds) here in the UK were to be taught programming I thought it was another example of a poorly thought through fad ruining our education system. Schools already have enough trouble finding goos maths and science teachers, and the average school leavers knowledge of these subjects is not that great, now resources and time are being diverted to a specialist subject for which it is hard to find good teachers. After talking to a teacher about his experience teaching Scratch to 11-13 year olds I realised he was not teaching programming but teaching how to think through problems, breaking them down into subcomponents and cover all possibilities; a very worthwhile subject to teach.

As I see it the ‘writing code’ subject needs to be positioned as the teaching of planning and problem solving skills (ppss, p2s2, a suitable acronym is needed) rather than programming. Based on a few short conversations with those involved in teaching, the following are a few points I would make:

  • Stay with one language (Scratch looks excellent).
    • The more practice students get with a language the more fluent they become, giving them more time to spend solving the problem rather than figuring out how to use the language.
    • Switching to a more ‘serious’ language because it is similar to what professional programmers use is a failure to understand the purpose of what is being taught and a misunderstanding of why professionals still use ‘text’ based languages (because computer input has historically been via a keyboard and not a touch sensitive screen; I expect professional programmers will slowly migrate over to touch screen programming languages).
  • Give students large problems to solve (large as in requiring lots of code). Small programs are easy to hold in your head, where the size of small depends on intellectual capacity; the small program level of coding is all about logic. Large programs cannot be held in the head and this level of coding is all about structure and narrative (there are people who can hold very large programs in their head and never learn the importance of breaking things down so others can understand them), logic does not really appear at this level. Large problems can be revisited six months later; there is no better way of teaching the importance of making things easy for others to understand than getting a student to modify one of their own programs a long time after they originally wrote it (I’m sure many will start out denying ever having written the horrible code handed back to them).
  • Problems should not be algorithms. Yes, technically all programs are algorithms but most are not mathematical algorithms in the sense that, say, sorting and searching are, real life problems are messy things that involve lots of simple checks for various conditions and ad-hoc approaches to solving a problem. Teachers should resist mapping computing problems to the Scratch domain, e.g., tree walking algorithms mapped to walking the branches of a graphical tree or visiting all parts of a maze.
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