When we share that RePublic Schools plans to teach computer programming to every student, we often get a question about the trade-off between coding and core subjects like Reading and Math. However, we believe that coding instruction is not mutually exclusive with other core subjects. Coding binds content learned in other classes to real world applications, allowing students to explore how their knowledge is used in the world around them.
In the equation 2x + 5 = 13, one first subtracts the 5 to get 2x = 8, then divides both sides by 2 to get x equals 4. Millions of lessons across the country last year were dedicated to teaching students about the elusive "x." Good teachers can formulate and share contextual examples. For instance, if a band charges 5 dollars per customer to play a show and the venue costs them $200 to book, how many people need to come out in order to break even? Unfortunately, these word examples are not really the why, they are just context to exercise procedures. The why is much deeper, involving an understanding of how variables can be used to rationalize complex situations involving unknown values. This isn’t to say there are not great math teachers that will bring out the deeper understanding in the classroom, but coding provides an ideal platform to explore and deepen student’s understanding of the meaning behind skills they have learned.
How? One of the early things students learn to do in our computer programming class is build a game. By the second day, almost every student is ready to create a system for keeping score. The students verbalize what they want: "I want the player to start off with 10 lives and every time they get hit by an evil zombie they lose a life. If they get hit by the extra large boss zombie they lose 2 lives, and if they catch the flying Nyan Cat they get 3 lives." All of the great word problems in the world could not replace a student coming up and asking you, with fervor, to teach them about a variable. Once students need to understand how variables are applied, the instructor and help them solve problems and make connections that would be much more difficult in a traditional lecture.
That one connection will be the prior knowledge that every future algebra lesson is built on. Within weeks, students are using variables fluidly in projects, games, and animations. In a first year 5th grade coding class, students will learn about inequalities by making code that will end a game if a user’s health drops below a certain number. Students will graph points to place objects in specific locations on the screen. Students will deepen their understand of writing and grammar by understanding how the way their write their code impacts the way a computer reads it. Students learn about the Scientific Method, ordering and sorting data, creating models of polygons, gravity, speed, and much more. Computer programming does not take away from math, science, language, the arts, or any other class. Instead, it supports them by providing meaning and connections that reinforce learning and instill motivation.
Coding also helps transform students from consumers to creators. The vast majority of a child's day, both in and outside of school, consists of consuming information. Every major assessment for school children in America measures how much information they have consumed. Consumed knowledge is only as valuable as the context in which it is applied. That's where coding comes in. Almost every profession in the world relies on code in some way. Programs that simplify finance, transportation, scheduling, engineering, and communication, are all built with code. Creating computer programs allows student to use the knowledge they have consumed in meaningful and relevant ways.
Coding is not just another skill that exists tangential to other classes. Adding one thing does not mean taking something else away. By providing students with opportunities to connect different fields of study through real-world, meaningful projects we give our students a powerful reason to engage in learning. When students are empowered with the ability to create and explore their own ideas using knowledge from all subjects, they will rise to new and previously unimagined potential.