Computer Science and the Birth of a New Core Literacy- Part 1

30 01 2014

A series of interactions, experiences and recursive reflections serve as the stimulas for this latest entry- How and when is a new literacy born? Like the birth of a star, I believe we notice new core literacies long after their initial birth often discovering their significance far removed from their initial impact on society.

There has been a lot of press lately about the need to teach computer programming or “coding’ is schools today. From “A Day of Code” to Code Academy to the potpourri of news stories and opportunities all extolling the virtues of “coding”. While not a new concept, there is even a resurgence of conversation about how learning a computer programming language can replace the requirement of learning a world language.

I am a fan of “coding” but feel that all of the conversation about coding really misses the point. We should really be discussing the idea that computer science is something everyone should now be exposed to at a basic level for literacy in today’s modern society. This perspective focuses less on coding and emphasizes the habits of mind that are central to the world of computer science. “Coding” is a natural product of the process of computational thinking which allows an individual to approach complex problems by identifying smaller embedded problems that can be solved more simply and sequencing these to generate a generalizable solution to the larger problem. All of this comes long before the act of coding. Coding then is just one artefact produced by the computational thinking process which allows for an expression of understanding by the coder with the realization of the code by a machine. Other outcomes might be objects a student produces that work in conjunction with the code they have developed and which address a specific problem they have chosen to solve.

Discussions about coding get at the grammar/syntax that is inherent to any computer language and the need for everyone to experience this logical expression of computational thinking. However, missing from this syntax is the sum knowledge, experience and wisdom of a culture that is captured through a world language. When a world language becomes extinct, we decrease the diversity of humanity and lose the wisdom of the culture encoded in all expressions of that language. When a computer language becomes less popular, it is usually because it has been replaced by more efficient languages or address new ways of working between languages and hardware. We don’t have to worry about things being lost in translation as we can develop sequences of code to handle syntax that has been dropped between computer languages.

When it comes to world languages, there is a cultural wisdom that is encoded in the language which may have no translation to any other language no matter how much we may try to explain. When that language dies, so does the wisdom that is unique to that culture. World languages are the “old growth forests of the mind” (Wade Davis) while coding is the ability to translate ideas in any world language to one that a machine can understand so that it can perform some desired action.

I would love to see the national conversation move away from coding as the requisite literacy and move to one that looks at the whole of computer science with its habits of mind as a new literacy that we must consider in our modern society. A quick look at just about any computer program at the university level will show a general lack of courses that advertise they are teaching a specific language. When I started in the field more years ago than I care to admit, it was very different. You would take BASIC, Pascal, COBOL and other language specific classes. Today’s offerings place the act of coding/learning a computer language in a much broader context within the field of computer science. It is less about the coding and more about a unique way of thinking as you approach novel problems. This is the conversation we need to have as it will be hard to convince most people that “coding” is necessary and I would have to agree with them, if we don’t place it in a broader context of the field. Yes, we need to be talking about computer science as new core literacy. What does it mean to be a new core literacy and how does that fit into our existing schema for “doing” school. [To Be Continued]

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2 responses

30 01 2014

This is nicely written and thoughtful piece. Good job!

29 06 2014

Reblogged this on Life in the Renaissance and commented:

Sitting in a session on the value of computational thinking. It seems we may be birds of a feather. Here is a post that I wrote back in January that looks at the possibility that Computer Science is a new core literacy. What are your thoughts?

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