Ontario Tech University
Coding is becoming more predominant in K-8 education, as it becomes integrated into a range of current curriculum subject areas. By learning to code, students are able to develop their computational thinking skills, which are critical for success in today’s educational and career pathways. While differing viewpoints exist regarding how coding should be integrated into education, research is proving that the benefits are immense, fostering increased positive behaviour, creative thinking and engagement. While coding is currently optional in the Ontario curriculum, studies show it being integrated into various subject areas to support learner thinking and understanding. Criticisms of coding are outlined, including theoretical viewpoints, as well as current barriers. This chapter will explore the research and recommendations of recent studies related to coding, to provide insight for appropriate next steps, informing K-8 educators and policy makers. Examples on coding being used in current elementary practices are described and related to Ontario curriculum expectations. A range of coding-based tools and resources that exist to inform and support K-8 teachers in Ontario are also included. Future recommendations include additional research on coding and education, to better determine what methods are effective for what grade levels. Additionally, a form of standardization across school districts or provinces should also be considered.
Keywords: 21st Century Skills, Coding, Computational Thinking, Curriculum, Emerging Trends, K-8 Education
Computer coding has become mainstream in K-8 education in recent years, as educational institutes around the world integrate coding into their curriculum (Moreno-León, Robles & Román-González, 2016). Coding is one method of teaching computational thinking, a skill that is considered by some researchers as fundamental for 21st century learners (Bers, González-González & Armas–Torres, 2019), indicating its relevance to current educational objectives.
Computational thinking is defined as the strategies used to conduct detailed analyses of problems, enabling an individual to thoroughly understand issues, identify patterns and formulate solutions (Sanz, 2015). While computation thinking is currently embedded throughout the Ontario curriculum, coding skills involve a process of problem solving and logical thought that are necessary for computational thinking to occur (Tuomi, et al., 2018). Coding skills additionally involve an understanding of how computers and networks operate, as well as programming competence in general (Tuomi, et al., 2018). Developing computational thinking skills through coding can make a significant contribution to the learning process of children, helping them to face many life situations and enabling them to better collaborate with others and with technology (Martín, 2016). The following literature review will explore the research and recommendations of recent studies related to coding, to provide insight for appropriate next steps, informing K-8 educators and policy makers.
The Importance of Coding in K-8 Education
The following studies will focus on K-8 education for several reasons. Teaching young students to code can help them to problem solve, use logic, be creative, and also transfer their skills to other subject areas and real-life contexts (Rees, 2016). Coding courses are now being seen at the high school level, and educators should ensure students have adequate knowledge of coding foundations beforehand. An article by Thompson (2017), outlines how high schools across the United States and worldwide, are integrating coding into their curriculums. For example, a high school in Florida offers tenth grade students the option of choosing a STEM-focused curriculum, offering courses in Robot C, and C Programming to accompany classes in engineering and robotics (Thompson, 2017). A high school in California offers students courses such as App and Game Design, and Advanced Computer Science with coding (Thompson, 2017), preparing them early for undergraduate studies and careers that require computational thinking skills. Thus, it becomes imperative to offer students the chance to explore coding earlier, during their K-8 years, affording them as many future opportunities as possible.
How Coding is Being Integrated into the K-8 Curriculum
Currently, coding is optional for teachers adhering to the Ontario curriculum. Recent research has began describing benefits from younger students learning to code, including fostering general thinking skills, critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, reflection, collaboration, communication and time management (Falloon, 2016; Pinto et al., 2018). When these types of skills are understood via experiential learning, and students use a hands-on approach, they can be immensely valuable and transferrable to other subjects and contexts.
Due to the limited instances of institutions that have provided learners with a coding specific curriculum, most current research stems from instances of coding integrated into a pre-established curriculum. A study by Bers, González-González and Armas–Torres (2019) found that teachers could effectively and confidently integrate coding and computational thinking into their current teaching practice, connecting concepts to art, music and social studies. They further found that children developed positive behaviors in learning environments that endorsed coding, regardless of the subject area (Bers, González-González and Armas–Torres, 2019).
In mathematics particularly, Gadanidis et al. (2017) found that children who learned to code became better able to: understand abstractions in mathematics in more tangible ways, dynamically model mathematical concepts and gain confidence in their own ability and agency as learners. One example stems from a study by Falloon (2016), which studied 5- and 6-year-old students using Scratch Jr (ScratchJr ,2019) to learn about basic shapes as part of a numeracy unit. Results suggest that including basic coding in primary curriculum can provide teachers with an effective means of activating their students’ general and higher order thinking skills (Falloon, 2016). Another recent study found that programming with Scratch (Lifelong Kindergarten Group, 2019) accelerated the learning curve of the experimental groups in 6th grade classes (Moreno-León, Robles & Román-González, 2016).
There are however, a range of criticisms towards coding in education. Results from a study on grade 2 students coding using Scratch Jr. revealed that the learning curve remained the same, indicating that a higher level of cognitive maturation should be considered when incorporating different types of coding mediums (Moreno-León, Robles & Román-González, 2016). However, much more research needs to be conducted to adequately determine proper grade levels for the many types and methods that exist when teaching students to code. Interestingly, there are also propellants of theories that indicate that re-education involving coding isn’t necessary for all students, as by the year 2030, our society will be so advanced that we won’t need to program at all, we will simply tell our technology what we want it to do (Marcus & Davis, 2014). There are also a number of barriers that exist in implementing coding equally across schools and districts today. Ray and Faure (2018) describe potential barriers such as inadequate funding for resources, a lack of proper training and professional development for teachers.
The Future of Coding in K-8 Curriculum
There is little consensus about the way coding should be included in the curriculum (Gadanidis et al., 2017; Grover & Pea, 2013). Some policy makers believe coding should have its own curriculum, while others believe it should be integrated in ways that support current subject areas. Integration of coding and computational thinking into formal and official curriculums is also noted to be a great challenge, and educators need sound pedagogical perspectives to benefit from them properly (Bers, González-González & Armas–Torres, 2019). While British Columbia and Nova Scotia have both announced that computer coding will be added to all grades of the K-12 curriculum (Gadanidis et al., 2017), it is still unclear how other provinces will be moving forward. The lack of a common way to proceed is partially related to a shortage of empirical research on the topic, that could otherwise provide evidence to policy makers (Grover & Pea, 2013).
An Example of Coding in the Classroom
One coding-based activity example involves Sphero (Sphero, 2018), a wheeled robot in a spherical shell, which moves similarly to a hamster ball. Students can write code to instruct Sphero to take a certain path, for example, to roll in the shape of a square across the floor, using a smart phone or tablet application. Such an activity would help address the following Ontario curriculum expectations in Geometry and Spatial Sense: “describe, sort, classify, build, and compare two-dimensional shapes” in kindergarten; or “identify and describe various polygons” in grade 2 (Gadanidis et al., 2017; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). Patterning and Algebra expectations could also be enhanced through the activity, for example “using the core of a pattern and predicting what comes next” in kindergarten; or “identify, describe, extend, and create repeating patterns” in grades 1, 2 and 3 (Gadanidis et al., 2017; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). With creativity and planning, the options are endless for extending student learning in arguably any subject area, through the use of coding. Programming and robotics, which often work in conjunction with coding, can further be used for cross-curricular activities that are engaging for students and simultaneously develop their computational thinking skills.
Resources and Tools for Educators
There is a wide variety of educational technology examples of coding to achieve computational thinking that now exist, differing depending on grade level and topic. A great resource offering options for professional development, teacher support and project ideas is Code.org (Code.org, 2019). For K-8 levels specifically, a number of other resources can be consulted for integrating coding into current curriculum-based lessons. Options include: Math + Code ‘Zine (Math + Code ‘Zine, 2019), published quarterly to inform educators of coding, Computational Thinking in Mathematics Education Research (Computational Thinking in Mathematics Education, 2019), which develops and provides lessons plans from kindergarten to the undergraduate level, or The Computational Thinking Module (Gadanidis, 2019), which offers information regarding computational thinking, gamification and simulation in mathematics (Gadanidis et al., 2017). Like many other mediums, the success of coding largely depends on the dedication and preparedness of the educator.
Conclusions and Future Recommendations
Coding provides an engaging means of exercising complex thinking skills and key competencies in students (Falloon, 2016), and has proven effectiveness in many circumstances across the education spectrum. However, the success of promoting coding education or integrating it into school curriculum depends on the perceptions and dedication teachers and school personnel, and how well they plan for innovative teaching and learning (Wong et al., 2015). Thus, it is up to educators and policy makers to ensure they are prepared and knowledgeable as they guide their students through any coding endeavours.
Additional research is needed to guide coding in education generally. While the studies discussed show great promise for K-8 education, additional information is needed to indicate how, when, and for whom certain methods should be implicated. Without such information, it is difficult to determine the ideal place for coding in the current curriculum, in comparison to having a separate, mandated program. Standardization across school districts or provinces should also be considered, to ensure students are given some type of coding experience, allotting them further opportunities as they advance to higher education.
The main success of coding at this point in time stems from its ability to stimulate and improve computational thinking, which in itself is beneficial for K-8 students. Regardless of whether younger students should have to learn to code, the processes inherent in these activities provide them with a range of other critical and transferrable skills, and thus should be considered to enhance learning whenever viable.
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