Is Bill Shorten’s coding in schools speech more than a thought bubble?

bill shorten“Coding is the literacy of the 21st century and under Labor every young Australian will have a chance to read, write and work with the global language of the digital age,” so said Bill Shorten in his budget reply. Now on its face that’s a statement it’s impossible to argue with. As always though, the problems arise in the details, or lack thereof.

The fact that we have the leader of the opposition talking up coding in schools is a huge step forward and one that should be applauded. But it’s very easy to talk things up from the far side of an election. And we only have to look at the last few governments’ history of keeping their election promises to think that we’d be pretty foolish to hang our hopes on a speech made from opposition. And one that lacks the detail that would make it real.

Shorten says “A Shorten Labor Government will ensure that computer programming and digital technologies – coding – is taught in every primary and secondary school in Australia, by a teacher who has had the opportunity to receive training in coding.”

So where will coding be fitted into the curriculum? What will be cut back to provide space? I can nominate several candidates, but each is going to come with its own advocates who will argue that it can’t be the one to go. Will coding be a stand alone subject? Will it be taught in any depth? Or is the idea to teach it like we teach Chinese and Italian in the first year of high school – in which case it’s almost a waste of time. All of these questions, you have to think, would be referred to a committee before anything else happens (which is what Mr Shorten, after his speech, said he would do) and by the time the committee is finished, what seems like a simple commitment may well look entirely different.

But let’s assume coding is going to happen at some useful level: Who’s going to teach it? “Great teachers”, as Mr Shorten recognised in his speech, will be required – and they don’t grow on trees. Bill Shorten proposes spending $25 million in training teachers in programming. That sounds OK until you realise that there are 290,000 teachers in Australia, almost none of whom know how to code let alone how to teach coding. You could rightly argue, of course, that not every teacher will have to teach coding if it’s treated as its own subject area. So cut the numbers another way: There are 9393 schools in Australia – which means the teacher training will amount to $2661 per school. The reality seems more tenuous now.

Finally, let’s not forget that our education system is not Federal, it’s run by the States. So the Federal Government is not going to get anything happening without State support and funding. If this is to go any further, we need to start hearing the same noises from the State Premiers and Education Ministers all around the country.

In fact, Federal bipartisan support would be a good start. Malcom Turnbull has said much the same thing as Bill Shorten, which given Turnbull’s background is not surprising. However it’s a struggle to imagine that the Prime Minister has either Shorten or Turnbull on his list of people to listen to. Perhaps if Maurice Newman were to explain a link between coding and proving a global warming conspiracy theory…

Anywaaaay…

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – and this is definitely a step. But it’s step that needs to be followed up by many, many more lest the journey turn into a stroll around the garden. Put another way, one of the reasons I am so keen on coding, and invest my own time in teaching it, is that I believe it is a great way of teaching kids how to break problems up into smaller pieces and create a whole solution.  The problem of getting coding into schools is a big one and the Leader of the Opposition endorsing the outcome is clearly part of the solution; but realistically the program is not far beyond ‘Hello World!’ at this point.

I so want to see coding taught to every kid in school. I so want educated and proficient teachers doing that work. And while I’m very pleased to hear Bill Shorten endorse, even embrace, those ideas, I refuse to get excited until there’s a hint of some reality to back up the thought bubble.

Image: http://billshorten.com.au

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