When we learn to write, we don’t start by studying the process through which the ink travels from the cartridge to the nib of our pen and on to the paper. When we learn to speak another language, we don’t first study buccopharyngeal anatomy in the hope it will facilitate the production of difficult foreign sounds. When we learn to drive a car, we worry more about making the machine work and less about how the machine works.
In each of these cases, achieving a successful outcome – becoming an accomplished writer, a speaker of foreign language or a talented racing driver – is not dependent on the intimate knowledge of the processes involved and can demonstrably be achieved with only a basic understanding thereof.
Indeed, it does not necessarily follow that a car mechanic should be a good driver or that a otorhinolaryngologist would boast an uncanny ability to pick up new languages.
I think computer programming – or coding – shares many similarities with the laboured analogies above. In order to master the use of a computer, some basic understanding of programming will undoubtedly be helpful, but this begs the question: what outcome do we wish to achieve when we suggest programming should be taught in schools? Do we want children who can use computers effortlessly or children who can speak computer fluently?
Many have suggested that schools ought to view programming as the new Latin so that the UK can become a competitor against the likes of Silicon Valley. However, I’m not convinced that a focus on learning to code will result in a generation of students bred with the sole purpose of taking on the likes of Google or Microsoft. If the traditional approach to learning languages is anything to go by, it’s more likely to result in a generation of students that are made to learn languages and then drop them at the earliest opportunity.
At this point I need to acknowledge that I am not an ICT specialist and that I approach this topic from the perspective of a foreign languages teacher and, as such, my understanding of teaching and learning in schools is biased by my experience.
In languages teaching, there was for a time a focus on grammar teaching above all else. It was thought that explicit grammar teaching and learning was the elementary first step for any self-respecting budding linguist.
In practice, languages teachers soon realised that an in-depth understanding of grammar was not a means to an end, but rather part of the end in itself: a better understanding of the grammar resulted from learning the language and not vice-versa.
This approach – now deemed old-fashioned – to grammar teaching as the basis for language learning often resulted in generations of students who could conjugate verbs with ease but could not produce a single functioning utterance in the target language to save their lives.
Having learnt from the lessons of the past, today foreign languages teaching focuses on the use and the production of language, and although it is accepted that grammar is still important – rightly so – grammar learning is just as likely to take place implicitly as well as explicitly.
This is why native English speakers can speak and write perfectly fluently – and even win the Noble Prize for literature – with only a notional understanding of what phrasal verbs are or indeed do.
Programming is, after all, often referred to as a language and, as such, I think there are plenty of parallels and lessons to be learnt from your languages department’s humble attempts to get it right.
Just a thought. What do you think?
Many thanks to GaH for his photo.