Coding, Literacy and the 21st Century

A response to Greg Miller


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

In a recent post, reflecting on a day spent with Code Club Australia, Greg Miller posed the question: Is coding the ’21st Century writing’? I have spent some time trying to gather my thoughts about this, however I seem to have more questions than answers. Here then are my fractured¬†thoughts:

Is Scratch just Scratching the surface? There is a lot of discussion about Scratch and many other languages, but the real potential to me is what these applications allow us to program. Maybe it is controlling Sphero or linking to a Hummingbird Duo to add light and sound. Maybe it is creating a collaborative animation? This is when the true potential often comes to the surface.

Does Digital Literacies offer a better framework to discuss writing and the general notion of literacy in the 21st century? In his book, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, Doug Belshaw identifies eight elements which each play a part in making meaning:

  • Cultural – the expectations and behaviours associated with different environments, both online and off
  • Cognitive – the ability to use computational thinking in order to work through problems
  • Constructive – the appropriate use of digital tools to enable social actions
  • Communicative – sharing and engaging within the various cultural norms
  • Confident – the connecting of the dots and capitalising on different possibilities
  • Creative – doing new things in new ways that somehow add value
  • Critical – the analysis of assumptions behind literacy practises
  • Civic – the something being analysed

These elements do not represent a set definition though, rather they provide a way of talking about different literacies, with coding being one of these.

Are we creating problem solvers, rather than problem finders?¬†Often coding is talked about in a methodical manner with the prime focus being to teach problem solving. This involves rolling out predefined teaching material. I wonder if this attention to following someone else’s instructions denies the experience of just making and supported in finding problems worth solving?

Is coding about writing or thinking? The adage that continually gets repeated from Seymour Papert is that, “You cannot think about thinking, without thinking about thinking about something.” Logo was created as a learning environment in which to test hypothesises, not necessarily a space to write stories. Maybe our notion of writing is ever changing and morphing, as demonstrated by the¬†transliteracy¬†movement. However, I am not sure if that means that simply coding equates to writing. I wonder if this takes away from Papert’s vision as outlined in Mindstorm?

Is programming, not writing, the 21st century writing?¬†A lot of dialogue around¬†Digital Technologies revolves around coding, but does this focus on the letters and numbers misses the real activity within all of this, that of programming? As Dave Winer suggests, “When people say that programming is ‘coding’ it sounds (to me) like turning language into Morse Code. Translate something literate into something transmittable.”

What will it mean to code in the future in an ever complex world? We speak so much about ‘coding’ as if it is a certain thing, but what will it mean to code tomorrow and the day after that? Although Gary Stager asserts that there has been little change to the mechanics of coding, there is discussion about neural networks being the future, while others suggest that it will be comparable to training a dog. One thing seems certain, we are going through some change. I am not sure how this impacts writing.


In the end, maybe coding is the 21st writing firm of writing? Like poetry, maybe every student should write code. One thing that is certain, coding as a topic of discussion provides more questions than answers. So what about you? Do you have anything to add to the discussion? As always, comments welcome.


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Coding, Literacy and the 21st Century by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

10 thoughts on “Coding, Literacy and the 21st Century”

  1. Probably a good idea for every student to get the opportunity to write code, but not sure we need to make it writing. I prefer thinking of it as part of making digital stuff and the main reason to do it could be for fun? I like the idea of ‘just making’ (it certainly give me a lot of fun).

    1. I wonder if the real problem is writing. I think that what worries me is that we simply get students to trial different languages, like we get them to trial different text-types. There needs to be some sort of meaning and purpose to it all, a wider audience maybe. I think that this is where ‘just making’ and tinkering has its place.

  2. Thanks Aaron. You certainly posed lots of questions to get your audience thinking. Quite a few books you referenced I haven’t as yet read, but I did have Papert’s work recommended once before, so maybe I should investigate it.
    Your initial question and reference to Scratch got me thinking. Back in the 80s when I got my first personal computer I used BASIC to code some very basic programmes. It was the coding language for general users at the time. The act of making these mini-activities was (not very) creative, but I didn’t ever think of it as writing.
    A couple of years ago I tried out Scratch and was very impressed at its capabilities and what children were creating, and sharing, with it. Although it too required cognition, communication, and creativity, once again I didn’t think of it as writing. I was however, coding mini-stories which weren’t ever written down. I guess it became a visual story told using the “words”, the building blocks of Scratch.
    I think it’s a great program and am all for kids learning to use it or other similar tools. There has been a lot of coding gone on behind the scenes though to get these blocks to function the way they do. I’m not sure that (young) children need to do that unless they want to follow that career path, and there’s lots of time later for that. I would say that most of us are happy to make use of coding that has already been done by others e.g. in our WP blogs and websites. It’s a bit like driving a car. I’m happy to drive it, but I don’t want to build it.

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