Recently, there has been a shift from ‘We need to teach kids to code’ to ‘We need to get girls into coding’. The common response to this has been initiatives springing forth, ranging from pop-up events and after-school clubs to online courses saturated with pink, princesses and over the top feminine. What impact will this ‘pinkification’ layered thickly over the ‘learn to code’ movement have?
The fact that women are underrepresented in digital technology fields is well documented, blogged about and discussed. Recently, technology giants such as Google and Facebook have shared their employee ratios and pay scales, which has further driven discussion around the diversity gap. This transparency has done little to begin to address the deeper issues that have compounded to create the gender equality gap and instead they have been used as a launch pad to discuss how to get more kids into coding to fulfil industry needs. The result has been a plethora of initiatives backed by the technology sector that suggests the quickest way to address the gender gap is to channel more girls into the pipeline rather than fix the leaks that are occurring along the way.
In the annual Australian Graduate Survey 2014, the gender difference in the bachelor graduates for computer science across Australian universities is clearly visible, with only 15.8 percent female. This low ratio is mimicked around the globe, resulting in discourse rerouting from ‘Kids need to learn to code’ to ‘We must get girls into coding’.
Teaching more girls to code is perceived as the silver bullet; the perfect way to get more girls interested in computer science, which will in turn create a programming savvy workforce ready to tackle gender equality in the workplace purely through strength of numbers. As with all other silver bullets, it creates a student-as-product response and makes one wonder – is coding and learning to code the 21st century equivalent of learning to type?
The problem is not getting girls interested in coding and programming – it is keeping them interested. And it is not just girls; it is all learners. A concern with the current push to get all girls into coding is it might actually be doing more harm than good if it is not done in a way that gives equitable exposure to all and in a way that keeps them interested to take things further.
These initiatives are in the spotlight and media often highlights the strong tagline of giving access to all, but giving access to education is more complicated than just opening doors. It comes from a place of wanting to do the ‘best by the kids’ and there is value in creating emotive events that capture kids’ interest, whether in a traditional classroom, online or an event. However, please stop underestimating the role of teaching amidst the pink sparkle and robotic spectacle.
It seems like each week there is another initiative launched to get girls into coding. Click on the website or look at the pictures and be prepared for the pinkification factor or, as Elizabeth Losh, a digital culture scholar at University of California in San Diego, calls it “ridiculous, pink, sparkly techno-princess land”.
The use of pink logos and overt girl-power type language, coupled with hyper-feminine projects, buys into the concept that girls are not interested in coding or understanding how technology functions. By applying this methodology, initiatives are blindly adopting a ‘meet them where they are’ mentality by using one stereotype in an attempt to combat another. A played out girl-power image that, as Kate Dupere of Mashable put it, creates the label ‘You are a girl who codes’ rather than ‘You are a coder’. Techno-princess land creates an alternate reality for girls to learn to code, further instilling the idea that technology fields are not for them and if they do want to play they need to put on their ‘tech diva’ crown and play in a different space.
Turning up the pink dial might interest a certain percentage of the population, but this type of strategy is short sighted, as setting the dial to magenta can alienate some girls to take part or lose them along the sparkly path. It is not about teaching girls a certain way; instead, it is about teachers being responsive to all learners’ needs and ensuring they are keeping their own biases in check.
It is not about teaching girls a certain way; instead, it is about teachers being responsive to all learners’ needs and ensuring they are keeping their own biases in check.
Educators have a responsibility to all students in the classroom, in spite of gender, to create these types of opportunities for exploration. But they need to be aware that merely gaining access will not support the type of fundamental change required. Access to coding does not make coding easier in the same way that watching TV does not help a person’s movie producing or acting skills – it takes time and practice.
So, if not pink and if not spectacle, then what?
Quit the Kitset and Create Personally Meaningful Products
Kids have a natural curiosity and a tendency towards learning by doing, but sometimes with step-by-step structures teachers remove the possibility for learners to make their own meaning. Giving meaning to something helps to take abstract ideas and turn them into something concrete and to do that learners need to take part in the process rather than just focus on the outcome required. Yes, students could go to code.org and participate in Hour of Code where they will step through predefined hoops and even get a certificate at the end, but they were not part of the process – their only choice is whether they do the Frozen theme or Angry Birds.
The same goes for one-off initiatives, no matter how thickly painted the pink gloss is. If learners are not thinking and grappling with their own ideas and being given the chance to iterate, refine, edit and modify their creation, then how deeply are they engaged in their own learning? So they may be ‘doing’ the thing, coding something, but they are not part of the creation; they are only changing variables in someone else’s idea, essentially reducing the value of the learners in the room. There is space for quick challenges and pop-up activities; but if that is all that is used, what happens when they go home? Can they apply what they have been so excited about learning that morning to continue exploring?
Teachers need to be aware of these plug’n’play initiatives and give learners the opportunity to create with technology in a personally meaningful way.
Focus on Process – Iteration over Perfection
Join-the-dots type exercises create a linear learning path and the idea that there is only one way. An online prompt might hint at what to fix and then the learner is back on track. However, these hyper-scaffolded activities do little to support a learner’s capacity to use failure as a point of iteration and problem solving. If learners have not encountered this type of unknown space before then it is an absolute shock and inhibitor when it does finally occur.
By creating learning experiences that focus on the process of creating with technology rather than solely the output or coding part, teachers can begin to shift the experience from a teacher-led action into an iterative process driven by the learner that can continue long after the bell or event is over. This focus on iteration helps to humanise the process of failure and break down the need to be perfect, learning that failing is just failing and not quitting.
Knowing the Learner
Each participant in these initiatives is different and creating equity starts with knowing them as learners and then using that knowledge to know when to push or pull back during a learning experience – all of which goes a long way to supporting the creation of a safe-to-fail space. This builds a positive learning culture which, according to any classroom teacher, is key AND this all takes time. Teachers need to think about these things when they become excited about the maze all the kids will program their robots to run, or when creating an online simulation where a certain level of reading comprehension is required and take time to think just as hard (if not harder) about how they will craft an inclusive equitable environment to go with it.
To get more girls interested in coding, the pink dial needs to be turned down. It is not about teaching girls differently or applying a coat of pink gloss to existing programs, but instead ensuring that teachers keep their gender biases in check when developing and implementing learning experiences. Gimmicky pinkification will never compare to a personally engaging learning experience where learners are safe to tinker, play and fail, and given the time and support to do so.