Maths education lecturer and TV presenter Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabhain on coding and mathematical learning – and how Coolest Projects involves problem-solving skills.

Coding and Mathematical Learning

There were some negatives to being the principal’s daughter in a small, rural, primary school in Mayo in the ‘80s – but I am so grateful for it now because it’s where I began to really understand mathematics through programming. My dad, the principal of the three teacher school, took out a personal loan to buy computers for the senior classes (much to the horror of my mom at the time!) From age ten my classmates and I were playing Logo, operating our ‘floppy’ disks, and instructing the computer in basic tasks.

At the time, I obviously didn’t realise the educational benefit of instructing the computer to do specific tasks in a given order, but I realise now that learning such skills can be the basis of thinking logically and mathematically.

Many people have anxiety when it comes to mathematics. This is due to very many cultural reasons and research from Carol Dweck has shown that this is likely due to people having a ‘fixed mindset’ that we’re either born good or bad at maths. She and Jo Boaler (a mathematics education researcher at Stanford) advocate that in teaching and learning mathematics we should emphasise and celebrate the mistakes and remind our students that mastering mathematics is about practice – not about quickly, easily, and always getting the right answer.

In developing a ‘growth mindset’ – programming is a great way to learn. When you’re coding you expect to make mistakes. You search for the bugs in your code, you re-construct your code in different routes, and there is a great sense of fulfilment when you achieve what you set out to do.

While you don’t need to be good at maths to be a programmer – developing code is a really beneficial way to develop your skills in deconstructing a problem, in finding logical ways to your end goal, and to emphasising to young students that it’s not about being ‘right’ the first time – it’s your ability to persevere that is rewarded. Studies since the 1970s have shown the benefits, in terms of mathematical learning, for students engaging in coding activities from an early age. Seymour Papert (one of the inventors of Logo) argued that coding not only teaches students skills in logic, but also teaches children the truly creative nature of mathematics through actively solving problems.

Students participating in this year’s Coolest Projects exhibition have demonstrated very many problem solving skills in developing their projects and will showcase their confidence and ideas at the RDS this Saturday. Whether you have an interest in programming or not – it’s impossible to not be revived by the enthusiasm and vibrancy of our young learners and just like the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, Coolest Projects fills me with confidence in the creativity and brightness of our next generation.