When you think about coding or computer science, what comes to mind? Do you automatically go to math? Or do you tend to think about coding as a language?
I’m guessing it’s probably the former. If you think about where coding lies in a curriculum, you’re probably right—it’s usually the math department.
But when you break down the coding building blocks, it seems that the subject may also be similar to language.
So why do we tend to think that coding is fundamentally math?
One reason may be that some students are more left-brained, and therefore have a more “math-y” outlook. A more probable reason is that our collective understanding around coding is that it falls under math. Moreover, it seems that we tend to think about programmers as people who must have strong mathematical skills.
All students certainly have different learning styles, so it makes sense that they think about coding differently. However, when collective perceptions get in the way, it’s important to debunk certain common stereotypes. Specifically, that you must be good at math to code.
Coding may be more like mastering a foreign language than learning math. And research can back it up.
What does research say about necessary coding skills?
Unfortunately, there’s limited research about necessary skills for computer programmers. One study, though, dives into this and confirms that math is not the sole skill necessary for coding. It’s not even—seemingly—the most important one!
The University of Washington study
In a 2020 study, researchers at the University of Washington investigated whether learning computer programs closely resembles learning a second language.
They used the programming language Python, and sought to determine whether natural language learning ability predicted one’s ability to learn Python. In addition, they looked at other skills such as general cognitive ability and working memory. Finally, the researchers aimed to see whether numeracy predicts one’s ability to learn Python.
The researchers examined three dozen adults’ neuro-cognitive abilities as they learned Python. To do so, they instructed participants to complete a series of online lessons and quizzes on Python.
Across the board, the researchers found that language ability most strongly predicted one’s ability to learn Python. Moreover, the time it took participant to learn Python and their accuracy were positively correlated with strong problem-solving and language abilities. It’s also important to note that numeracy didn’t play as large of a role in Python learning ability compared to language ability, cognitive ability, high reasoning ability, and working memory.
While math accounted for only 2% of the difference in how quickly students learned Python, language ability accounted for nearly 20% of this variation. This suggests that language ability may be more important than numeracy when it comes to coding.
In coding, you essentially master a second language, which includes grasping its vocabulary, grammar, and special rules.
Another study, however, found somewhat different results.
The MIT study
At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, four researchers performed brain scans on dozens of participants in an effort to figure out how the brain comprehends computer code. Significantly, they wanted to determine which part of the brain is in charge here—is it the part that performs math…or learns language?
Essentially, the researchers were looking at the two major philosophies when it comes to peoples’ perceptions of coding. That is, people tend to believe one of two theories. The two theories are that you must either be good at math or language to excel in coding.
Similarly to in the previous (University of Washington) study, the researchers in the present study looked at brain responses to Python—however, they also looked at the responses to another programming language, ScratchJr, which MIT helped to develop.
In the study, the participants completed different types of math problems and answered questions around sentence structure (language skills).
The results didn’t allow the researchers to determine that either the language skills or math region/processes are responsible for comprehending code.
Instead, they found that the region that became active was one called the “multiple demand” region. This region is the key player when we solve complex problems, typically those which are “cognitively challenging”.
This “multiple demand” region responded to both the language problems and the math problems. The language-related region did respond to sentence-based problems, but responded weakly or not at all to the math problems.
Essentially, the results determined that coding doesn’t rely solely on the math-related or language-related brain processes and region. Instead, coding activates the multiple demand network. This region, although a key role in mathematics and logic, is also linked to logic and general “difficult thinking”.
Coding and gender politics
These findings actually have major implications. Take a look at any college website and find the computer science section. Is it listed under a department within the humanities section? Or, more likely, is it within the Math department?
Not only do most colleges and universities include computer science/programming in the math department, but many of these institutions require prerequisites or that you take an advanced math course alongside coding. For a long time, it’s been commonplace to think about coding and computer science in association with math and engineering.
Over time, the result is that we take these requirements and associations and reinforce the perception that you need to be good at math to be a skilled programmer. And who, stereotypically, prevails at math? Men.
And the demographics show just this. According to a 2021 global software developer survey, males account for roughly 91.7% of computer developers.
Coding is stereotypically a male field
Stereotypically, mathematics has always been known as a masculine field. And when you combine these cultural notions that we continually reinforce along with students who are susceptible to the skewed perceptions around them, you may end up with a ton of women who feel discouraged from pursuing coding.
“Many barriers to programming, from prerequisite courses to stereotypes of what a good programmer looks like, are centered around math abilities, and that is not born out in our data,” – Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington
The thing is, typically, females have higher language skills than males on average.
Based on the findings from the University of Washington study, it’s evident that mathematical prerequisites schools often require may not be necessary. Allowing—and encouraging—more students to enroll in coding classes is important, as the workspace is utilizing it more and more.
And based on MIT’s study, it’s clear that we need to do more research on the brain’s processes during coding, and necessary programming skills.
This is an area deserving of attention, since it’s evident that many students are constantly suffering from math anxiety, which may push them to avoid coding. Evidently, the popular belief—that coding skills stem from mathematical skills—needs some rethinking.
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