Cities and school districts around the country are seizing on the popularity of coding and computer science. Large metro school districts including New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago have announced multi-million dollar efforts to launch new initiatives from elementary through high school. A wide range of large to small entities are doing similar things, from entire countries like Australia and the U.K. down to individual public schools. One local Atlanta parent recently noted that their charter school was establishing "coding as a second language". It seems everyone has heard the rallying cry to get kids coding.
Once we get past all the announcements, news coverage, and well intentions, what happens next? It's one thing for a school administrator to demand coding classes for their students based on parent demand, but schools wanting to jump in to this area may be surprised by the unique challenges presented by the subject. Like much of the rest of the technology sector, coding and computer science is a moving target that is constantly changing. Tools that are popular now could be outdated or possibly not even working in just a few years. Getting agreement about exactly WHAT to teach is simply the first hurdle. If you talk to three software developers in web, corporate/enterprise, and mobile development, you will get three different opinions on what kids should learn. Talk to three different educators and you will get three more answers. Dealing with the shortage of qualified teachers is another subject that we have written about before and it has not gone away. The Hour of Code initiative is doing wonderful work but the steps between a half-day session and a full semester or year long curriculum are immense. Even if (when?) they publish a full curriculum, it takes a knowledgeable instructor to answer questions as soon as a student wanders "off script". Teaching coding and computer science also requires a different teaching style. As soon as you put a screen in front of a student, most will immediately tune out any lecturing at the front of the class. The instructor must change roles to become a mentor and coach and the situation requires different teaching materials as well.
There are many benefits that can come from these initiatives depending on how they are handled. Coding and computer science have often been taught up until now by the rare experienced teacher working mostly alone to develop his/her own curriculum based on years of knowledge and trial and error. This situation is wonderful for the students lucky enough to be able to take classes with the teacher. Having met a few of these superstars in person in Georgia or by email nationally, I can tell you their value is immense. One small bit of advice from one of these individuals can be of huge benefit to a fellow teacher in time or direction let alone to the students they are affecting. The downside to this state of affairs is that if the individual leaves or retires then the entire program he/she has built often collapses because no one with the right experience or skill set can pick up the ball and keep going. Larger programs can potentially add an overall structure to the subject to help many teachers get started or keep existing efforts going.
Ultimately all this attention to getting kids actively involved with technology is a good thing. We began Start Code four years ago and since that time the buzz around coding has grown to a strong fervor. We don't know exactly how many student lives are being changed by giving them an early opportunity to try these approaches but we are hopeful. Is it for everyone? No, but the kids are being exposed to a new way of thinking and approaching a problem. At Start Code, we want them to see technology as a tool for creation and not just consumption. We want to challenge them while also giving them positive and fun memories of the time spent coding, making games, creating digital art, building robotics, or any number of tech activities. It is our hope that a student thinks, "Hey, I can do that" and that person will be empowered when a future decision comes along whether it's for personal growth, college, entrepreneurial, or career reasons.
Contributor Note: The recent article in the Washington Post entitled "Coding for kids makes sense — but it’s going to take more than just classrooms to make it work" outlines additional challenges and benefits and was the inspiration for this blog post.
The time horizon for all these efforts remains to be seen. The New York City initiative has a 10-year horizon, for example. Whether this is right or wrong, large scale tangible results won't happen tomorrow or next year. In the meantime, our role at Start Code is to give any student who wants to start now a place to do so.