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Should we teach computer science in elementary school?

Yes Pat Yongpradit

We should definitely be teaching computer science (CS) in elementary school. Why?

The most common answer to this question is jobs — but not necessarily traditional computing or programming jobs. Our nation’s current trajectory points to a lasting digital era, and we’ll need people who can think like software engineers and network architects, whether they are writing an app or solving resource distribution problems in a third-world setting — or doing both at the same time.

But let’s forget about jobs for the moment. After all, we don’t really know where the economy will be in 15 years, and we’re talking about 5- to 10-year-olds here!

The rationale to teach CS to K-5 students goes well beyond career development. For kids just entering school, teaching CS is about giving them the thinking skills that will help them become proactive learners and citizens — as opposed to just consumers and denizens — in a world that’s increasingly influenced by the manipulation of the digital bit.

CS for K-5 students is not new. Computing for elementary school kids saw a heyday in the 1980s, when Seymour Papert and the Logo movement took education by storm. But in recent years, it’s been enjoying a comeback. ScratchJr, a K-5 version of the popular Scratch programming environment, was released on the iPad this summer, and other platforms are on the way. CS is featured prominently in Project Lead the Way’s new K-5 education offerings. And the Code.org team just launched three courses for K-5 as well as a nationwide network of affiliates that offer free, one-day workshops that give every teacher take-home classroom materials.

But to decide whether teaching CS to young students is worth it, you need to understand what computer science in the elementary grades really looks like.

It is not about learning how to use the keyboard and mouse, except for the purpose of moving instruction blocks around to form an algorithm. And it is not just about advocating for safe digital literacy practices, like visiting certain approved websites, unless the website happens to be a coding environment or community where students can share their work.

The most important part of the K-5 CS experience is its ability to encourage and support creative expression and problem solving. As Seymour Papert said more than 30 years ago, CS is about giving kids the opportunity to engage with powerful ideas. The computer just happens to be our era’s best and most accessible tool for this purpose. Coding puzzles, tutorial progressions and unplugged activities (learning computing concepts without a computer) are all onramps to a world where students can be passionate and powerful enough to express their imaginations. Creativity, collaboration, persistence and abstraction are all thinking skills that coding builds.

Shouldn’t we give all students this opportunity? Can we figure out creative or clever ways to make room in our school schedules for something so important to our digital age students? Shouldn’t kids learn how to manipulate bits and digitize problems so they add computing processes to their problem-solving toolbox? And isn’t this important enough to start teaching at a young age?

If you agree that the answer to all these questions is yes, then what’s stopping us? Many fear that reading, writing and math instruction (and scores) will suffer if we add one more thing to the curriculum. But CS is more than just another subject. It can serve as the glue for interdisciplinary study, which means the time we spend on it is not added, but integrated. And about testing: At this moment, an influx of hardware is on the way to elementary schools to prepare us all for Common Core testing. Shouldn’t we take advantage of this opportunity to show young students that computers are not just a toy or testing tool, but a powerful means of expression that enables them to be the drivers of creation?

As most PD providers know, it is not the kids who are most hesitant to try something new. It’s us adults. We need to make sure that all K-5 teachers and administrators have the opportunity to participate in high-quality computer science professional learning so they can build enthusiasm for this important subject and learn how to integrate it into their classrooms in relevant and meaningful ways. Just as we want our kids to learn more than just how to count to 10 in math class, we should want to give our young students a thorough background in the field that is revolutionizing every aspect of our world. We owe it to them.

Acknowledgment
Kiki Prottsman, executive director of Thinkersmith, collaborated on this response.

Pat Yongpradit is the director of education for Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting computer science education. His passion is bringing CS opportunities to every school and student in the United States.


No Beth Schwartze
My school has computer science instruction in K-8, but it focuses on keyboarding practice, using programs to create products, research skills with proper citation and digital citizenship. Our school has a computer lab, which K-6 students visit once a week and seventh and eighth grades visit twice a week. Is that enough? Given the time allotted in our schedule and the skills the teachers say their students need for their classwork, these are the topics we feel warrant taking up a spot in our curriculum.

I agree that learning how to use many productivity, editing, collaborating, communicating and coding tools would be valuable across the curriculum. But early elementary students’ primary needs are literacy and numeracy. For middle elementary, introduction to other skills — particularly coding and other engineering applications — is age appropriate, but anything above introductory instruction goes beyond the limits of the time we have. By middle school, both students and teachers are most focused on research, collaboration and writing skills that will allow them to complete core class homework.

Funding is another consideration. Some districts — particularly large ones — have the budget to implement 1:1 programs that would allow classroom teachers to integrate more computer skills into the core curriculum. But our single-building school faces definite funding limitations, as do many schools in small or rural districts, which also often deal with the added challenge of spotty internet connectivity. Finding both time in the school day and enough devices for all students continue to be major obstacles for us and for many other districts.

Finally, achieving universities’ top-down demands to deliver students with writing, comprehension, communication and mathematics skills is already a tall order. Throwing yet another demand into the mix would be unrealistic for many schools, and for the students. Yes, I have read the articles about how unprepared students are to enter college and manage the demands of the digital age workplace. But I think it makes more sense to leave skills such as engineering, higher mathematics and global communication for high school and higher education. Elementary school is the place to master the basics, including literacy — in both language and technology — and numeracy.

I'm not saying that elementary students are not capable of using or even mastering code. But I believe that really teaching — not just introducing — coding is simply beyond the scope of what most K-5 schools and their students are able to do, and it's even asking a lot of middle schools when both lab time and class time are so limited. What’s more, pushing students into the study of abstract concepts before they are developmentally ready will not make them any more prepared for the rest of the 21st century than they are now.

Computer science is a necessary part of the whole educational package. However, it is not the only part, nor is it the most important. All too often, there is a tendency to treat computers and other technology as the subject instead of the valuable and powerful tools they can be to teach the skills that are most appropriate at each grade level.

Beth Schwartze is the technology coordinator and computer science teacher for grades 5-8 at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School in Columbia, Missouri.

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