Four years ago I wrote the “Yes” position. Since then dozens of states, hundreds of districts and thousands of educators have come to agree that we should teach computer science (CS) in elementary school (and even PK). In 2014, only a couple of states had K-12 CS standards; now there are 26 and counting. And Code.org recently passed 1 million teacher accounts, the majority of which are K-5 teachers. Why do they support CS in elementary school? The answers remain remarkably the same as four years ago.
The most common answer to this question is jobs — but not necessarily traditional computing or programming jobs. Our nation’s 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, has been released on multiple platforms. CS is featured prominently in Project Lead the Way’s new K-5 education offerings with a particular focus on interdisciplinary learning. And in addition to the year-round CS Fundamentals curriculum for elementary school students, the Code.org team just launched a new Hour of Code Dance Party tutorial for kids of all ages.
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 skills that coding can nurture.
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 computational thinking to their problem-solving toolbox?
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. Over the last few years an influx of hardware has come into elementary schools to prepare students for computer-based standardized assessments. 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.
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.
What a difference four years can make. When I first wrote this argument, I took the “no” position.
I argued that teaching computer science to elementary students was a luxury that we couldn’t afford timewise. In addition, there wasn’t funding for it and students weren’t developmentally ready for it. I acknowledged that while learning productivity, editing, collaborating, communicating and coding tools was valuable across the curriculum, I wrote that elementary students needed time to focus on literacy and numeracy, and middle school students needed time to focus on research, collaboration and writing skills.
In some ways, my answer hasn’t changed regarding self-contained and “core subject” classrooms. To a large degree, integration of technology — much less coding and more complex functions — remains limited to the few students who take technology classes, rather than everyone in a school. In this sense, teacher training and experience remain the limiting factors.
However, in technology classes, there have been some significant changes. For one, tech teachers no longer look to the classroom teacher for expectations or content requests. Instead, the focus has become technology itself, and in two significant ways, this change has been for the better.
Students are encountering a variety of ways they can use technology. There are far more classroom-friendly and relatively inexpensive devices, tools, programs and resources available than there were four years ago, which has addressed some of the funding concerns.
There is also more training and PD available to teachers who wish to seek out these opportunities. Help is available in both formal and informal settings. Tech companies offer lots of support and resources, and online forums offer useful advice to the “non-techy” user. PD is still offered during traditional inservice days, but educators can also get help from their PLNs on Twitter and other social media platforms.
This progress has widened the number and variety of technology tools available for students to use.
Innovations in educational technology tools has not only provided a variety of “gadgets,” but supporting materials and built-in functions also encourage collaboration and problem-solving. This aspect of coding has always been a plus in my opinion but the advances in presentation (for lack of a better word) have made coding more accessible to even the youngest students, and this accessibility extends to the teacher.
Four years ago, I argued that universities’ top-down demands to deliver students with writing, comprehension, communication and mathematics skills was a tall order and throwing yet another demand into the mix would be unrealistic for many schools, and for the students. I felt like it made more sense to leave skills, such as engineering, higher mathematics and global communication, for high school and higher education. Elementary school, I wrote back then, was the place to master the basics, including literacy — in both language and technology — and numeracy.
I felt that really teaching — not just introducing — coding was simply beyond the scope of what most K-5 schools and their students were able to do, and it was even asking a lot of middle schools when both lab time and class time were so limited.
I still believe that it’s important to include practice in keyboarding and the use of word processing, spreadsheet and publishing programs, and I believe that the higher education and testing demands put a lot of pressure on classroom teachers to “cover the basics.” But I have come to believe strongly in the value of technology science (computer science) in a well-rounded education.
Beth Schwartze is the technology coordinator and computer science teacher for grades 5-8 at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School in Columbia, Missouri.
This is an updated version of a post that was originally published in 2014.