Tim Douglas
Cracking the code: Computer science, coding becoming worldwide focus for new curriculum

Words, symbols and figures are more than a means of communication. They shape our beliefs, influence our behaviors, command our actions and spur our imaginations. Nothing is more powerful than a tool that can actually bend, move or shake our values and opinions.

In addition to the current wars raging in many countries and the threat of violence fomenting across the world, we have climate change, a lack of water, dependence on oil and frail economies undermined by high unemployment, under employment and income disparity — just to name a few problems.

And if they are to be solved, such complex problems demand deep thinking. We must put our best brains forward and use every tool at our disposal.

Advanced communication

The Arlington Institute, a West Virginia-based nonprofit research institute that specializes in thinking about global futures, declares that society, science, ecology and commerce are converging at the intersection of danger and opportunity. A complexity and unpredictability beyond our past experiences characterizes the challenges at hand. It’s a brave new world, or, if you will, a new era of thought.

At its core, computer code is prose. It’s an advanced and powerful form of communication that helps us create, and in myriad ways, teaches us how to think differently. Is coding the key to helping us radically expand our intelligence and improve our planet? Is it time to teach code in the classroom? Many educators and advocates say yes, primarily because of what coding represents beyond algorithms.

“Coding is the language of critical thinking,” says Douglas Kiang, a computer science teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu and an ISTE member. “We should want to teach kids to be problem solvers, and coding is a discipline that will help. It’s a martial art for the mind.”

Teaching students to be better thinkers is right in line with many education movements currently underway, including personalized learning, 1:1programs and a commitment to Common Core or other state-adopted standards. But beyond these powerful changes, education should be about aspiration. It should not only provide the skills for the future, it should also provide belief in the possibilities of the future.

A dire situation

Changing how we think and our approaches to problem solving are even making a splash in the business world.

According to a recent article in The Economist, “mindfulness” is all the rage in some big corporations, which have hired coaches to teach a mix of relaxation, meditation and thinking techniques. Big ideas are becoming status symbols in high-tech hubs.

But some advocates of coding curriculum say it’s a dire situation that goes well beyond thinking and problem solving.

“To me, it’s a civil rights issue,” says Hadi Partovi, entrepreneur, investor and co-founder of education nonprofit Code.org, which is dedicated to expanding participation in computer science. “The majority of schools don’t even offer computer science and coding. This is the field that now leads to the best-paying jobs in the country, and we don’t teach it. That seems un-American.”

A mystery controlled by few

The well-guarded inner life of computers and other smart machines can be intimidating to the average citizen. Coding is a mystery controlled by a few. The Navajo Code Talkers used a hidden language that helped the Allies win World War II by communicating key messages during battle. According to those who champion the coding and computer science movement, the public probably sees Silicon Valley hotshots as the new Navajo Code Talkers, which is why educators need to start small and focus on the basics.

“Computer science and coding can be difficult,” says Pat Yongpradit, director of education at Code.org. “But we’re not saying that [students] need to become NSA (National Security Agency) code breakers in some basement. They just need to have the option to study it and get a basic understanding because it’s such a foundational skill to learn.”

That’s the notion that prompted ISTE back in 2009 to team up with the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) to develop computational thinking resources to help educators wrap their heads around this skill. With a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ISTE and CSTA developed a toolkit comprising presentations, research, graphic animations and other materials to help educators advocate for infusing computational thinking into to the K-12 curriculum. 

The ISTE/CSTA team also collaborated with leaders from higher education, industry and K-12 education to develop an operational definition, or a way of talking about, computational thinking that would resonate with teachers.

ISTE is beginning work on another NSF-funded project with Georgia State University that would train grade 4-6 teachers in computational thinking and the ISTE Standards so they can develop learning activities based on both.

Similar to many lessons taught in school, coding and computer science skills are something students can put to work right away, but with much more striking returns and rewards. A student who writes a brilliant essay or solves a complex math problem will receive an excellent grade, but a student who uses code to create an app that teaches autistic children how to count will change the world.

A human connection

Kiang had such a student. He also has worked with a student who created an app to help children cope with divorce, and he encouraged a pair of students to build an app to help young athletes rehabilitate more easily from their injuries. For Kiang, coding is a human connection.

Girl coding“Coding can and should be personal,” he says. “Careers are important, of course, but coding can get students involved with the community in a very meaningful way.”

Joe Kmoch agrees.

As a private consultant who helps schools implement computer science education in grades K-12, Kmoch believes that students, particularly at the high school level, can use computer science, computer science principles and collaboration to solve major problems.

Kmoch, a member of ISTE, brings together educators, students and professionals to talk about the value of coding and to provide students a chance to see how it can work. These personal connections are an invaluable exercise for young minds.

“I attended a math lecture series at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, listening to a guy from Pixar explain how math and codes make Woody and Buzz laugh or smile or frown,” he explains. “All of a sudden, the high school student next to me says, ‘That’s what they use that stuff for.’ It hit me at that moment: Kids need to be a part of the learning. Coding helps do that.”

In the classroom

Apart from those “aha moments” like Kmoch describes, teaching coding has additional benefits as a practice that can be easily appropriated to any domain — science, math, engineering, art and the humanities — as long as it’s contextualized, assures Pratim Sengupta, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University.

Sengupta prefers the term “practice” to “skill” because the latter gives coding too much of a mechanical bent. “The good and bad of coding is tied in the pedagogy. How are you representing programming as a practice and as cultural system you are participating in?”

Leading the list of benefits, learning coding gives students the opportunity to solve problems and engage in computational thinking and, in Bonnie Bracey Sutton’s experience, they enjoy it. “They are not afraid. They learn the process and enjoy executing it,” says Sutton, a technology advocate and ISTE member.

Manorama Talaiver, director of the Longwood Institute for Teaching Through Technology & Innovative Practices and an ISTE member, says learning programming helps develop students’ analytical-thinking, problem-solving and pattern-recognition skills.

As for drawbacks, those lie more with the educators tasked with adding coding to their teaching content. “The disadvantage isn’t to students, it’s to teachers. Many teachers don’t get the chance to learn what they need to allow them to insert it into their learning and teaching landscape,” Sutton says.

In a similar vein, Talaiver notes that it’s difficult to ask teachers to add another content area in the form of coding or computer science “unless we give up this idea of assessment, because teachers are already burdened with the existing content.” Rather than giving up core disciplines to make time for a computer science course, she advocates for teachers integrating coding, no matter what content they teach.

As to when to start teaching coding, Sutton believes it should start with early learners and progress from there to avoid the fear of the topic that can emerge with a high school start. She suggests coding could be taught as early as kindergarten. “It becomes a matter of intuitive thinking when introduced early.”

Talaiver envisions introducing coding in preschool using Scratch Jr. and moving through various languages as students progress. By fifth and sixth grades, she introduces the idea of creating games. In middle school, coding should be integrated into whatever content students are learning so that by high school, when computer science courses are offered, students will have an aptitude and an interest.

“When you start in preschool, by third grade the students can tell me about coding,” Talaiver says.

Sengupta says while it’s possible to teach young children a number of complex practices, asking at what age children are ready to understand coding is the wrong question. “The right question is what can we do to represent some very complex practices to some very young minds? We need to move away from the innate perspective that knowledge is based on something you acquire in the mind. The question is: Can I design a pedagogy that can create meaningful opportunities for children to learn?”

And when students learn and understand code, new worlds are open to them.

“We used to do the Dewey Decimal System and cursive and, at one time, those things were important. But now we live in a digital world that calls for visualization and modeling, simulation and agent-based learning. To be a part of the world we live in, you need coding,” Sutton explains.

Sengupta and Talaiver describe coding as a form of literacy in the digital age. “Computation is becoming more and more ubiquitous in our lives. We need to be creators, not just users of technology. Coding is one way to get there,” Sengupta says.

Good for the world, good for the wallet

The movement to get computer science in more classrooms is gaining traction, but it has a long way to go. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest with more than 640,000 enrolled students in K-12, is working with Code.org to ramp up computer science course work for the next three years by training teachers to help students at all grade levels learn how computers work. Advanced computer coding will be taught at the high school level.

Meanwhile, across the pond, England became the first country in the world to mandate computer programming be taught in schools. When children enter school at age 5, they will learn to write code and will not stop until at least the age of 16. According to The Telegraph, students will eventually be expected to create and debug simple programs, know what algorithms are and how they are implemented as programs on digital devices, and understand that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions. Likewise Estonia, a small country in Eastern Europe, has started teaching its first graders to code.

So coding is good for the world, but the fact that it could be good for the wallet may be the tipping point. Perhaps the best place to gain a glimpse of the future is in the job listings.

A few decades ago, employers were in search of typists and switchboard operators. Today’s market is looking for programmers and computer scientists.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computing and mathematics is one of the top 10 fastest growing major occupational groups for the period 2010-20. There will be more than 150,000 job openings in computing annually, and one out of every two stem jobs will be in computing in 2020.

Partovi says there are about 75,000 open jobs in the computer science realm right now in California, but there will be only about 4,000 college graduates with degrees in the field in the Golden State. The situation is the same in Texas, where there are about 44,000 open jobs and only 3,000 students with the degrees that match.

Clearly there’s a demand, but there’s an insufficient supply. According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, 56 percent of California public high schools don’t offer a single course in computer science or programming.

Playing catch up

“From a business standpoint, our education system has simply not caught up with what our economy needs,” Partovi says. “We like to think of America as the land of opportunity, and it can be, but we need to make changes. A student should be able to dream that he or she can be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.”

“Coding creates creators,” says ISTE member David Marcovitz, associate professor and the director of education technology at Loyola University in Maryland. “The world is more entrepreneurial, not just in a business sense, but an entrepreneurship of creation. Coding and computer science are valuable… making students creators is critical for modern education.”

Many factors must converge to respond to the job markets’ demands and the problems of our modern world. For starters, schools not only need to make computer science part of the curriculum; they will need to commit to doing it correctly.

“It cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach, and it won’t be immediate,” Yongpradit of Code.org says. “We need to understand the landscape — size of districts, what’s in place — and assess the needs. Then we need to look at dedicated funding streams and how to train teachers and make sure the support is ongoing.”

Teaching thinking

Marcovitz suggests that maybe a philosophical change in education, fueled by computer science, will help.

“Our students currently take tests, get grades and move on,” he says. “This is not enough. We need students who do more than play the game of school. It’s an opportunity to teach thinking.”

Organizations that champion this effort need to continue to show the way, and elected officials need to take notice and provide leadership.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills that address implementing computer science into the classroom, but even these new laws need work. Senate Bill 1200 allows, but does not mandate, the University of California system to count computer science toward the math requirement for students. Assembly Bill 1764 has more teeth by allowing high schools to count computer science toward graduation requirements.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking, and Partovi is afraid that we are losing too much time and missing a significant opportunity to change our schools and our world.

“I want education to respond to real-life needs,” he says. “This is less about coding and more about thinking. My daughter is unlikely to be a computer scientist, but shouldn’t learning how technology works be on the list of options? Don’t we owe our kids that — new ways to think?”

Tim Douglas is a former television news producer who also served as a senior media consultant for several speakers of the California State Assembly. Today, Douglas is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics.