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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Coding in the Classroom: A Long-Overdue Inclusion

Merle Huerta

Learning Center Teacher, Academic Coach, Writer, and Parent of a Blended Family of 13
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Young boy looking at a computer monitor

One need not look to superstars such as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to justify reasons for using code and programming logic in the classroom. There's plenty of literature that illustrates its positive learning outcomes. Coding in the classroom is linked to improved problem solving and analytical reasoning, and students who develop a mastery of coding have a "natural ability and drive to construct, hypothesize, explore, experiment, evaluate, and draw conclusions."

But there are other compelling reasons for integrating code in the classroom.

Reasons to Teach Coding

1. Coding is a new type of literacy.

Wired Magazine reported that reading and writing code is the new literacy. Those students who master it are better prepared for a technical revolution that spans cultures and language boundaries. That's because coding isn't just a language. It's a way of thinking about problem solving.

2. Coding is a tool to improve educational equity.

Coding in the classroom is a means of bridging the digital divide. That means more than granting technological access -- it's a way for all students to use technology for creative engagement. Without coding in the classroom, many students in lower socioeconomic communities will miss the opportunities it affords. In fact, Holfeld et al (2008) found that schools in poorer neighborhoods restricted computer use to rote learning rather than using technology for creative engagement. Discouraging a more creative use of technology in the schools creates a butterfly effect. In Washington State, where 93 percent of high schools don't offer AP computer science, a 2012 study found that out of 1,200 AP computer science students, just 48 were black or Hispanic. By making computer science a required course for high school, especially in lower socioeconomic schools, educational equity and opportunities improve.

3. Coding offers inclusion.

Temple Grandin, author and professor at Colorado State University and an autistic adult, said, "Without the gifts of autism, there would probably be no NASA or IT industry." Non-profits such as nonPareil are acting on those talents. Created by two parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the organization actively recruits high school students with ASD, trains them in software development, and then places them in IT jobs. The environment, a cross between a school and a company, is a natural segue between high school and the adult workplace.

Knowing there are programs for kids with ASD is good news for parents who shoulder the responsibility. Of those children with ASD who do enter the workforce, nearly 80 percent will be unemployed or underemployed. By teaching coding to students with developmental disabilities, teachers aren't merely harnessing and developing innate talents. They're better preparing these kids, making them more marketable and employable in a high-tech economy.

4. Coding can improve neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity, a term that essentially means the brain can change, has assumed a pop-culture status, and any activity linked to it takes on a magical, brain-promoting aspect. While not all activities genuinely classify, in the case of foreign language acquisition, there is evidence. Researchers in Sweden observed visible brain changes in those children and teens who learned a foreign language. Over a three-month period, the brain structure in those who acquired a second language grew, specifically in the hippocampal area (which is involved in learning new material and spatial navigation), and in three areas in the cerebral cortex. Students who "had better language skills than other students, who put in more effort in learning, experienced greater growth." In another study, Mechelli found that children who acquired a second or third language, even a computer language, showed functional changes in the inferior parietal cortex.

5. Coding improves STEM proficiencies.

Analysts suggest that by 2020, there are expected to be one million more computing jobs than students in the U.S., which could leave an untapped market of $500 billion. Currently, the U.S. is ill prepared to fill these jobs. In one international study across 65 countries, the U.S. ranked 23rd or 24th in most subjects and 27th in math and science. Girls were particularly at a deficit. Forbes Magazine reported, "Women hold nearly half of all jobs in the U.S., but less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs." By making coding a classroom requirement, educators are better equipping students for this market.

Despite the documented benefits, coding in the classroom is offered in only a smattering of U.S. schools. Less than ten percent offer AP computer science, and students who have access aren't necessarily being encouraged to pursue programming.

Why the Lack of Emphasis?

Teacher Shortages

Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org, cites lack of trained teachers as the biggest obstacle to getting computer science into the classroom, and software developers have little motivation to shift from the private sector into education. Why teach if the corporate world is far more lucrative? Partovi feels that policy makers and private funders must come together and fund training for teachers in computer science. In the interim, TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) is placing computer scientists in high school classrooms across the country. Their goal is two-fold:

  1. Get computer science education to the students.
  2. Educate teachers in code literacy to make them technically proficient to teach coding.

Bias

A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows a bias in how teachers perceive abilities of male and female students when it comes to STEM subjects. Researchers found that "when teachers knew the children's names and identities, they graded the girls lower in math than the outside grader, while scoring the boys higher." The trend had long-term ramifications. Those girls tracked in the study were less likely to sign up for advanced math, science, and technology courses in high school.

Other Priorities

If computer science isn't a requirement, why bother changing policies? Currently, 15 states allow computer science courses to count toward high school graduation. Private schools have an easier time implementing curricular changes. The problem is in federally funded schools. With tight budgets, public schools are mired in layers of decision making that makes it hard to change curriculum. The key, with the help of corporate sponsors, is to help policy makers see that computer science merits the same weight as math and science prerequisites.

Educators and parents who agree should write to their state's department of education, and get involved with non-profit organizations such as Code.org and companies such as Microsoft who are working to improve digital literacy in the schools. For digital initiatives with the developmentally disabled, nonPareil can partner with schools, and organizations such as TEALS can expose students and teachers to the opportunities that coding in the classroom provides.

Is coding part of your school's curriculum? Please tell us about it in the comments below.

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Comments (39) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Merle Huerta's picture
Merle Huerta
Learning Center Teacher, Academic Coach, Writer, and Parent of a Blended Family of 13

Grant, I would be honored. I will PM you with my email address. Please send me a link or a copy of the press when it comes out.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

Awesome Grant, can you share the guide you're creating here when it's finished, presuming you get permission to post it? That would be great!

ageldien's picture

This summer is going to be my adventure in integrating more technology and CCSS curriculum. Any information that anyone would like to provide would be greatly appreciated. I want to go back next year with a new way of teaching mathematics to better prepare all of my students in using technology. Coding is one way to accomplish this goal.

Evy Roy's picture
Evy Roy
Former Community and Social Media Intern at Edutopia

Hi ageldien--I think the summer is a great time to learn and plan for technology integration! Here are two resource roundups you may find of interest: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/common-core-math-high-school-matt-davis and https://www.edutopia.org/blog/common-core-math-elementary-resources-matt... (targeted to K-5 teachers, but many resources can be applied to high school).

You could also check out David Wees on twitter (@davidwees). He's got some great information about math and tech. Hope you find something helpful!

nugget's picture

I completely agree with the notion that not enough is being done to train teachers to teach coding. If I could go back in time, I would definitely have picked up more coding classes in undergrad, or even during my master's program if it was possible.

So much has changed in the last decade or so, and yet so many teachers were educated prior to all these change in technological capabilities and expectations for the classroom and the world. I think the powers that be need to take more drastic measures to help with this training.

I know that funding will always be an issue. However, I work in a fairly well-off school district that certainly has more ability than most districts to push for this, and still, when I inquired about the possibility of coding classes as professional development, those in charge say "huh, that's a good idea", but nothing is done about it. When I was picking a master's program, I was discouraged from looking into a CS degree, and pushed towards a generic master's in education or a math master's degree that basically repeated all the courses I already took in undergrad.

I think it's at the point where coding certification needs to be an educational requirement for all math teachers.

Grant Smith's picture
Grant Smith
Technology Coordinator: champion of All Kids Code initiative and helping to optimize EdTech as we reach 1:1; authorized Google Education Trainer

Hey everyone, I realize this is pretty late and people may not be checking back for this. However, as promised, here is the link to the curriculum guide I made with my coding teachers: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1xbXsbhLVGVUGqupPP-FRbxhS6HPHOzVcM6Wn...

Also, we are having our students take a survey about their views on coding. I might write about some off the data, but feel free to check out the results here:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1HnyJmITClnMhPRZPg8_lLdW0PKxWBxVo...

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