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For Code.org, Training Computer Science Teachers Isn't Really About Computer Science

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As the nation's schools gear up for a massive push to expand computer-science education, they face a significant challenge: Who will teach all these highly technical classes?

Enter Code.org, the Seattle nonprofit that has carved out a big slice of the K-12 computer-science education market by combining popular curricula with savvy policy advocacy and public awareness campaigns. 

The organization takes a somewhat surprising approach to teacher professional development.

The focus isn't on teaching teachers to code, said Code.org president Alice Steinglass in an interview here at TeacherCon, the organization's annual series of weeklong summer professional development workshops for new computer-science teachers.

Instead, Steinglass said, the focus is on helping teachers learn to teach in a different way than they may be used to.

"Engaged math and science and English and art teachers who are excited about learning can bring computer science to your school," she said. "But they have to be able to be upfront with their classrooms and say, 'I'm learning this, too. We'll learn together.'"

Computer Science Teachers as 'Lead Learners'

That philosophy was on full display inside the conference, where nearly three dozen of the 460 or so teachers on hand gathered for a workshop led by Alex Kaulfuss, a classroom teacher and research associate at North Carolina State University's Friday Institute. He works as one of Code.org's lead facilitators.

Most of the teachers in the room had years of classroom experience, but little or no background in computer science.

In addition to getting the teachers familiar with Code.org's curriculum, Kaulfuss said his main goal was to help them get comfortable with the idea that once the school year starts, they'll be learning computer science alongside their students.

"Sometimes teachers come in really nervous about their own lack of content knowledge," he said. "With a 'lead learner' approach, they feel much less pressure to be content experts to begin with."

To begin, the teachers assumed the roles of students. Kaulfuss and a colleague walked them through a complete 55-minute lesson from Code.org's "Computer Science Principles" curriculum, which is tied to a new Advanced Placement course of the same name.

On their laptops, the teachers accessed Code.org's "simulated internet." Working in pairs, their challenge was to develop their own 'internet protocol,' or set of rules that governs the format of data sent over a network. Then, without talking, the teachers had to successfully send a message to their partners, who had to send the same message back.

There was a technical component to the work. But the big-picture learning objective embedded in the lesson is to get students thinking about the fundamentals of how the internet functions, as well as the tradeoffs that are baked into its infrastructure.

At first, many of the teachers-turned-students in the room expressed bewilderment.

Kaulfuss was prepared.

"If you are feeling lost and confused and you don't get it, you are in the right place," he told them.

Eventually, most of the pairs figured the challenge out, exchanging high-fives when their messages went through.

After completing the model lesson, Kaulfuss helped moderate a discussion. He focused the teachers on two broad sets of questions: What did it feel like to be "students" encountering new computer-science material? And how did the teachers expect their actual students might react to having a similar experience come this fall?

The room erupted with ideas: What's the best way to arrange students into small groups? How should we monitor their frustration levels? And how can we make sure they keep working when they feel challenged? 

"I think we have to reframe what success means in our classes," one of the teachers in the workshop concluded. "We have to tell students, 'If you're not struggling, if you didn't have any issues, you probably didn't learn anything today.'"

Yearlong Professional Development 

That's exactly what Steinglass, Code.org's president, wants new computer science teachers to get out of the TeacherCon experience.

"The hardest part of this is challenging teachers to walk into classrooms where students may know more than they do," she said. "We want to see teachers actively learning, just like we want to see students actively learning."

Founded in 2013, the organization says it has provided some form of professional development to roughly 58,000 teachers. In some cases, that's via one-off weekend workshops. The far more in-depth TeacherCon experience is currently in its second year. This summer, Code.org has hosted three such conferences around the country, reaching a total of 1,300 teachers.

Code.org covers all the costs for teachers to participate, but their schools have to commit to using the organization's curriculum in the 2017-18 school year.

The focus is on two Code.org courses—Computer Science Principles and Computer Science Discoveries (a transitional course geared towards students in 7th through 9th grades.)

At TeacherCon, the teachers will spend the rest of the week practicing how they will lead in their own classrooms the same lessons that Kaulfuss and other experts modeled for them.

In addition to the weeklong summer workshop, the teachers are expected to attend four one-day follow-up sessions throughout the school year. The organization also creates an online support group for participating teachers to share ideas, questions, and strategies via message boards and forums.

This year was the second TeacherCon for Luna Ramirez, a career-and-technical-education teacher who runs a web-design academy at Information Technology High School in New York. She described the impact of having the complete Computer Science Principles curriculum, plus ongoing professional support in how to implement it in her classroom, as "not quantifiable," even for teachers who do have prior computer-science experience.

"It's like having a small think tank with you from the beginning of the school year all the way through to the AP exam," she said. 


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