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Let's Put Coding on the Table

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Rae Fearing, Educational Technology Coordinator and STEM Coordinator for Del Norte County Unified School District in Crescent City, California was quoted in CUE's spring publication, OnCue as saying, "Anyone can AND SHOULD know how to code.  It is the universal language of our digital future."

In May, 2013 Mitch Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, wrote an article for EdSurge entitled, Learn to Code, Code to Learn: How Programming Prepares Kids for More Than Math. In the article, Dr. Resnick says:

In addition to learning mathematical and computational ideas (such as variables and conditionals), they are also learning strategies for solving problems, designing projects, and communicating ideas. These skills useful not just for computer scientists but for everyone, regardless of age, background, interests, or occupation.

Gary Stager  helps teachers create learning environments that support personal computing and adapt to the changes in curriculum and assessment. On this Tedx NYED video, Dr. Stager gives examples and talks from his experience with empowering learners.

Code.org, a rich resource for providing tutorials, videos, and suggestions, has produced an Hour of Code™ that offers an opportunity for every student to try computer science for one hour. Their goal is to provide opportunities for students, if only for one hour, to be exposed to the wonders of coding.

Those who are engaged enough or interested enough in the wonders of coding, technology, and the maker movement are an excited bunch.  And what they develop and offer students is important and relevant.  But in many places, those opportunities remain outside of the school day or, if included in the school day, may appear to be disconnected from the other required curriculum.

One of the advances in computer science was the move from   DOS based operating systems to a point and click with a mouse. This created an ease with which we could all work in this medium.  We no longer had to memorize a series of commands, we simply had to place the cursor somewhere on the screen and click.  An unintended consequence of transition to point and click was the distance it placed between us and the computer. Much like the distance created by the invention of automatic gearshifts in cars, we no longer are closely engaged in the work of the motor. So now, for most of us, cars just magically change gears and computers have become a point and click assistant to our work.  We are engaged with them every day.  We use them to store data, do our banking, create, store and organize our media, communicate, conduct research, write, and to shop... just to name a few. And apps!  The explosion of apps has also become an expectation of ours.  "There must be an app for that" is a phrase used both seriously and in jest. It expresses the emergence of handheld technology to replace all the other kinds of resources we used to rely upon.

With the growing acceptance of STEM as a different and important platform for students' learning, we need to pay attention to the pressure that can be placed on our system if we don't plan carefully. This is the time to be working on curriculum and professional development in deeper and more integrated ways. We are already wrestling with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), some of which are truly standards and some of which (particularly in math) include curriculum topics. We are already adjusting to new standardized measures of students' achievement of those standards. Those standards are aimed at literacy across the curricula, ELA and math. 

For those of us who are not adept at coding, how can we lead and encourage its integration into our classrooms?  Some refer to those who are adept at coding, making, creating, as "Techies". In doing so, we, unintentionally create another "us and them" environment as we drag our feet and hesitate to become knowledgeable enough to lead a curricular revolution that includes coding in the everyday work of our students.

Rae Fearing's article tells of 5th graders who were asked to create programs and educational games for their 1st grade buddies. Critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication were the skills to be developed in that project. The problem to be solved:  How can I create a digital game that will teach children to identify shapes? Imagine that was a beginning, learning lesson, in which the 5th graders were both experts and novices.  If a game was developed for 1st graders, to teach them shapes, the 5th grader is an expert in the content.  However, as coders, the 5th grader may be a novice.  The medium, which includes immediate feedback, informs the novice of their progress and success.  Now imagine that the next project requires the 5th graders develop a program that teaches or reinforces a 5th grade topic that they are studying in any subject.  Having skills as a coder will allow the student to have more complex ideas about the program development, and it will engage them with the more complex material they are learning on their grade level.  We can't lead it if we don't understand it and learn more about it. 

These are skills we all need to develop and we certainly hope teacher preparation programs are requiring the mastery of coding for our next-gen teachers. As we bandy about the words "college and career ready", we might look down to see where our feet are planted.  What do our teachers and colleagues think about this thing called coding?  During the week of December 9-15th were your students engaged in the Hour of Code?  Learning code doesn't have to be limited to that week.  The website is rich with resources.  What about including all staff, principals, central office, board of education members, parents and community members?  As we work with the new standards, curriculum, and other changes facing us, as we are re-organizing curriculum and the manner in which it is taught, we could and should be including coding and other uses of the exploding technologies available to us. These will engage, motivate, teach and prepare our students for lives and learning that are in their future. As with all other things, we need to bridge the gap, come together, and make sense of all of this now. It belongs on the table.

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