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The Case for Required Coding in Elementary and Middle School

 

Today, I came across this article on NPR, which describes when women stopped coding, and computer science became essentially a man’s world. This happened in 1984 for a very specific reason.

In the 1940’s through the 1960’s, coding was dominated by women. They were leaders in the field and in terms of employment and growth; they were on-track with men for coding positions. Something changed. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, home computers entered the marketplace, but weren’t very sophisticated. In looking for consumers, manufacturers realized that these simple machines were great for games. Advertising followed, and computers were heavily marketed to boys. The result? Boys got computers at home, and girls did not. Girls who were interested in computer science got to college and realized that they were unable to compete in class because the boys had much more extensive exposure from playing at home. The girls dropped out because they were too far behind before the classes even started.

Today, that coding tipping point isn’t in freshman college classes, it’s in middle school. Progressive, organized coding programs, with appropriate scope and sequence in the elementary school, can have almost all students learn an easy professional computer language in 5th grade. With this background, middle school students are ready to begin with python or Javascript. By high school, the sky is the limit! However, very few elementary schools have computer programming, computer science, or technology as an integrated part of their experience.

Here’s why:

1.) Coding, computer science, and technology are not part of the traditional curriculum. Elementary schools focus on “the 3 R’s”- reading, writing and arithmetic. Even though schools change and grow, and even if they are called different things (language arts and math), these traditional building blocks of education still dominate the elementary school day. There are good reasons for this: elementary school is the time that coincides with brain development in these areas. However, as traditionally constructed, these subjects currently fill the school day, leaving the perception that there is “no time” for things like coding.

2.) Elementary school teachers aren’t trained in coding, computer science, and technology. In middle and high school, teachers are content specialists. However, not every teacher has to “know coding.” With only few “specialists,” coding can happen at the elementary level too. However, integration of technology, not for its own sake, but as a tool for interacting with the world, is much more powerful and an important skill for long-term success in education and life in the 21st century. This means that all elementary teachers would need to have a familiarity with it, and many not only do not come with experience, but actively developing these skills.

3.) “STEM Coordinators” at the elementary level have not yet reached their stride in schools. STEM coordinators who can put together a meaningful coding program (and boost STEM elsewhere in the school) cost money. Schools strapped for resources (or those who chose not to invest in a STEM coordinator) will suffer from “patchwork” and inequity issues in the school’s program, as it requires content-specific knowledge, paired with program development background.

Some schools, however, are able to overcome these obstacles and institute elementary coding programs. My issue with this approach is that they are not required. They are clubs, or specials for only some students, with the unspoken subtext that it is only for “the smart and nerdy kids.” Many schools do not have the capacity, or the drive, to make coding something that ALL students do. This is my issue. By middle school, it’s too late. The students who have the resources will go to “coding camps,” or the clubs. By middle school, they are beginning to use simple professional languages. Students who previously did not have an interest or resources get to middle school and sit next to these more experienced students and find themselves outpaced, out matched and not competitive ON DAY ONE. Research tells us that if they drop out of coding in middle school, they won’t come back. Middle school is the first large leak in the STEM pipeline to STEM careers. The majority of students who do not choose STEM at this crucial juncture? Girls. In sum, if a girl has not had an organized and productive introduction to coding in elementary school, odds are she will not find her way in later.

The solution to this is that coding needs to be required at the elementary school level. Students need to see coding as another tool; another skill. In fact, my goal isn’t even to call attention to it as something special, but just “part of what we learn in school.” My goal is to have single student who graduates from 5th grade say “Coding? I can do that!” Eleven years old is too young to have doors shut – especially doors that hold so much promise. We code. It is not a special. It is not just a club. It is not only for some kids. It is for every kid.

To my delight, our strong education in elementary school coding has caused our middle school to hustle to catch up. They have had to create classes for sixth graders when before, computer science and coding was only offered at the high school level. However, the passionate interests of the students and their parents, as well as an administration, have placed coding at the top of the priority list, and new classes were developed. New computer science teachers hired at the middle school level have found themselves scrapping or altering their “introductory” coursework, because students came in with familiarity, comfort, and knowledge. Girls are choosing coding. We have amazing female coders ripping through their classes, driving the teachers and administrators to keep up. At this point, the middle school teachers’ challenge is how to stay ahead of the kids, not how to get them going.

It is not easy being out front in new movements of education. Navigating a new field- teaching elementary students to code- has taken some trial and error, exploring new ways of “finding time,” as well as selecting the right resources, making cultural shifts for teachers, and training them to support students. But we’re doing it. We will not let this door close- not for our girls, not for anyone.

 

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