One teacher describes a design-thinking project that requires group problem-solving: each student is assigned a specific role in his or her group, and each group must work together to design a shoe that would function within defined parameters. Three times a year, grade 6 students have two full days of “mini-electives,” in which they can learn about real-world design scenarios with an expert. For example, one teacher brings in old lawnmowers, which students disassemble in order to learn how the various parts work together: “They look at the parts and pieces; they examine what does it take to make this, how does this engine work, how do we use this, and how else is it being used?”
Beginning in grade 3, students can apply their coding skills in digital environments. One teacher uses tutorials offered by Scratch, an online platform designed to help children learn basic programming concepts (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2019), as a means of teaching coding: “In the past my class has worked through a few Scratch tutorials. Those who showed mastery (or at least notable competency) of Scratch were given liberty to play with different and sometimes more advanced programs.”
Technology and Real-World Applications
John Knox staff believe that technology must be “[grounded] in collaborative and independent efforts to solve real-world problems. To do that, we encourage our students to look at their new skills not as the end goals but as tools for transformation” (JKCS 2019). Coding is not simply about computer programming but rather “about solving problems and understanding how things work. This ties in nicely with the new curriculum where students are encouraged to work together collaboratively and come up with solutions.” At John Knox, computational thinking is viewed as a competency, alongside traditional competencies like reading and mathematics, that students should be equipped with by the time they graduate from the elementary school. Establishing this standard level of coding competency in turn significantly expands the range of activities students can study in high school. The staff also hope their efforts to ensure all students are comfortable with the basics of coding will encourage girls to continue in male-dominated programming fields: “We wanted to make sure that the coding, computational thinking, and design piece didn’t carry those gender stereotypes with them.”
Library resources for learning and teaching coding.
John Knox has numerous methods and strategies in place that help staff learn to teach coding effectively. One of these is the assistance provided by coding curriculum consultants, hired by the school to provide ongoing professional development and curriculum development for the teachers: “Viewing our need for outside help was rooted in the recognition that the vision exceeded our resources” (Perttula 2019). In addition to providing teachers with resources and lesson plans, these consultants give the teachers extended support by working alongside them in teams. They help “to create depth and integrity to the curriculum process while at the same time coaching and helping the teachers achieve their goals. . . . There is a ton of one-on-one that’s occurring.”
John Knox decided to hire outside help “not only because we needed their expertise, but also because we recognized that in this case, developing an excellent program would require sustained and ongoing attention.” The school believes that investing in external consultants rather than occasional professional-development events has been an effective approach:
“We are paying for this specialized curriculum-development support, often in lieu of sending teachers to one-off, off-site coding workshops. So far, the results are encouraging, and the returns on investment support the goal of making consistent improvements.”
The school’s conscientious focus on the long-term development of its coding program has been key to success both for the program as a whole and for its relationship with these consultants in particular. John Knox staff and the consultants emphasize the school’s long-term strategy as a key reason that their relationship has been a good fit: both parties agree that integrating coding into the curriculum “can’t be piecemeal. That’s the posture.”
John Knox students learn about digital media and video editing.
Teachers at John Knox emphasize the importance of starting with the basics when teaching coding, citing the use of simple, fun activities in non-digital contexts to introduce young children to the fundamentals. This approach, as one educator notes, encourages students to “[focus] more on solving problems and understanding how things work rather than [treating technology] as a means of entertainment.” John Knox staff also insist that teachers be prepared to learn alongside their students.
The administration’s support for “outside-the-box” initiatives has helped unite the entire staff around John Knox’s vision for constructive technology use. This collaboration between the administration and the teachers has been essential to the success of the new curriculum. The school also provides “up-to-date technology for use in the classroom, [including] iPads, computers, smart boards, [and] interactive boards” and employs IT designers to support teachers.
John Knox’s investment in coding aims to help students learn to use technology well and thrive in the twenty-first-century workforce. Preparing students for a career in computer programming is secondary to equipping them with skills in computational thinking that are needed for many careers:
“[Students are] developing skills in how to break apart complex problems, how to develop complex solutions, and how to use empathy to design for people. Even if students do not become programmers in the future, they will be able to use the skills developed from learning how to code in building furniture, solving issues of social justice, urban planning, or any other field of work they choose to pursue” (JKCS 2019).
- Given the prevalence of digital technology in the current era, students need to learn how to use screen time in meaningful and productive ways.
- Teaching ethics and social competencies along with technology-related skills encourages students to use these skills to solve real-world problems.
- Educating students in using technology constructively will prepare them for the twenty-first-century workforce.
- Learning how to code not only teaches students the foundations of computer programming but also develops their skills in critical thinking and logic. Even young students can start learning the basics of coding in non-digital contexts.
- Working collaboratively to integrate coding into a school’s curriculum helps foster a unified approach to the new content, consistency across grades, and common terminology and processes.
- Allocating regular, dedicated professional development enables teachers to learn to teach coding well.
- When integrating technology into classrooms and curricula, educators should be prepared to learn alongside their students.