It’s a well-known fact that the US is falling behind in technology, and that a digital divide remains between the haves and the have-nots in many countries. Our economic competitors like China introduce their kids to technology sciences like coding/programming by the time they’re in preschool. In the US, however, kids generally aren’t taught programming until high school or college.
It would seem that this is an ever-widening chasm we will never bridge, or is it…? Fortunately, tools and programs are available right now that can address our technological weakness. They can help teachers and students learn at the same time. In this post we’ll talk to Sukh Singh, educator and CEO on the front lines of our struggle. We’ll learn about one such software that teachers can use to teach their students, even if they’re new to programming.
Interested? Keep reading.
It is no small fear that our children are falling behind when it comes to our global standing in education. In 2013 we ranked 36th out of 65 nations on The Program for International Student Assessment test (PISA).
We’ve known for years that the children of many other countries trounce us when it comes to math and science curricula. As a nation the US had a 481 average PISA score, compared with the overall average of 494.
That’s right, the US is the “C student” of the world.
Like I said before, you probably already knew that, but despite our struggles in education, we remain a vibrant powerful contributor to the global well-being.
Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple have proven that we’re still an international heavy hitter. But for how long? The world is changing, and computer software and hardware are today what textiles and cars were yesterday.
Few could deny that computer programming/coding is the future. So how are we doing on that front? Before I tell you what I’ve found, ask yourself how many people you know who program periodically. If your answer was, “I have no idea,” then it’s probably not many. Now if you have kids, consider how many of their teachers likely know enough programming to teach it. After all, teaching your students to code when you don’t know how to code yourself is almost the definition of intimidating.
It won’t surprise you to find out that many of our students never lay their eyes on a piece of code until they reach college.
Needless to say, if they’re blindsided with it for the first time in college, many won’t make it through. Conversely, places like China start at preschool, and England makes it a mandatory part of the curriculum between the ages of 5 and 16.
50 years ago the technical expertise needed to run society was relatively segregated. You could be good at one particular science or a specific branch of engineering and still find your place in the world. Programming is different. It touches all aspects of science and technology. In the future, being able to program will be as important as understanding how to use a pencil and paper.
Can the US afford to continue to be a C-, D-, or even F-student country?
There is a way to start changing the tide right now, regardless of whether you know programming or not. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, or someone who just wants to learn, learning tools specifically designed to help with this challenge are available.
I interviewed Sukh Singh, CEO and cofounder of Code Naturally to better understand what we can do about this dilemma. Code Naturally is a learning program that teaches programming and math concepts to kids. He and his teammates are on the front lines, trying to make both our teachers and students code literate.
Interview with Code Naturally
Q:Let’s give the readers a little background about you. How did four young men from Santa Cruz decide they wanted to help children learn to code?
SS: I spent many hours struggling through Computer Science courses during my time at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC). We learned that many students struggled to learn programming, not because of the professor, but because they arrive at college unequipped with the skills and exposure necessary to succeed.
This problem starts at the K-8 level, where many students are never exposed to programming, or decide it’s not for them due to negative associations with math.
We were all products of this lack of exposure. I had never seen programming before I got to college, and I failed miserably when I took my first course. Programming is required for a Technology Information Management degree, and so I pushed myself, got help from friends and practiced until I passed the required courses for my degree.
Like me, my teammates wanted to major in Technology Information Management, but they couldn’t because they didn’t feel confident in their math and programming ability, especially after trying their hands at introductory programming courses at UCSC.
At this point, we decided that we wanted to ensure that every child arrived at college with the confidence, ability, and skills required to pursue any degree of their choice.
We don’t want future students to hesitate on pursuing a major because of a lack of exposure, or because they didn’t properly learn the applications of mathematics. The only way to do this is to engage students at the K-8 level and show them how exciting math and coding actually are.
Q:How have teachers coped with teaching this new skill? Do most of them already know how to program, or are they intimidated by having to learn and teach at the same time?
SS: That’s a great question. Teachers who can already program tend to be excited about integrating it into the classroom in any way they can. These teachers strive to learn new tools to bring coding to the classroom.
They understand that programming can open up new opportunities for their students.
Several teachers have even told me that introverted students are more willing to express themselves in creative programming projects. However, this is a minority of teachers.
Most teachers don’t know how to program, and it can be intimidating for them to teach the unknown to their students. For this reason, the majority of teachers I’ve spoken to don’t get past the Hour of Code that schools are mandated to do every year. That being said, many teachers recognize the importance of programming and do make serious efforts to learn the essentials.
A 7th grade teacher shared her experience of introducing her students to programming. From the beginning,
she made it clear to her class that she was learning with them, and she was confident that together they could do it.
She used her lack of understanding to her advantage by asking her students a lot of simple questions. They would explain in detail how all the commands worked, and in turn she also developed her own understanding. This approach isn’t easy but it really impressed me.
Our team is working to make programming easier to teach, by blending the core concepts with familiar math concepts. This anchoring to familiar concepts decreases the anxiety around programming for both teachers and students.
Q:What do you think is at the heart of the reason why kids don’t get the exposure to programming they need, until it’s almost too late?
SS: A lack of time and resources. In the past, there’s been no place for programming in the K-12 curriculum. This meant that only schools with abundant resources could afford to offer extracurricular and AP computer science courses. It simply wasn’t covered at the K-8 level.
To be honest, I didn’t see a string of code until I got to college. Luckily, this is changing thanks to President Obama and Code.Org’s push for the Computer Science For All Initiative. However, it will be a few years before all students in the US receive the benefits of this initiative. I believe blending math and programming curricula at the 3rd-8th grade level would have a hugely beneficial impact, for both students and teachers, in exposing students to programming at the right time.
Q: How would you advise a teacher who wants to serve her students’ needs, but is deathly afraid of programming? Is it possible to teach programming without programming experience, or is there a way to ease into it?
SS: It is absolutely possible to teach students programming without professional programming experience.
Even if you didn’t study programming in college, it’s still possible to learn the concepts with your students. I’d advise teachers to make it clear to their students that they are going on this journey together.
Teachers should be confident that they and their students can all learn how to program together. Teaching programming can be like your first day of teaching students all over again, since the concepts and language are so new to you. I’d recommend going through the full programming lessons themselves the night before you introduce it to students. This helps build your confidence and can prepare you for the kind of questions you can expect the next day.
I think schools should make the time and budget available to give their teachers crash courses in programming. These courses should connect programming to concepts they are already teaching in class, in order to help with the transition into programming for both the educator and the students.
Code Naturally offers unique software that allows students to learn programming by handwriting code on a touch screen. It is a tactile tool that makes learning math fun by giving students and teachers an avenue to play with and demonstrate math concepts visually. Because many K-8 teachers are little more familiar with programming than their students, Code Naturally’s lessons are anchored in mathematics, and teachers can begin using it in the classroom more easily than other applications for teaching programming.
If you’d like to learn more about Code Naturally or figure out how to use it in your classroom, head on over to Code Naturally.
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