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Why Schools Should Lower The Bar For Teaching Programming To Kids

Kids don’t need a computer science lecturer to teach them programming. Just an open-minded teacher.

During a computer science lesson, a fourth-grader might walk up to her teacher and ask, “Hey, how do I write this query using a Python interface?” The fourth-grade teacher might not have the slightest idea what to say and might kick himself for having agreed to teach programming in the first place. Even after having gone through all the training, the subject is still too obscure for him to teach confidently. And there’s always a nice gig in Silicon Valley.

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The typical teacher has no formal training in computer programming, leaving him overwhelmed if he tries to teach it. And when it comes to bringing programming into the classroom–now a sort of national mandate–principals hesitate, because computer scientists and programmers are hard to woo away from Silicon Valley, and retraining existing teaching staff can be very challenging.

To Code.org and Thinkersmith, two computer science education nonprofits, the earlier you start, the fewer hurdles there are.

Kids taking part in a computer science lesson.

“We try to incorporate into our training ‘teaching like a grandma,’” says Kiki Prottsman, founder of Thinkersmith, who specializes in K-5 curricula. Under her program, teachers are encouraged to praise students for coming up with difficult questions, and give them the tools (and the leading questions) to help them find the answers by themselves. In the end, the teacher wouldn’t have to pull a random answer out of thin air.

“So the students are just thinking that you came up with the idea on your own, but in reality you don’t know what you did,” Prottsman says.

This is the thinking behind Thinkersmith’s teacher training philosophy. The main goal of its retraining program is making sure a teacher doesn’t completely shut down when he’s uncertain about a programming concept. Even if he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he should encourage the student to find out the answer on her own and then come back and teach it to the rest of the class.

With Code.org, Thinkersmith has been disseminating its computer science curricula to elementary schools across the country. Together, they’re aiming to give every school district a chance to implement computer science instruction, from kindergarten through high school.

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So far, 60 school districts nationwide have partnered with Code.org, whose curricula include Thinkersmith’s K-5 teaching plans. And Code.org counts the seven largest school districts in the country among those partners.

Last week’s Hour of Code attracted 75 million students globally, more than doubling last year’s total. Thinkersmith, which is running a concurrent Indiegogo campaign to expand its training force and facilities, contributed its kid-appropriate tutorials to the site. Most of the exercises on the Hour of Code’s site were completely web-based.


Online videos and tutorials alleviate some of the pressure that teachers and schools put on themselves to produce students who can code. Khan Academy participated in its own Hour of Code this year, and while W3Schools and Codecademy didn’t, they also provide free resources for kids looking for extra help online. And around 70,000 classrooms are signed up with Code.org’s lesson site, Code Studio.

Although most of the Hour of Code’s tutorials were fully computer-based, some of Thinkersmith’s content required nothing more than pen, paper, and common household goods. In practice, these “unplugged” exercises demand no computer skills of the instructor at all.

“Most of the time [parents] are very forgiving of computer science at that level. They don’t care that their kids aren’t programming rockets for NASA,” Prottsman says.

A student writing in a programming language made up of arrows.

And teachers don’t have to be experts in coding at the elementary school level, she says. They just have to know how to talk to children and be persistent. Of course, that’s no small feat. But with enthusiasm for the basics of computer science, teachers can rely on online resources and lesson plans to pick up the slack. Lessons are quick and individualized, so each student can use the website to search for answers to their specific questions.

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“We need one or two subjects in school where students can teach themselves,” says Prottsman.

Eventually, Prottsman wants to create a corps of Thinkersmith-trained teachers, nationwide. They would work on a freelance basis, so that schools could hire them on an as-needed basis.

The teacher-training program she and Code.org have designed is intended to make any willing teacher succeed. Programming is new to almost everyone in the education world, she says, so having to learn how to teach it–whether you’re a math and science teacher or a music and art teacher–shouldn’t be a cause for embarrassment. And Prottsman contends that one set of teachers doesn’t have an advantage over the other.

“The brave teachers, the open-minded teachers,” she says. “They’re the ones that are going to make the best programming teachers at this stage right now.”

In the youngest grades, kids aren’t looking to learn the theoretical concepts behind machine learning and numerical analysis. But they are curious about the technology they are already using all the time.

“For me, it’s about making more confident children,” Prottsman says. “And adults.”

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About the author

I write about science and technology in the global marketplace, with a bent towards women in STEM. My work has appeared elsewhere in Quartz, Fortune, and Science, among others. I'm based in Amsterdam. Follow me on Twitter @tinamirtha.

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