How To Teach Coding in Your Classroom, Even if You’re a Novice Yourself

September 12, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Literacy, Students, Tools

Similar to revolutionary inventions of the past, like the printing press or electricity, digital technology has altered daily life as we know it. Yet, as with all leaps forward, new tools bring with them the responsibility to understand their scope: how they work, their limitations, and what we, the user, can do with them. That’s why experts like Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commandments for the Digital Age, argue that coding, just like reading or arithmetic, is a new literacy of its own.

“When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them,” Rushkoff explains in the introduction of his book, which has been posted on Shareable. “And as such technologies come to characterize the future of the way we live and work, the people programming them take on an increasingly important role in shaping our world and how it works.”

Yet, he argues, despite the increasing relevance of coding, we are not encouraging students to understand what goes on behind the computer.

“We teach kids how to use software to write, but not how to write software. This means they have access to the capabilities given to them by others, but not the power to determine the value-creating capabilities of these technologies for themselves,” writes Rushkoff. “Like the participants of media revolutions before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us.”

Last winter, released a 9-minute documentary featuring technology leaders, musicians, and athletes all arguing for the importance of learning to code. From Bill Gates to Will-i-am, the message they impart is one of empowerment and demystification.

Educators, with their limited classroom time and budgets, find it challenging to give coding a place in the classroom. Many teachers come from districts that can hardly afford computers for everyday word processing, let alone as tools for kids to hack and learn from, but with free tools coming on the market, that is starting to change.

Middle school language arts teacher Chad Sansing recently penned an article for the School Library Journal detailing how the microcomputer Raspberry Pi has made teaching coding in the classroom a lot more accessible and affordable.

“The Raspberry Pi has the potential to challenge the digital divide and make coding in schools as commonplace as textbooks,” writes Sansing. “Computing could truly become about what kids can make rather than what schools can buy.”

Others, like MIT’s Mitchel Resnick and his team at The Lifelong Kindergarten Group, have been perfecting tools for young kids to learn to code, such as the easy-to-use Scratch Jr. for the pre-K crowd and Scratch [senior] for the slightly older set. Likewise, the Mozilla Foundation, which is on a mission to spread the gospel of coding, has created Popcorn, Google Goggles (not to be confused with Google Glasses), and Hackasaurus, a roving party and website where kids learn to “hack” the Internet with coding tricks that show just how malleable and “open” the Internet really is. Last summer, Mozilla went global with its coding effort, hosting a worldwide Summer Code Party with more than 700 community-led events and more than 10,000 participants across 80 countries. Clubs and groups abound, including Black Girls Code, which, according to their site, “has set out to prove to the world that girls of every color have the skills to become the programmers of tomorrow.”

And it’s not only kids who are learning to demystify computers. Sansing mentions his colleague, K-5 librarian Melissa Techman, who commissioned some sixth- and eighth-grade students to teach her how to use Raspberry Pi. Shortly afterward, she began setting up programming lunch groups and said the tutorial “gave her confidence” to learn alongside her students.

The big picture, as Sansing and Rushkoff note, is that these tools -- which, with the right resources, become more intuitive and less complex -- enable students and teachers to combat what Sansing calls “academic passivity” and allow students to make important connections that can help them to better understand their worlds, both online and off. Kim Wilkens, founder of the STEM-focused organization Teen Tech Girls, explained it succinctly to Sansing: “Being able to code opens new avenues to create and explore. [It] helps everyone build an understanding of the role of hardware and software in the technology we use and take for granted every day.”

The children of today will grow up in a world with new means to express themselves. Unlike passive televisions, whose cathodes and inner workings were left to the TV repairman, the Internet and computer software are anything but passive. For real empowerment in a digital world, all of us need to understand not only how to interact with these tools, but how to make media ourselves. After all, someone has programmed these phones and computers to be “smart.” Isn’t it better to understand just how smart they are?

For additional tools that help teachers teach students the basics of coding and game design, check out this Top Picks List: Best Engineering and Programming Tools.

What are your favorite tools for teaching coding?