Last week, more than 10 million students across the nation spent one hour of class time writing lines of computer code. That’s twice the number of students who have ever taken a computer science class. They were participating in the “Hour of Code,” a weeklong nationwide campaign to motivate kids to take programming tutorials, provided by the nonprofit Code.org. The headline event of Compute Science Education Week, the “Hour of Code” was sponsored by the heaviest hitters in the tech industry and even endorsed by President Obama. By the end of the week, the initiative had racked up some impressive numbers.
Sandy Rohweder’s fifth grade students at Lyndon Station Elementary School in Wisconsin, who didn’t have any prior exposure to coding before participating, chose the tutorial based around Angry Birds.
“It was amazing to watch them because you could see the wheels turning,” Rohweder recalls. “They were able to go through the various levels until it got a little complicated. But they were really engaged and were collaborating with another.”
Lisa Mims, a fifth grade teacher in New Castle, Delaware, saw similar results with her class.
“Coding fosters so many skills – it’s not just about the latest trend in classroom technology,” Mims says. “My students were creating, thinking critically, and working together. And it may eventually give them a career path in an extremely important field.”
The “Hour of Code” may have been only a weeklong campaign, but it exposed a real demand for computer science education that our schools currently can’t meet. Only about one in ten public schools in the United States offers computer science courses. Over the past few years, however, the voices calling for coding to be added to the core curriculum have gotten louder and more urgent. Programming skills will be essential in the global jobs market, advocates point out, and U.S. schools are not adequately preparing students for this world. As they see it, schools are wasting time by teaching cursive and other obsolete skills, while computer science barely registers.
Writing in The Week, Keith Wagstaff cut to the chase:
“An hour spent teaching cursive is an hour spent not teaching something that will actually be relevant to children’s lives — like computer education… Think about an eight-year-old’s future: What is his or her future boss going to be more impressed by, the ability to write cursive or to code?”
Although many coding enthusiasts believe this presents a false choice, they strongly agree that, considering the fact that the United Sates is the birthplace of the most innovative tech companies, the shortage of computer science courses in schools is astonishing.
Before entering the classroom, computer science teacher Sue Johnson worked for Oracle and saw firsthand that the United States was not producing graduates with the necessary skills to fill jobs in the software industry.
“The United States is ground zero for computer science, but not in the schools,” says Johnson, who teaches at Monarch High School in Louisville, Colorado. “We’re ceding the ground to other countries and have fallen way behind.”
Despite the widespread consensus over the importance of computer science education, the push to bring more coding instruction into the schools isn’t without critics. Jathan Sadowski, a Ph.D. student in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University, believes that while coding is a useful skill, branding it as an indispensible addition to the core curriculum ignores some potential ramifications.
“Before jumping on the everybody-must-code bandwagon, we have to look at the larger, societal effects — or else risk running headlong into an even wider inequality gap,” Sadowski argued in Wired. com. “Throwing coding literacy into the mix means further divvying up scarce resources. Teaching code is expensive. It requires more computers and trained teachers, which many cash-strapped schools don’t have the luxury of providing.”
Furthermore, students, especially those in the early grades, have to master the basics before they should be required to add coding or some other computer science skill to their plates. Sandy Rohweder doesn’t support making coding compulsory for her students, but can see the value in later grades.
“We have our work cut out for us in terms of getting our kids to be good readers and good writers and having their basic math down, so I’m not sure about introducing coding at the elementary level,” Rohweder explains. “But I would say definitely at the high school level and maybe as an elective in middle school.”
Getting qualified computer science teachers into high schools would be a challenge for any resource-strapped district, but Sue Johnson believes that a certain level of computer science education, including basic coding, could be rolled into a science and math curriculum.
“We don’t necessarily have to separate out teaching computer science from math and science,” Johnson explains. “It would be fine for basic coursework, but for advanced coursework, not so much.”
Lisa Mims acknowledges that educators, with limited classroom time and budgets, may find it challenging to find a place in the classroom for coding.
“I’m passionate about integrating technology but not every teacher is and we have a lot on our plates,” Mims says. “So if we want to teach coding, we have to look at who’s is going to teach it, given our scarce resources. But we can’t ignore it. The benefit to kids is too great. I was amazed last week when one of my students, after spending less than hour working with code, looked up to me and said, ‘This is what I want my job to be. This is what I’m going to do.’”