Curriculum Opinion

21st-Century School Design Requires More Than Coding

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 13, 2014 4 min read
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On the front page of the Sunday New York Times, center, just above the fold sits an article entitled, “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Now Coding.” To those of us engaged with the realities of what curriculum and standards are best suited for today’s students, this is no surprise. Coding has been made accessible to children. We have written before about Scratch, and now Scratch Jr., which is appropriate for 5-7 year olds. Tynker, Hopscotch and Kodable, all examples of how coding can be made accessible to youngsters. The article hailed the efforts of Code.org, the organization advocating for every child in every school to have the opportunity to learn computer science. They pay for teachers to learn coding and offer more rigorous coding curriculum.

The article goes on to report that “policy makers in states have begun awarding the same credits for computer science classes that they do for math and science classes instead of treating them as electives.” This served as our first alert in the article. Coding is becoming another “subject area”, added onto the existing curriculum. This trend is one with which we have been concerned as we have been writing about STEM.

There is no question that coding is essential as we prepare our students for life in this century. STEM is now considered the necessity for preparing students for their world. Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have publically embraced STEM.

We wonder if we are we missing yet another opportunity to be in charge of what and how we are teaching. Are we missing another opportunity to be in charge of what and how we are leading? While distracted by the other issues of serious concern, like standardized testing, common core standards, the safety of our students and buildings, contracts, staffing and funding, we must not lose sight of possibilities when they present themselves to us. This is one of those moments.....when everyone wants us doing STEM....for us to seize an opportunity.

Further evidence comes in the last paragraph of the article when a courageous teacher who used a Code.org curriculum replacement for a two month earth science lesson expressed her belief that unless her students were exposed to “things like that” they would likely not be prepared for opportunities and careers in their future. Her concern holds truth. But again we raise the question, isn’t it time we come together as systems and make these decisions about whether exposure is enough? Exposure is good, for example, in the traditional extra-curricular clubs and a classroom or two. But, that is not preparation for life. Coding is a new language and the next generation will use it like we do English... every day. Shouldn’t we be thinking about how students will be best served if we take charge of this next shift in our curriculum and school systems with vision and understanding of what it means?

It isn’t coding, or an advanced science or technology or engineering or math class that will make the difference in our systems. We posit our systems must change from the inside out. There is a simple logic to it. There is less money available in the public education pot so curricular expansion is less possible. The push to raise achievement levels and graduation rates and the capacities of our graduates will not wane. Children in poverty bring needs to school that we must address if we are to create learning environments that serve them well. Big business has money and needs employees. They would tell us what to do if we asked or needed that direction. So, too, would government and policy makers. But, we think we can do this in an informed, bottom up, and revolutionizing way ourselves. We do not want to be in the position where we take the money tied to demands for how we are to use it. We have done that and now we know the troubled waters that process can lead us into.

We need to design real change. We need to include the types of learning opportunities that students need for this century. We need to pay attention to math and science in elementary schools in order to address the narrowing of interest by the time those students arrives in high school. Most importantly we need to become fast learners as teachers and leaders. There is no room left for the excuse that we do not know how to use the technologies available. There is no time left for us to use the excuse that we do not need to learn them. There are teachers and leaders who know the power of the tools and the new vehicles for learning. “We need those who can break down for us how these 21st century tools can be used within our systems that hold to 20th century requirements and facilities. It will take time to analyze the skills learned in the tasks of coding for example, and crosswalk them with our standards and curriculum” (Our May 4th Post)

It wasn’t until we came to this point in writing this post that it became clear that there is a powerful theme emerging. Our plea is that leaders not allow the emergence of coding or STEM to take the design of our schools out of our hands. Certainly, by now, we must all agree that our current paradigm cannot serve for another century. It has served well but it has also (sorry) left many behind. And, we are surely not enjoying success with the changes coming to us from outside of our walls. So once again we call out to the leaders among us to take hold of this exciting time in our professional lives and begin to design the schools our children need. There are some of you out there who are already doing this work. We call upon you to make your successes known so others can see the possibility and lead the way. Let’s step up and step out ahead of the next externally generated reform agenda and become the architects of the next wave. The graduates who will benefit tomorrow need to be in those schools today.

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