Computer science: How to charge ahead without overwhelming your teachers

As teachers get a clearer view of what computer science looks like, they will see that it’s not so hard to teach.
Whitney Dove
Whitney Dove
Whitney Dove, Ph.D., is vice president of product at Codelicious, a K-12 computer science curriculum provider. Throughout her career, she has also managed the online professional development programs at the National Institute for STEM Education, served as a founding member of the STEMscopes Curriculum team, and worked as an eighth-grade science teacher and instructional coach. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Texas Tech. She also holds a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas-Arlington and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Austin College. She has presented at local, regional, state, and national conferences on a variety of STEM topics. She can be reached at [email protected].

The implementation of computer science has evolved rapidly in recent years. Still, the best way to introduce a new subject into a school is to start small and let it grow.

The way computer science courses have been implemented in schools has been evolving rapidly in recent years. Not long ago, one of the most common ways for computer science to find its way into the classroom was when a teacher went to a conference or heard a podcast and became excited about offering computer science to their students. That kind of bottom-up advocacy is characteristic of teachers. It also has a way of growing over time into more robust programs and initiatives.

At the same time these pioneers were championing computer science in their schools, states were beginning to see the value in teaching computer science. Now, most have legislated some kind of formal requirement to offer it to students.

As these bottom-up and top-down movements have converged, they’ve generated a lot of conversation about how schools should integrate computer science. The structure of the school day is already set, and no one is eager to cut any existing subjects or make the school day longer.

Computer science is inherently interdisciplinary, so the natural answer is to fold it into other subjects, such as science and math. Ideally, these bits of computer science distributed throughout the curriculum would weave together rather than being siloed off from one another.

Finding computer science resources and advocates

As teachers are being asked to incorporate computer science instruction into their lessons, many are feeling overwhelmed. I was a science teacher, and just imagining being asked to do it feels overwhelming to me. Teachers are wondering, “Do I have to learn to code? Where will I find the time to become a subject expert? How will I grade coding? What other skills that I’m unfamiliar with will I have to grade?”

Those are reasonable questions, but they don’t have to be a barrier. There are a lot of free resources online., for example, provides a great deal of content that teachers can use at the very beginning of this journey.

As teachers become accustomed to the content, it helps to find the computer science advocates already among them. They’ll be willing to persist through some ambiguity because they’re already excited about it. They’re ready to try and fail and iterate. This attitude is exactly the mindset that computer scientists—and scientists in general—need to have.

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District administrators should empower these early adopters to explore free resources, see what kind of material is resonating with students, and find lessons that seem most relevant to the community. They can then begin to refine and tweak their programs. Think of it as an experimental stage; you can work with teachers to answer questions like what kind of devices you’ll need and which standards you’ll hold teachers accountable for.

Very often, this kind of experimentation will begin on one campus and then expand out to other buildings within a district. Kinks get worked out, and the idea of teaching computer science becomes demystified. If your early adopters are able to start by teaching the new subject to kindergarten students, that can make it easy to expand simply by rolling up through the grades so that students, along with the teachers, have some experience under their belts.

Encouraging collaboration beyond coding

In a lot of elementary schools, computer science is implemented during a specials rotation. Just as students might get 45 minutes of music a week, they can get the same regular dose of computer science. At the end of each grade, they have logged approximately 27 hours of computer science learning, which is great.

Teachers of specials rotations are typically not students’ primary classroom teachers. This creates opportunities for collaboration, and for a sort of “catching-on” to the promises of computer science. Intentionally using built-in mechanisms like hallway bulletin boards, brief share-outs during staff meetings, and even updates on the school website to share students’ computer science successes will undoubtedly sow the seeds of excitement.

As teachers get a clearer view of what computer science looks like, they will see that it’s not so hard to teach. They’ll ask each other, ‘How can we do more of this?’ And, thus begins organic collaboration that leads to cross-curricular connections, authentic projects, a sort of confidence in teaching computer science that wasn’t there before.

Don’t let ‘elective’ mean ‘exclusive’

Schools have also housed computer science in electives or after-school programs. The trouble with this approach is that, all too often, “elective” means that some kids are excluded, even if by choice.

The thinking seems to be that computer science is similar to auto shop or culinary arts in that only people who are interested in those subjects have a need to learn about them. That idea is based on a misunderstanding that computer science is only computer programming. Actually, it is about fluency with a variety of technological systems.

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I know a family doctor, nearing retirement age, who is really struggling with a recent switch to electronic charting for his patients. He’s used to speaking into a dictaphone so that a secretary can transcribe his notes into patients’ charts. Now, he is trying to input that information into software between visits with patients. He’s not comfortable with the software or technology in general, so it’s taking him a long time and causing scheduling issues in his office.

This doctor, through no fault of his own, is finding that his lack of technological acumen is interfering with his ability to run his practice. It’s a tough reality for many, but it’s the one that computer science instruction in schools is designed to address. Students growing up today will need to know how to interact with a range of technologies, many of which we probably can’t even imagine right now. Thinking of computer science as simply coding does them a disservice.

An elective may be a great way to introduce computer science to a school that hasn’t offered it, but it should only be the first step. All students will need technological fluency in the future. Any elective implementation should help build willingness and capacity for a wider and all-inclusive deployment down the road, similar to the models discussed above.

There are so many options for building a computer science program that don’t place a heavy burden on teachers who are a little nervous about teaching a new content area—school and district leaders can certainly find a deployment model that works for them. Most states with computer science requirements, however, do have clear timelines and expectations. Get to know them and get to know your computer science champions so that you can work together to make this transition a smooth and exciting one.

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