Today’s student must learn to code. But districts struggle to implement comprehensive programs that keep up with advancing technology in various schools and grades. Educators also realize that coding prepares students for highly computerized careers, and boosts critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
“We want our students to have some skills for their post-graduation plans, even if we can’t fully predict the exact ways that coding will be used in the jobs of the future,” says Patricia Gaudreau, administrator of science curriculum at Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia. “We also realize the value of teaching children to think in new and innovative ways, and encouraging their communication and problem-solving skills at an early age, which will help our students to experience success throughout life.”
If you’re planning to introduce or upgrade coding in your district, consider these five tips from educators who are succeeding.
1. Code with partners
The Park City Education Foundation in Utah established community partnerships to jump-start the Park City School District’s coding program. The Education Foundation, as the district’s fundraising partner, held a series of meetings with parent and community stakeholders. Almost all meetings took place in private homes, says Jen Billow, the foundation’s associate director of communications.
The foundation provided “very specific and researched talking points for district leadership and the elementary technology specialists, all of whom spoke and answered questions,” she says. “Of course, it was very helpful for parents to know that initial funding would come from private sources, especially to test the program.”
The foundation also used each elementary school’s weekly e-newsletter to promote the importance of coding. The campaign included media outreach, resulting in articles in the local newspaper and appearances on the local NPR affiliate.
Read more: Ideas for elementary school coding lessons
A cloud-based business with ties to Park City wanted to interest more students in computer services careers. It provided free training when Park City’s coding teachers launched the program.
Another local foundation provided a three-year grant to cover teacher costs during the first year, professional development and robotics, Superintendent Jill Gildea says.
The districtwide coding program—which serves more than 1,600 K12 students—now costs the district $402,000 per year. That includes salaries for coding coaches at each of the four elementary schools. The education foundation will provide $156,000 in grant funding for coding this school year.
2. Incorporate coding at all grade levels
Minnesota’s Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District has 10 elementary schools, each with its own digital learning specialist. Specialists work with K5 students on a district-created coding and computer programming curriculum.
At the district’s middle schools, digital literacy teachers teach sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. “We embed coding into the career exploratory courses for all students, offer additional coding in the eighth-grade electives, and embed coding into makerspaces,” says Rachel Gorton, the district’s instructional technology coordinator.
Burnsville High School offers career pathways that allow students to take sequences of courses to further prepare them for college computer programming or careers.
Many districts focus on teaching coding basics to younger children and letting older students choose whether they want to continue with more advanced instruction. For instance, at Montgomery County Public Schools, students code as a regular part of the elementary school curriculum, and can then take coding electives in grades 6 through 12, Gaudreau says.
3. Tie coding into academic priorities
Montgomery County teachers and technology specialists serve on a committee that identifies specific lessons in each grade level that can incorporate coding, Gaudreau says. For example, Montgomery County third-graders use coding in a lesson called “Graph Paper Programming,” which aligns with a state math standard.
“Coding connects to so many other skills and knowledge for students,” Gorton says. “Young coders learn about sequencing, which ties into language arts, math and science. They learn about looping, which is the foundation of algebra, and they learn about debugging, which is about critical thinking and problem-solving.”
Burnsville-Eagan-Savage’s digital learning specialists and digital literacy teachers have found quality coding resources for “little or no money,” Gorton adds. “Robotics is nice, but there are many ways for students to code and see their work come to life,” she says. “Students can create apps to solve real-world problems or create science simulations that require little more than a device. It’s more about a mindset shift than anything else.”
4. Rely on your IT team’s expertise
Most school districts have chief information officers and information technology professionals who can lend valuable expertise to a coding program. They can provide input on the most valuable skills for students to learn and on the best resources available for PD and instruction. Park City’s Gildea says it’s vital to create ample time for the IT and curriculum teams to collaborate.
At Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, implementation of the coding curriculum occurred during an overall “re-visioning” of the district with an emphasis on creating future-ready students, Gorton says. In an all-hands-on-deck approach, the technology team worked closely with curriculum and instruction professionals, principals and teachers to create the coding program.
In Montgomery County, the IT department plays an instrumental role in developing initial training presentations for teachers, Gaudreau says. “Our IT staff also continues to offer support and coaching to new and experienced teachers who might not feel ready to work on their own,” she adds.
5. Provide PD in coding
Some district leaders train existing teachers to code, while other administrators hire coding specialists to manage instruction. Either way, these educators need ongoing PD to keep current.
In Montgomery County’s elementary school, librarians—who have committed to technology and STEM learning—participate in train-the-trainer PD developed by the district’s instructional technology resource specialists. The specialists and librarians then model and co-teach coding lessons for classroom teachers.
“We have divided the curriculum into phases so that librarians and teachers aren’t overwhelmed with new expectations,” Gaudreau says.
Teachers must master more than just the technology; they also have to leverage coding’s inherent soft skills. In Park City, each school’s dedicated coding specialist focuses on building students’ critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.
“Since students are taught during coding that problems will come up and that they will have to debug them, they are able to identify problems, take a deep breath and solve them,” says Kim Quapp, coding specialist at Parley’s Park Elementary School in Park City. “Plus, they are learning to ask for help from their peers when they have a setback. These are skills that, for adults, are sometimes difficult, and we’re seeing our kindergartners do it.”
6. Cut costs by using available resources
In Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, students in grades 4 through 12 do most of their coding work on their 1-to-1 program Chromebooks. Younger students use Chromebook Tab 10s or iPads.
Students also use open online apps such as those available from Code.org, Scratch and CS First, Gorton says.
New coding programs continually emerge, so school districts should be prepared for ongoing curriculum development and training. “It is a changing field, so the curriculum is not created and then static for multiple years,” Gorton says. “We are regularly revisiting and adjusting the curriculum.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.