A fortuitous encounter and a tough conversation

Yesterday, at my first CoderDojo, I had the genuine privilege of chatting briefly with some unexpected allies: three middle school students. They told me about how they started learning Scratch in third grade, and now, four years later, they’re more than ready to move on. They want to learn Javascript and see the whole web world that it opens up, and they want to see their peers able to get jobs whether they can afford to go to college or not (an unsolicited comment, not my suggestion!). They talked about seeing programming skills as being like a ladder, and we decided that Scratch – as an educational tool, one professionals work on rather than in – isn’t the bottom rung. Rather, it’s more like a door that, once opened, lets you see that the ladder exists and that you can – and perhaps even want to – start to climb it. They came to the event to talk to teachers and engineers about what the first couple of rungs might be.

I’ve had vaguely related notions percolating in my head for a little while, our chat really brought the question into focus. A lot of what I’ve said here is starting to feel like old hat, and I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the things I tag “objection overruled” are straw man arguments anyhow. It’s not hard to convince people that programming is important and to try an hour of Scratch, really. The trouble now, though, is that we’re still thinking of that as the absolute cutting edge…and it’s not. Scratch has been around for nearly a decade, which means current middle schoolers have few (if any) memories of a world in which tools weren’t being developed to teach them to code. For us old folks (and there I refer, I think, to myself and anyone else who remembers life pre-touchscreen), the last decade is a small enough portion of our lives to feel relatively current, and it’s tough to confront that that may not be the case.

It’s also tough to confront that regardless of our best efforts, we’re going to be surpassed not just by a couple of prodigies, but quite likely by large groups of kids. What I’ve been thinking about lately (and shared with them) is that if I were to get my wish and see widespread quality computer science education beginning in kindergarten or first grade, at what age will my students know than I do? I’ve always thought I wanted to teach middle school, but will junior high programmers have more skills than I do? Certainly by high school, much of what I had to get a BA in computer science to learn will be routine for students.

Which leads us from ego stings to the actual pressing concern: who in the world will teach them? I suspect that part of the success of Scratch so far has been not only that it’s easy for students to catch on to, but for teachers as well. You don’t really need programming background to pick up enough to introduce kids to computational thinking and thereby to be doing enough to pat yourself on the back for offering a nifty STEM opportunity. And maybe that was the point: maybe the hope is that teachers who get that taste will go on to learn and then teach more programming the same way that their students are supposed to. That hardly seems like a scalable solution to me, though.

So I leave you, then, with the same question our conversation more or less derailed on: who will teach the ladder? As long as it’s still possible to work fewer hours and make more money as a software engineer, how in the world can schools hope to compete? By raising all teachers’ salaries to that level? (If only…). With some kind of TFA-style program where web devs agree to teach for two years? (errmmm…). By realizing that a changing world means changing solutions, and embracing some combination of flipped classrooms, MOOCs, and interactive web tutorials? I have some thoughts, but for today, it’s time to climb off the soapbox.

Boys, if you’re reading this, I hope you could see how infectious your enthusiasm and absolute earnestness were. We need people like you on this team – people who haven’t gotten jaded by years of red tape and legislation and budget cuts, whose solution to, “Not all schools can afford computers,” is “Well, we have fundraisers and stuff all the time!”, who remind me that programming not just my dream job to teach but also your dream class to take. I hope our paths cross again!

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Sunday soapbox: knowledge isn’t the only gap

Two days ago I suggested that even people who won’t be professional programmers may benefit from being able to create something like a website or mobile app for their own business or personal use. The case study I gave  computer science professor Paul Pauca, who, along with some of his students, created an iPad application to help his son, diagnosed as a toddler with Pitt Hopkins Syndrome, communicate with his family and therapists. They shared it in the Apple app store, and a year later, 1100 copies had been downloaded.

It’s fantastic that hundreds of families were able to benefit from the work they did, especially given the typical prices of standalone augmented/assisted communication devices. But I can’t help but wonder: what if you didn’t have to wait for a team of students working on expensive degrees? What if a member of each of those hundreds of families had the tools to create their own application, tailored to their own child’s unique needs?

Reality check, though: even if we open up who has the software knowledge, we’ve still got to keep an eye on who has access to the hardware, something Pauca himself comments on here (with apologies for headline’s lack of persons-first language).

Last weekend I went to a seminar about AppInventor, where groups of teenage students worked through introductory tutorials while other teachers and I had a crash course in the software and a conversation about how to teach it to students. I spent the rest of the day swapping emails with a young teacher friend about her mental prototypes for apps she wishes she had for using in her (1:1 iPad) classroom. As I dug around for things that might be potentially useful to her, Android app designs from the morning rattling around in my head, I stumbled into this. The part that got me:

At Apple, we see the results of…inequality every day. Minorities are significantly underrepresented in the technology industry. We want to do our part to change this. We want to open the vast potential of all the world’s future inventors, future dreamers, and future leaders.

I’m frustrated because that doesn’t match up with my experience of the ed/tech world. I got jazzed watching high school kids get jazzed about creating apps…and then realized that being able to write and then use your own apps is a long way off because the iPad has the school technology market so thoroughly dominated. Saying that you want to open up the world to inventors does not jive with a development process that requires an Apple device and the ability to pay a $99 registration fee only to wait through an uncertain review period. I understand that the security that comes from keeping out third-party apps is a huge part of the draw for schools…but surely there has to be some middle ground.

Intro followup: No, I’m not teaching for America

I didn’t intend to start here. This is, after all, a blog about technology education; if it’s a soapbox, it’s meant to be a focused one, not a platform for everything that goes on in my head. But my first post included a link to a bio that’s now out of date, and it seemed like a good idea to set the record straight.

Long story short, given a lifelong love of teaching and words, I started on an ESL education track as a sophomore in college. Most of the way through, I got cold feet about the content area and started considering TFA as a path to trying a different one without having to go back to school – it seemed to me that the primary criticism was that five weeks couldn’t possibly be adequate preparation, so a person who’d done all the coursework for a traditional license was bound to do fine, right? – and applied. My acceptance letter (placement: special ed) came two days into our special methods class, two days I’d spent falling in love with teaching ESL. Not ready to give up the license I’d been working toward and intrigued by the overlap of the two fields, I deferred in order to student teach after all.

That’s the point at which I wrote that bio, and that was the plan for months. But as I student taught, I was surprised at how not good I was at it. My classmates experienced the same thing: that nothing is like teaching other than teaching, and that for all of our training and preparation and microteaching and field experience, for all of of our past successes in and out of school, for all of our passion and motivation and idealism, we were not good yet. Getting your head screwed on straight as a teacher takes a couple of years – exactly the point at which TFA teachers are released from their commitment. It seemed to me that letting teachers back out right as they reach competence can’t possibly be reconciled with a stated belief that all kids are equally deserving of a quality education. And if I became a “success story” of a career educator despite starting with them rather than because of it, would that not be perpetuating an organization I could now no longer believe in? So I declined their invitation.

These ideas are neither particularly novel nor constructive, a major reason I was hesitant to begin with this post. But then today I finally got around to reading Dana Goldstein’s article on how the organization is changing under new leadership, and now I have a note other than frustration to end on. I see two hugely important things happening under co-CEOs Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer: first, the recognition that cultural tourism is happening – that many applicants are driven by a Freedom Writers-inspired white savior complex – and curriculum being added to institute to actively combat that. Hats off to them and to anyone reminding us naive twenty-somethings that we need to mature past thinking we can do anything, into understanding enough complexity to realize how arrogant it is to think any of us can singlehandedly save the world.

Second, there seems to be a tacit recognition that the shift from the original goal of alleviating national teacher shortages to a focus on developing a generation of leaders – without more acknowledgment that that was the case – was shady. It’s a good and necessary thing that people likely to influence policy are given a chance to see classrooms other than their own, certainly; it’s just also unfair to students to pretend that those people are quality teachers. The development of tracks of more intense and content-focused training and longer commitment implies awareness of that problem, and it’s what gives me hope. I’d love to see that idea pushed even further, to see the two completely diverge: one pathway for people ready to commit to a future in the classroom (whether that’s people changing careers or majors, or who couldn’t otherwise afford the semester of paying a school to let you work full time that is student teaching, or whatever other reason) to receive a year or two of focused training from veteran educators, and a separate path for future policymakers, administrators, and lobbyists to commit time to studying education in both theory and practice without having to be students’ teacher of record.

Yes, a lot of these conversations can get ugly, and existing legislation is flawed, and there is much temptation to despair. The fact remains, though, that the conversations are being had. We’re engaged in thinking critically about the directions we want to go, and the internet allows for more information to be accessed and more voices to join the dialogue than ever before. This idea of not losing sight of small gains is the tie-in to the computer science world as well: like education reform, attempts to diversify perspectives in tech have yet to succeed widely. However, they’ve gotten crucial matters to take root in public consciousness. We are thinking and talking, and that is step one. Don’t lose hope.