The Case For Teachers Coding

Often, teachers are some of the most resourceful people around. Our job requires us to apply our experience and knowledge of our craft to be effective in all that we do. We select activities to meet our students where they are and bring them to a higher level of thinking. We arrange student groups to optimize learning and interaction. We assess what a piece of student work reveals about the progress of our students. These tasks are not easily automated, and probably shouldn’t be.

The best teachers are adept at quickly figuring out how to make the most of the tools they have at their disposal. I’ve seen my colleagues use chart paper, popsicle sticks, and index cards in remarkably efficient ways to do their work.

That said, we also have an eye for where we can make improvements. The human brain enables us to do some impressive feats but let’s face it, much of the time we spend during the day doesn’t make the most of what the brain is good at doing. Some tasks — those involving searching, organizing, repetition, randomness, and computation — these are not our strong points as a species. These are, however, what computers in their various forms do for us on a regular basis. We are well served by knowing how technology can help us do our jobs.

In our ed-tech community, our focus is often on how technology can be used to help students learn. At its best, it enables our students not just to consume media, but create it. We see that students learning to code helps them understand the role of making mistakes along the way to being successful. Computational thinking as a whole is a useful set of skills that we aspire to develop in our students. Despite this importance, we as teachers don’t often develop our own computational thinking skills. I believe there is a simple way out of this.

Teachers should learn to code. Doing so has the potential to lead classrooms to become more efficient, engaging, and authentic learning spaces.

I say this fully aware that a call to place yet one more demand on teachers needs to be fully justified, so bear with me. I have some simple reasons why coding has the potential to make us as teachers better at what we do.

  • There has never been a better time to learn to code. There are numerous resources available online, as well as support groups available to help you progress on your coding journey.
  • Learning in context is always best. There are simple ways to use code right now to replace pencil and paper processes. If learning a particular concept can help your classroom be better tomorrow, then you will make better progress.
  • Coding literally helps you do super-human tasks. A human could search all of the essays that your students write for the most commonly misspelled words. A computer could do the same thing in a fraction of the time.
  • We should practice what we preach. We try to serve as role models for our students in the realm of learning whenever we can. We want our students to work efficiently and intelligently, expending effort where it counts. Programming computers to do tasks they excel at doing frees us to focus on tasks that are best suited for the human mind and creativity. Learning to code puts these concepts first and foremost in the design of our classrooms. We aren’t just doing a job — we are living a lifestyle.
  • Teachers know best which problems need to be solved in their classroom. Every educational technology in existence is trying to sell you a solution to a problem you might not have. You know what the problems are — you can learn to build a solution to those problems yourself using available tools and using the community of others doing the same.
  • Students like seeing their teachers as innovators. Teachers often try new activities or assignments as ways to improve what they do. This is precisely what software companies do all the time in developing their products. Students are also remarkable beta testers and make great suggestions for how to improve an idea. They appreciate being part of this process.
  • The community of teachers that code is growing. I learned much of what I know from other programmers and teachers from around the world. We’ve all experienced how programming makes us better at our job, and want to help others join the team.

It’s important to mention here what precisely I mean by coding. This can be anything from a spreadsheet or an automator script to a full web based application. Anything that takes a process we do and automates the parts that are repetitive, require categorization — those tasks at which computers excel — this is what we want to build. The bar to entry is lower than you think – it’s just case of building the necessary skills.

While many of us use technology all the time, we don’t often take (or have) the time to understand how it works behind the scenes. I’ve often seen my colleagues doing scheduling on whiteboards and moving cards around on a bulletin board. While they acknowledge what  they are doing is inefficient they nonetheless say “I would rather do it this way because I understand how everything goes together like a puzzle”. I would propose that if so much time is spent solving the same puzzle year after year then it makes a lot of sense to let a computer the hard work either using a pre-existing solution or by writing your own.

Effective use of technology goes beyond knowing which mobile app is best suited for taking attendance or how to connect a computer to a projector. We can move beyond being consumers of technology and instead be part of a growing movement to build it our way.

Disclaimer: Ideas and opinions in the blog posts are the work of the author and do not necessarily reflect the ideas or beliefs of 21CLI.

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