In a decade, my coding identity has run the gamut from disinterested secondary English teacher to invested facilitator.
Cue flashback (because Xennials love saying “back in my day”)…
Picture it: Wilkie, SK (middle of agricultural nowhere); the year is 2012. “Coding” is about to enter my lexicon. I teach Grade 8/9 English with minimal emphasis on computer literacy. A Grade 12 “techie” teacher from another high school presents to my class about coding. It sounds interesting, but we do not have access to 1:1 computers, and (to my young, biased mind), I wonder how I could possibly apply this to ELA. What would a classroom of future farmers care about computer programming? (facepalm!)
Fast forward: The year is 2020, right before the mic is about to drop (see: Pandemic). I am one of four tech facilitators for my division, heading to The Future of Education Technology Conference in Miami, Florida. Our purpose is to source new, worthwhile technology for classrooms, with an emphasis on coding hardware and software. After follow-up training sessions with SaskCode, I am 100% invested.
My hero, Sophia Petrillo. Copyright: Golden Girls, Touchstone Pictures
Gatekeepers and Other Hurdles
To transform a coding-resistant teacher into a tech adopter, the “in-between” must contain a series of fortunate events. In my experience, the answers were repeated exposure, courage, and experience itself. Originally, I couldn’t connect my subject area to the relevancy of coding. I wondered how coding added value to my students, classroom, and personal pedagogy. The “buy-in” hadn’t happened yet
Another full-scale deterrent was coder gatekeeping, real and imagined. With that one “gate” came a series of hurdles, acting as my personal stumbling blocks.
Bias Hurdle One: The “stereotype of the ideal coder as innately genius rather than hard-working and well-trained has remained powerful in the tech industry”(Source). Elitism within coding restricts certain groups from leaving “Plato’s Cave.”
Stumble One: I am not inherently gifted with 0’s and 1’s.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; artwork by Jan Saenredam, 1604.
Bias Hurdle Two: Coding is reserved for analytical, linear “black and white” thinkers.
Stumble Two: I lean toward creative, constructivist learning.
Bias Hurdle Three: According to a 2015 study reported in the Washington Post, computer science, “more than any other field, places a premium on inborn brilliance, something considered a disproportionately male trait.”
Stumble Three: I am a cisgender female.
The teacher who first introduced coding in my classroom? A white, middle-aged, cisgender male with a computer science degree. He could cite all the tech-jargon and did so fearlessly. Our blank, confused stares did not deter him. He was there to show what he knew, not what we could learn.
A New Perspective: The Other Side of the Gate
For me to hurdle clumsily but courageously over gatekeepers, I had to knock down my misconceptions about “good” coders and apply some new, improved thinking:
- Coding can be applied in every subject area. While not all students end up working in computer sciences, the skills required for coding, “thinking creatively, reasoning systematically, working collaboratively. . .are things that [students] can use no matter what” (MIT computer scientist Mitch Resnick). To begin using cross-curricular coding, educator Karly Moura suggests combining robots and maps (ELA and Social Studies), Scratch-based dictionary translation (EAL/ELL/ESL learners), creating a calculator (Mathematics), and/or writing adventure and historically accurate stories (ELA and Social Studies). The possibilities and potential are only as limited as your imagination.
- “Good” coders are made, not born. After watching my (then) 4-year-old son easily and happily code his first online game, I couldn’t dispute that some people (particularly astounding Gen. Alpha’s) are “born with it”; however, old dogs can learn new tricks. Programs like SaskCode use Arduino, Edison, and Robot Mouse to transform coding into fun learning experiences. From programming drawing robots to configuring epic Lego Battlebots, these programs allow learners to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy” (The legendary Frizz). If we want students to fearlessly buy-in, “teachers must exemplify risk-taking” (Source).
- Coders are creative; coding is creating. In the suggested short film, “Coding Stars,” Elena Silenok, the creator of Clothia.com, astutely notes: “It took me some time to realize that creating things with your hands, or creating code, creating programs, is just a different way to express creativity.” To believe that coding should stay in its analytical, linear lane and leave the creating for “artsy, tactile types” is to become a different sort of gate-keeper. There are no divisions or labels except the ones we create.
SaskCode Advertisement; Twitter (before it was desecrated).
- Coding is for everyone, but especially for underrepresented groups. We cannot deny the inherent bias and blatant sexism/racism/ageism/ableism rampant in the tech industry, but as educators, we have to push through these barriers for the next generation. Out of the four facilitators sent to Miami to lead my division’s EdTech adoption, four were self-identifying females. Programs like Girls Who Code, Coding Girls, and Black Girls Code are blazing a path for coding inclusivity. Successful coding is not about the exclusive, individual process of one innate genius; rather “the magic happens when we’re all on the same page, collaborating and building something together” (Gabe Newell, Creative Valve).
Representing women who code at FETC, 2020.
Facing Other Hurdles
Accessibility issues and the digital divide are equal deterrents and detractors; however, resourceful educators can implement the concepts of coding without relying on computers. Some unplugged coding activities to get those creative, problem-solving juices flowing are: Coding role-play, sequential Origami design, treasure obstacle courses, follow the leader games, “If, This, Then…Art!” lessons, loop routines, beaded bracelets….the list goes on.
Further, as noted in Teachers’ Essential Guide to Coding in the Classroom, students must have certain basic skill competencies before dipping their toes into 0’s and 1’s:
- Basic computer skills
- Logic (particularly cause/effect, inferencing, sequential scaffolding)
- Perseverance (although I would counter that coding promotes and strengthens this attribute)
- Attention to detail
The Other Side of the Gate
To reiterate my coding journey’s main takeaways: Coding can be applied to every subject, coders are born and made, coding is a creative/ constructivist/transformational process, and – most importantly – coding is for everyone.
Implementing coding in the classroom requires the same perseverance and courage from teachers that teachers regularly require from students. Comfort zones need not apply. Bias, prejudice, and stereotypes require acknowledgement but also push-back.
Once we find ourselves on the other side of coder gatekeeping, battered but wiser from trial and error, we must not become gatekeepers ourselves. Rather, it becomes our job to swing-wide the gate to ensure coding truly is for everyone.
Point to Ponder
- How comfortable are you with coding? If proficient, how did you become so? If hesitant, what prevents you from learning more?
- Are there certain students you believe do not benefit from coding?
- How do you address a student’s coding frustration if they exhibit limited perseverance?
- Do you believe coding is promoting the next generation of office labourers or innovative creators?
- When playing with Hour of Code, what activity did you explore? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?