How To Teach Programming–Without Teaching Programming

An Instructional Technology Guru Shares His Success

By Travis Moon

Brad Wray is a instructional technology specialist, a relatively new role in education. He works for the Anne Arundel School system, which includes around 7,000 teachers and 80,000 students, where he formerly taught high school psychology.

Brad’s been working hard recently on an initiative that’s been buzzing in a lot of educators’ ears–how to wedge computer programming education in between everything else they need to teach. He said that a lot of the teachers he works with are nervous about adding to their already packed curriculum; some teachers feel that computer programming should be more like art class, or gym–something that they do outside of regular class time. Besides, what teacher has time to learn how to program well enough to teach it?

Enter Scratch, a MIT-developed programming tool that’s gotten lots of press in the last couple of years. It takes a clear and simple approach to teaching: if you think about programming as a language that the vast majority of people are going to speak in a generation or two, why not teach it as a language?

Scratch breaks coding down into puzzle-like building blocks; similar functions are grouped as colors, and easy-to-understand commands snap together. It’s nearly as simple to create a animated story–the cat walked to the tree and laid down for a nap–as it to write that sentence. Without realizing it, students are suddenly setting if-this-then-that statements to direct a program, while learning fundamentals of language and parts of speech, or even about mathematical inequalities.

Scratch, along with other initiatives like Code Academy or code.org, is designed to give a clear understanding of the fundamentals of coding and programming to non-programmers. Brad hosts regular E-learning sessions for teachers across the systems to introduce these options, and teach the teachers how to use them in the classroom.

When I asked Brad how successful the push has been, he lit up like a Christmas tree. “One of the best moments I’ve had as an educator came from this,” he said.

“One of our third grade teachers pushed Scratch out to her class; once they learned, I went to a session they hosted for the first and second graders. The third graders had made ‘Scratch Expert’ badges for themselves, and were successfully teaching the other kids how to program! Effectively teaching the teacher who in turns teaches the students, who are then teaching other students? It’s the kind of moment I’m always reaching for as an educator.”

You can find more information on Scratch (and even try it out yourself) at scratch.mit.edu. The burgeoning Education Technology community is full of new ideas and tools like this–what tools are you seeing emerge in the classroom?

Travis Moon is a seasoned professional writer with experience developing content for audiences across the healthcare, higher education, government, communications, and financial industries. Travis lives in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore and is currently working as a senior proposal writer for a IT services and staffing firm.

You can find Travis on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/travis-moon/21/615/79b

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Jonathan Oleisky

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