One semester down of my school’s and, coincidentally, my first computer science class. When I graduated college four years ago, the last thing I thought I’d ever be doing was teaching kids how to program computers, but here we are. From a purely educational standpoint, instruction of this class has been truly fascinating. I feel born to be a teacher, and you could put me in front of any class, in any subject, and I’d find a way to make it interesting and engaging to the students, but with the content that is computer programming, I found myself a little lost. There is no need to make computer programming engaging or relevant to students, because it is the most relevant content area that our schools have ever seen. While we go through great lengths as teachers to make our kids connect to the content we teach, there’s no such need with this class: just flash the projected job numbers for the next twenty years in front of students and your work is done.
In this regard, I felt almost as if my own desire to teach got in the way. As a teacher, I’m very much the entertaining type, but when there’s no need to make content entertaining, I had to do some revision of that style for this class. I had to get out of the way of the content. It got as far one day where I just stopped direct instruction all together. This is when I came to an important conclusion.
The new trend in education is “student centered learning” and the “teacher as facilitator” model. This is great: if the content is interesting. Unfortunately, the content we teach in schools is neither interesting nor relevant to most of the students we teach it to. As teachers, we can do our part to make it interesting, parents can do their part to pressure students into wanting to do well, but these are all unrelated to the actual problem, and it’s that students don’t actually want (or need) to know what we’re teaching. They might want to interact with me on a daily basis because I’m fun, or do well in school because of various rewards they think they’ll get, but few of them want to actually learn science. We can try all we want to deploy a student-driven approach, but it will never truly work if the student is not interested in the content. Sal Khan would argue that the content truly is fascinating, and I personally am fascinated by certain content areas, but for the majority of students in front of me every day, they are not interested by science. This is a common dilemma for teachers.
This is not common for computer science. In this content area, student centered learning shines. Students come into the class and are immediately convinced of the value of what they’re about to learn, or they already know. The economy doesn’t lie and high school students react well to the prospect of easy job hunting post college. After being convinced of the value, every student-centered learning approach really does well. I quickly realized that while I was mostly useless providing amounts of direct instruction, I was extremely useful curating various levels of content for students. We used Codecademy for basic tutorial lessons, Learnstreet for differentiated projects and activities, and my own dose of class discussion and research about career choices. Because students were already interested in this content, all of the problem solving, discussion, and organizational skills that we seek to teach in our classrooms were learned naturally, and when students were struggling, it was easy for me to patch understanding.
You might be reading this and thinking, “Duh, of course it’s easier to teach when students want to learn”. Keep this in mind though: computer science is the most tedious work students have ever encountered in school, and they still want to. The reasoning is simple: they can actually use all of the skills they’re receiving to make money. The tech industry is our country’s golden egg, and students see that these skills afford them a piece of it. But there are other ways to make money, or to earn fame in the world, and convincing students that they can obtain these instinctual desires might be easier than you think. We have had success in science by teaching a lot of sustainability, solutions, and acid base chemistry through hydroponic farming. As far as agriculture goes, hydroponics are gaining a lot of support and by showing students how much money is being made, and how relevant content actually is, we can do a lot of convincing. I plan to focus on this for semester two.
That’s the end for now, more to come surely in the next few weeks.