Let’s Get This Right: Teach Programming Hand in Hand With Design

As someone who writes computer science curricula and teaches it in real-time, I get heated when I see other schools in our country making stupid mistakes regarding the education of this vital skill. I tend to keep silent until it’s vital to speak out on certain issues when I’m 100% certain I have an important point to make, and this is one such point. This happened to me not once, but twice in one day today, so I figured it was time to write about it.

Replacing Computer Science With Designabacus

This article explains how app design is replacing computer science in high schools in some parts of the U.S. As the founder of a company who takes immense pride in our product design, and who values it more than most ed tech companies do, this cannot be more wrong. Teaching App Design without computer science is essentially teaching students to plan to build things without actually making them. Can you become a vehicle designer without taking an engineering course? Can you become an architect without knowing any physics? No field in their right mind would allow people to receive training on the surface of its principal products without learning how it works.

Do we allow school administrators to become certified in building and running programs without teaching experience, or teachers to become certified in content without field experience? Oh, wait, we do, and maybe that’s where this notion that it’s OK comes from. It’s not. Do not make this mistake at your school. Teaching app design is an easy way out of the problem stated in the article, which was that attracting students to computer science is difficult. We doubled our enrollment in two years at GHS, and it’s not because we dumbed down the programming. It’s because I showed students real value on learning this skill, examples of professional code on websites they frequent every day, and they learned that they, too, could be successful on the internet. Teaching students app design using the WYSIWYG creation engines is lying to students, because it’s teaching them that they can be successful without learning to code. No, no, and no. Do not take the advice presented in this article.

In fact, these two disciplines need to be taught hand in hand to be done effectively, and as my primary educational thesis states, the profession simply does not have that kind of talent. This has been the subject of many previous posts. That doesn’t mean it’s ok to figure out a poor solution. We don’t have the solution to this problem yet. We need to become comfortable reaching out to and directing our students towards outside resources to make up for it, not dumb down our curricula.

No Computers in School

Then, there’s this other one about Silicon Valley schools abandoning computer usage in their classrooms. This is an interesting case study but is yet another example of irresponsible reporting. First, the school that these students attend is a private school, and it’s stated nowhere in the article that the people who pay the tuition, a.k.a. all the Google and Silicon Valley executives, voted to remove computers from the classroom. The reason is because they knew they could provide their students with a better computer education at home, so they told the teachers to stop worrying about it and focus on what they’re good at. Guess what? They’re right.

Listen, we have to be real about this as a profession, and we have to be real about a lot more things before we make any progress. Education sucks at technology. We’re 15 years behind the rest of the world. These parents probably are better computer teachers than their students’ teachers, and they also realize the values that kids can get from school are important. I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings here but it’s true, we’re behind with technology. We don’t understand it the way the rest of the world does.

The reaction to this article is, “hey look, the Silicon Valley private school is doing it, so we should too!” This is where the problem is and this, too, couldn’t be more wrong. This is an easy way out from parents, teachers, and administrators who see how schools are struggling to correctly incorporate computer education and technology into their curricula. It’s a way for the outspoken people who are not yet comfortable with how to incorporate technology in their classes shoot it down.

Just because we haven’t done it right yet does not give us an excuse to stop. In fact, it makes it even more important to keep moving forward. How can we assess the value of something if we haven’t correctly incorporated it yet? We can’t, and until we do, I hope I never see another article about how a school pulled computers from its campus because a bunch of Silicon Valley folks did.

If you’re reading this and want to contribute but don’t know how, stand up for what’s right here. The correct way to manage technology is not to ask students to put their phone away, it’s to develop innovative ways to use the technology. The correct way to integrate computers into the classroom is not to take them away because we can’t figure it out, but to develop ways that actually work. As a teacher, you are the most qualified person in the world to do this and, if you’re reading this blog post, you’re already well on your way. Innovate correct uses of the technology in your class, share it, take pride in it, and make it so good that people can’t ignore it.

This is the way to integrate technology into your school. You don’t remove vital pieces of curricula because nobody will teach it. You don’t take away computers because you can’t figure out how to use them correctly. You do something you consistently fail to do, education, you use your own talent and figure out how to get the job done. Nothing less is acceptable.

The Peace of Making Art

While it’s a little self centered to think we’re all this talented at what we do, in the traffic of everyday teaching it’s important to take a step back to appreciate the art of what one does. There is a certain peace and serenity in creating art, and when I stumbled across this video, even without understanding the context, I couldn’t help but marvel. There is no long read this weekend, just sit back and enjoy this incredible piece from Ukraine’s Got Talent, and reflect on how you make art in your own classroom.

 

Happy Easter.

Teaching Magic for Non-Magicians

This TED talk plays on a concept that’s too important, too vital to the teaching profession, for us to give up. “Magic” is the art of teaching, and it’s lost in the myriad evaluation rubrics, test scores, and other methods employed by the administrators and government of this country in its endless quest to find the best teachers, when they hardly know what they’re looking for.

Do yourself a favor and watch the six minute clip below.

I find it interesting that this speaker has highlighted rap shows and black churches as places where this art can be observed, because one cultural value people of color bring to our melting pot of backgrounds is their incredible ability to tell stories in gripping fashion. I attended a gospel church in New Orleans while on habitat for humanity. I’m Jewish, and let me tell you, it was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had. It had nothing to do with religion either, it was just a celebration of art, culture, and music that, frankly, white people just naturally lack the ability to do. It’s not part of our culture. But, like Mr. Emdin states powerfully in his video, this can be taught. In addition, like many master teachers might tell you, telling a story through your teaching is one of the most powerful ways to get your point across, and to engage even the most indifferent students.

Storytelling

Let’s start with storytelling. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that a great story is what makes anything feel magical, and can elevate the energy in a room dramatically. It begs the question, what is a great story? Fortunately, another TED talk from a great story teller sheds light on this question. Ted Stanton was the man who came up with Toy Story and WALL-E.

There are a lot of messages here, but some that jumped out at me for their applicability to teaching are as follows:

  • Start with the end – In teaching, this roughly translates to use your objectives as the end of the story. Notice how the speaker starts by stating the end of the story. Tells the story, and then finishes at the end again.
  • Capture Wonder – This is much easier in teaching, because what we teach we find naturally fascinating. That can’t be faked, so use your own fascination with the content you’re conveying to impart wonder in your students.
  • Drama is Anticipation, Mixed With Uncertainty – I loved this quote too, because it succinctly and accurately defines drama. Create drama in your class by telling stories the students anticipate ending a certain way, but aren’t quite sure.
  • Theme – This isn’t teaching related but it’s important to telling a story: stick to a theme. If you’re telling a story to convey content, make sure there’s an underlying theme tying the whole story together.
  • Use What You Know – This is the most important piece to being creative. Use what you know: your family, your friends, your experience, that crazy aunt, your three legged dog, what you do on the weekends, or whatever else you can think of as the centerpieces to your content. It makes it more personal.
  • A Great Character Has an Engine – Believe it or not, YOU are a character in the stories of these kids’ lives, so play the part. Recognize the engine that drives you and own it, as Stanton says in his piece.

There’s more to come on this topic. But for now, if you have any other tips for telling stories with your teaching, share in the comments below!

 

The History of School Websites

One of the most important and under-scrutinized pieces of a school is its website. School websites are often the first place teachers and administrators go to post important information, news, and curricular materials. To us, it’s almost insulting when it’s the last place students and parents go to get their information. I’ve seen many teachers get angry at students for not checking the website for meeting information, summer work, and the like. The reasons for this are pretty simple: school websites are not very good. Students are used to interacting with the eloquently coded programs they use on a daily basis, not the clunky kerfuffles that school websites tend to be. The reasons why they became outdated is a little more complex.

Let’s rewind to the dot com bubble. During this period, people knew they had to get on to the web and they knew they had to get there quickly. People were publishing anything and everything to the web, buying domains, selling them, seeking venture capital for various business ideas, and flopping. At this time, online school access was completely invisible, and basically no business was conducted via the internet for school.

Enter Blackboard. I have many things to say about Blackboard, but one can’t fault their ingenuity and their status as a pioneer of the industry during a dark era. Blackboard united many of the tasks that a school might want to do online under its own design and software umbrella. Schools had previously tried experimenting with building their own websites, which didn’t work due to the lack of technical prowess of those employed, so they turned to Blackboard which promised a relatively easy method of content management that was appealing to schools and administrators. Colleges were first, but many public schools soon followed. This model of “let someone else do the work for us” is a tested model that works in a number of areas. Databases, grade management, email, and anything else impersonal is what it is great for, because there needs to be no inside knowledge.

Schools couldn’t make that distinction, however, and while they struggled to keep up with the web from ten years ago, the internet has evolved. Quickly. As the chef and founder of Momofuku (one of our favorite NYC restaurants) mentions in a car commercial, “In this era of the cookie cutter, everything now, generic consumer society, it’s the human touch that really matters.” He’s got a point. Schools are still struggling to identify the best cookie cutter, “enterprise class” products that the rest of the internet adopted over the past 10 years.

Today, however, heavy emphasis is placed on design and branding, the importance of which simply cannot be understated. We owe a lot of this to Steve Jobs, whose branding wasn’t perfect, but whose pursuit of its perfection opened the eyes of a lot of people that it was truly important. People tried to copy the late genius’ style, but now there are plenty of companies branching out and inventing their own style. I look to brand pioneers like Chipotle, Geico, and Starbucks who have broken the mold and through various media have created a recognizable and powerful brand that is truly their own, and that others have tried to emulate.

Let’s do a thought exercise now. I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you work at a school or some organization. Think about the answer to the following question: what is your school great at? Not just good, but great.

Think about it…

Keep thinking…

Are you ready?

Here’s my answer: connecting students of diverse backgrounds across a tremendously large school. I would be willing to be that this is different than your answer. Administrators go through great lengths to communicate these strengths and identities inside a school, but they’re missing one of the most important places, and that’s online. A school’s entire online presence and brand should be tuned around the answers to this and several other specific questions. The problem is that they’re not, and that’s because schools, out of what they see as technological necessity, have turned to generic, one size fits all, cookie cutter website and management software.

I was discussing this with my PA the other day and we were comparing the website department of various organizations and that of schools. Most schools have zero people responsible for web development full time. If you use a similar informational site, like a magazine or online news outlet, they frequently have anywhere from 1-3 people who are responsible for development, full time. Many of these websites also have people working in their design department as well, which don’t exist in schools. We must ask ourselves, why? Why does this structure differ from the industry norm? There’s a reason many organizations have multiple full time developers and it’s because they think it’s vitally important to their success. It seems our schools either know something nobody else does, or are, again, too slow to adapt to current standards.

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