This guest blog was written by Maxwell Bigman, a former high school Computer Science teacher. Bigman is currently a Master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he studies leadership, innovation, and equity in K-12 Computer S
These days it seems that everyone wants to learn computer science. Computer science (CS) jobs are the number one source of new wages. Over 90% of parents want their child to learn CS. Forty-eight states have adopted policies supporting CS education, up from thirteen just a few years ago. With half a million unfilled computing jobs, the tech industry has a vested interest as well. Yet only 35% of high schools teach CS, and just fifteen states offer all high school students access to CS courses. The single biggest impediment to progress? The dearth of qualified teachers.
In 2016, only 75 CS teachers graduated from pre-service preparation programs. (In comparison, nearly 10,000 Math teachers graduated that year—and another 12,000 Science teachers).
In my own experience, I know that as a short-term solution, teachers of other subjects are attending summer professional development workshops to learn the basics of teaching CS. Code.org claims to have trained 72,000 teachers through their professional learning programs over the past few years. However, a few days is not sufficient preparation to teach a brand new subject. The trend of retraining current teachers is neither sustainable nor comprehensive. Teachers need significant experience working in their particular discipline, while funding for teacher preparation cannot continue to come from nonprofit organizations.
Without a sustainable talent pipeline, the demand for K-12 CS education will continue to go unmet. It is unrealistic to expect that the supply of CS teachers will see any profound changes. With the number of unfilled (high-paying) computing jobs, the opportunity cost of teaching CS is enormous.
Scarcity, however, can drive innovation. If every student is going to have access to high-quality CS education, schools must be willing to turn to non-traditional sources of talent, and they must open up alternative pathways for students to learn CS. Solving the nation’s CS teaching crisis could open the door to fundamentally rethinking the roles of teachers and industry in equipping students with these critical skills.
Rethinking the role of outsiders in education
CS can lead the way in a broader philosophical shift towards welcoming outsiders into schools. Industry professionals could provide expert help in CS classes, such as through Microsoft’s TEALS program. By leveraging technology, exponentially more students can gain access to a wide variety of industry professionals. Students and teachers would benefit tremendously from a platform that offers them on-demand access to experts.
CS education also presents a great opportunity for creative, mutually beneficial partnerships between schools and industry. Technology companies could work with schools and districts to develop CS curricula that teaches students relevant CS skills. These courses need not be taught in-person: they can take a blended approach, or even be fully online. Tech companies can disseminate these courses online to reach broader audiences. Allowing for industry partnerships opens up myriad possibilities for student learning that is grounded in real-world and highly applicable knowledge, while tech companies would gain access to new pools of talent.
Online teachers are another group of “outsiders” that might find a more receptive audience when it comes to CS education. By eliminating the need to physically be in the same location, scarce talent from across the country can reach many schools at once. And allowing for more online teachers in CS would potentially open up the teaching profession to career-changers and other sources of talent not currently in education.
Rethinking teaching and learning
Beyond rethinking the role of outsiders in education, CS offers a tremendous opportunity to radically rethink the role of the teacher and implement innovative pedagogies.
What if CS teachers were not the content experts? Rather than delivering content, teachers could focus on building relationships, facilitating a variety of learning experiences, curating content, and evaluating student work. Above all, teachers could serve as the “lead learners” in the classroom, modeling learning, inquiry, and problem solving for their students.
CS education presents an opportunity to adopt key pedagogical shifts. Teachers can leverage the multitude of online resources available to utilize a blended approach to teaching CS. By employing competency-based learning, teachers can personalize learning by providing students with many pathways to learning CS. Teachers might also embrace a project-based approach, in which students learn CS by building projects based on their interests. Given the prevalence of computing in today’s world, an interdisciplinary, project-based approach to CS most closely mirrors the work that students will do when they enter the workforce. A project-based approach would help students to see how CS relates to existing subject areas, and open up possibilities for students to have more meaningful and relevant learning experiences that are connected to the real world.
Toward a new model
There are numerous professional development efforts to tackle the human capital challenges of CS education, such as