Learning to Code is Learning to Learn

Are we preventing students from accessing a basic education by denying them the opportunity to learn to code and program in school? Is “Learning to Code” as important as learning to read, write and understand basic mathematics?

Photo attribution to: Brian Aspinall @mraspinall and Sylvia Duckworth @sylviaduckworth

Last week was the “Hour of Code” week sponsored by code.org. Teachers were encouraged take one hour to offer students the time to learn how to code. The resources, lessons, and instructions were all created with the hopes that thousands of students would have at least 60 minutes to learn coding basics.

My son’s teacher sent me an email asking me to help start a series of lessons on the basics of coding. I asked Jen Deyenberg, Director of Instruction at Wild Rose School, for some “Learn to Code Guidelines”. The resources she suggested include:

  1. Coding resources for lower grade levels and HS Computer Science courses: http://www.flexcode.ca/
  2. A document put together specifically for Hour of Code resources: Click HERE
  3. VERY simple resources for working with Kindergarten or Grade 1 on teaching the basics of coding: Kodable
  4. Nice progression through difficulty of logic and block-based coding: Blockly and any of the Hour of Code pieces on code.org
  5. Skills cards to help build understanding of Scratch programming language: https://scratch.mit.edu/info/cards/
  6. Tynker, another secret weapon: https://www.tynker.com/
  7. Once students get really good: MIT App inventor; Game Star Mechanic; and Code Academy

If only I had learned to code in schoo! I learned “LOGO” and “basic” in school, but I found it extremely boring and couldn’t wait to do something else with people rather than computers.

The reality is, learning the basics of coding has been invaluable to me as an online teacher and instructional designer. Knowing how to go in the “back end” to fix the font, embed a video or to help make content easier to understand and clearer for students is extremely important. Basic programming is an essential skill in my current job – and no one taught me how to do it – I had to teach myself.

Two years ago I worked on the #Gamified project which had grade 9 and graduate students collaborating on the definition of serious games. My role was to find “leading experts on games” from around the world. My son was obsessed with Minecraft at the time and I asked him who I should connect with. He suggested “Drakkart” because he created amazing youtube videos to help anyone learn about Minecraft. I tracked Drakkart down and he ended up on a Minecraft panel with fellow youtubers, Minecraft enthusiasts and fans. Here is the trailer of why he participated in the project:

Drakkart spoke about playing with Legos at home and how much he learned while playing and designing at home. What he also points out is that he never got to “learn that way” at school.

Similarly, Anya Kamenetz, in her recent post A Kids’ Coding Expert Says We’re Making Computer Class Way Too Boring talks about how we need to rethink the way we are teaching coding and computers in schools. In her article, Scratch coding expert Mitch Resnick points out:

“Coding is not just a set of technical skills, it’s a new way of expressing yourself. It’s similar to learning to write — a way for kids to organize, express and share ideas. But instead of putting words into sentences, now they can create animated stories.”

This year, the Hour of Code combined Minecraft and Learn to Code Lessons. The same message came across again from the lead programmers at Minecraft “leading” hour of code lessons: ‘I wanted to be creative and figure out how to do things myself, so I learned how to code.’

Learning to code is as essential to learning how to read because, done right,  it encourages students to figure out how to learn for themselves. Like learning how to bake a cake from scratch, it is just as important that we understand the key ingredients in creating digital artifacts from scratch. So instead of teaching our kids how to use a mix or follow a recipe, it becomes more important to show them why certain combinations of ingredients work and others don’t. To ask them what they want to bake/make. It is understanding, and not rote logic puzzles, that will ensure that students know how to learn for themselves.





Beyond the Textbook: Small steps to nurturing girls interest in STEM careers

CC David Haasser
CC David Haasser

“Because it’s 2015.” This Justin Trudeau quote went viral when asked why his new cabinet is half women. And yet, women in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), have been on a steady decline since 1987 – with the lowest numbers being in the applied fields of engineering and computer science. While women have been underrepresented in scientific fields for decades, Forbes reports that “women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000.” Meanwhile,  Statistics Canada data shows that women accounted for only 39 percent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree in 2011.  How can we as educators encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in science and technology? What are some factors in our control when it comes to making STEM a more welcoming avenue of study? A scant few days after the 26th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, these questions are more than pertinent.

The 2015 STEM Index, which measures the amount of people graduating in STEM programs, hasn’t really budged for decades with regards to women and certain minorities. In fact, “early biases, discrimination and social expectations still play a significant role, diverting students from the STEM pipeline.” The wind vane points to two compelling explanations of this phenomenon: the environment in which women grow up, in other words, home and school, both of which reflect long-held societal views on gender.

“Science, technology, engineering and mathematics become the tools with which to explore curiosity and to create change.” Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Lift London, Microsoft Studios

Dr. Jenna Carpenter at a TEDx conference Engineering: where are the girls? 

At Home

The American Association of University Women explains that girls begin feeling disconnected from STEM fields as early as grade one, and by the seventh grade, “many girls are ambivalent about these fields, and by the end of high school, fewer girls than boys plan to pursue STEM,” in higher education. What can parents do at home to open as many doors as possible for their daughters?

Limit media that promotes stereotypical images of women. Media and social support for gender bias against women in STEM activities must be cut off at the root. From games and toys to television and movies, our expectations and ill-informed nurturing of girls support, and even create, the imbalance of girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Become aware of your own unconscious biases. Studies show that parents, especially fathers, play a huge role in keeping girls out of STEM careers. Their biases are often unconscious. Harvard created an implicit bias test illustrating this fact, in hopes of preventing us from uprooting STEM potential and aspirations in our daughters. Families can begin to address these biases today by vetting the toys and games girls play. As the UK-based organization Let Toys be Toys states, “Stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as being only for girls, and others as only for boys.” No more statements like, “Legos are for boys and Barbies are for girls.”

Retailer ToysRUs recently eliminated “Toys for Girls” and “Toys for Boys” sections in their stores – here’s hoping their advertising will follow suit. (Photo from the ToysRUs flyer)

“Extensive research shows that certain toys and games can help young children develop spatial logic and other analytical skills critical to science, technology, engineering and math… toys and games help to mold educational and career interests” says Andrea Guendelman, co-founder of Developer. This growth mindset can limit girls by putting Barbies in their hands instead of a power drills and chemistry sets.

Model STEM values. Ask questions about how things work. Take stuff apart. Go ahead, dads and moms, and get your daughter that robot she can program, or the science kit that makes elephant toothpaste. Build and create together. Encourage girls to play with power tools, and get their hands dirty. Code a website, build a circuit.

“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”  – Carol Dweck

Blog dedicated to women from science history @ http://sciencechicks.tumblr.com

And At School

Check your teacher bias. The Youth in Transition Survey by Statistics Canada shows that boys often have a better opinion of their abilities in STEM than do girls. “Fifty per cent of young men perceive their ability in math as “very good” or “excellent” compared with 37 per cent of young women, and those who perceived their mathematical skills more positively were more likely to choose a STEM program at university.”  An alarming study out of Tel Aviv University released in 2015 found biases in the way elementary school teachers graded male and female students, suggesting that teachers have a role to play in the encouragement, or discouragement, they provide to girls in the early grades when it comes to math and science. The study gave teachers math tests taken by students known to them. Those same tests were also scored by teachers who did not know the identity or gender of the students. Consistently, across large numbers, teachers who knew the students’ gender graded the female students lower than the male students. And yet it’s 2015.

Include role models. There are no shortages of famous women in science for our young students to aspire to; programmer Ada Lovelace, French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, American astronomer Vera Rubin, American software engineer Marissa Ann Mayer to name simply a few. Are we exposing our students to these female champions of STEM enough?  After all, school is another crucial place to cultivate our girls’ STEM interests. It can be as simple as having a female guest speaker come into class and talk about how they became that engineer or that programmer; with the right exposure to female role models a significant change can happen in girls’ perception of what they think they can achieve.

Provide STEM activities that girls will find relevant. When looking at cognitive abilities in a school setting, research reveals in the area of spatial skills, boys consistently outperform girls. These spatial skills are needed in STEM fields such as engineering. However, this ability can stem from lack of practice in activities that develop these skills, which include hands-on manipulation and seeing STEM relevancy in their lives. Often positive STEM opportunities for girls happen outside of the classroom: at science museums, zoos, makerspaces, art hives and STEM clubs held during afterschool hours, weekends and summer breaks. These programs often give girls access to female mentors who help them believe they can and must participate.

“Girls want to make a difference, so give them hands-on, real-world problem-solving activities to show STEM is relevant and fun… Expose girls to the different areas of STEM and provide women mentors for girls and young women, so they, in turn, will mentor other girls.” Patty L. Fagin, PhD

Unspoken and unconscious misogyny is an effective silencer of women’s voices. Without the equal participation of women, we are only getting half of STEM’s potential to weed out the social and political problems that require scientific solutions.

I once was told “science is in everything” as it creates and maximizes tools to improve society as a whole: it grows best when fertilised by BOTH women and men sharing abilities, creativity, curiosity and hard work in the STEM field.

And, “Because it is 2015.”


Read more

Coe, Dr. Imogen. “How Gender Stereotyping Impacts Women in STEM.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 May 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

Hango, Darcy. “Gender Differences in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (STEM) Programs at University.” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

“Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” PDF – Http://www.aauw.org/research/why-so-few/. AAUW, 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

Huhman, Heather R. “STEM Fields And The Gender Gap: Where Are The Women?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 20 June 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Parke, Phoebe. “How to Get Girls into STEM — The Experts Speak – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

Taylor, Melissa. “5 Parenting Strategies to Develop a Growth Mindset | Imagination Soup.” Imagination Soup. Imagination Soup & Melissa Taylor, 17 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Tel Aviv University.  “TAU study finds teacher prejudices put girls off math”. March 1, 2015. Web Dec 7, 2015.

Blue Metropolis: Bringing Professionals into the Classroom

Photo courtesy of Blue Metropolis

On a warm fall day, I sat down with Lisanne Gamelin, the new Educational and Social program coordinator for Blue Metropolis. I was struck by her enthusiasm for projects that bring professional writers, photographers and filmmakers to work with young people in their schools and communities.

Let me say that again: Blue Metropolis writes grants to get money to pay professionals to work with students to tell the stories of their community through words, images and drama. They do this because they believe in “The power of words, the power of expressing yourself – the power of speaking out”. The more I think about this, the more excited I become. What would it take to get more schools and teachers to engage in these types of partnerships?

 Young writers connected to their communities

logo_FI first came to know Blue Metropolis through the Quebec Roots program. Every spring I would be sent a book filled with student writing and photography illustrating slices of their English community. From Montreal, to La Tuque to the Lower North Shore of Quebec.

Last year, one Blue Met project was called Unearth our Past, which saw students from six schools throughout the province visit local cemeteries in search of heroes and role models buried there. With the help of playwrights, the students turned the stories into short dramatic works presented at schools, in the community and at the book launch in Montreal.

The potential of this type of project is illustrated through a series of stories by CBC radio reporters who followed classes through the process. Listening to the voices of students and teachers you can hear the enthusiasm and nerves that go along with revealing local stories to a real audience.

This year Blue Met has launched Heroes in my Backyard, a project that aims to highlight the contribution of WWII heroes who at times have been overlooked, in particular women and individuals who belong to visible minorities and the First Nations. Combining history and video, and under the guidance of professional writers and filmmakers, Secondary 4 and 5 students will produce a video capsule about the lives of these forgotten heroes.

Real live writers working with your students

Let me say that again. Blue Met is paying professional writers and filmmakers to work with students to produce important stories that will inform and educate young and old. I find this an extraordinary opportunity for a number of reasons. The potential of the partnership was sparked from a conversation my friend Frederic Bohbot who is working on Heroes in my Backyard and happens to have recently won an Oscar Award for the short documentary “The Lady in Number 6” (humble brag).

He said, during the two days he will spend with students, he will listen to their ideas, help them know what not to do and prepare them for the decisions they will have to make. On the surface, this may seem like pretty conventional school stuff, which a teacher can handle. But what is interesting to me are the things a teacher cannot do alone. In most instances, a teacher has not dedicated themselves to the craft of film or screenwriting. And we should never underestimate the power of the outsider in bringing out a student’s best work.

The process Frederic expects to take with the students will force them to grapple with the hard questions of film-making. The film is short. What is important? What do we want to transmit? He expects the process of “getting the essence across” will change how they do things in the future, as his work as a filmmaker has changed him: “I’ll never watch movies the same way anymore. Knowing the decisions you have to make”.

Isn’t this is what we want for our students? To experience the power of words and communication, to know all the things you need to do to make something successful. To create a production that fully captures the attention of the viewer and communicates something of importance.

The partnership with Blue Met brings professionals into the classroom. This often requires teachers change their practice or go the extra mile. When all is said and done, is it worth it? If the answer is yes, what do you as an educator need to make this happen?