Computer Science Initiatives
Since first getting into the area of Special Education as a volunteer in the late 90s I have slowly seen the push for inclusion which thankfully has become an idea that is near omnipresent these days. But one key aspect that is developing at a slightly slower pace is the implementation of differentiation practices. What exactly it is, and how it’s achieved in increasingly more inclusive classrooms around the world.
Maybe that could be one reason that politicians seem to quickly jump on the computer science for all or coding proficiency for all initiatives these past few years? They may not see that schools are slowly going towards more student-generated/inquiry-based/project-based, cross-curricular approaches and that classrooms are increasingly being differentiated in many ways.
Differentiation in Inclusive Classrooms
This is to say that more and more, we have fewer students doing the exact same thing at the same time as others in their class, and sometimes others at their school. Differentiation.
Differentiation is generally seen as teachers planning activities and units of instruction by first taking into account student readiness (i.e., skill levels), student interest, and student learning profiles (i.e., strengths, background, etc.).
From there, we then are able to figure out where we can differentiate the learning by Content, Process, and Product.
Students in the same classroom may have different books at different reading levels for example. Some students may need heterogeneous groupings so they can benefit from their peer’s expertise.
Or one student may build a website from scratch as a product of their learning while another makes a poster.
Increasingly schools are going in this direction, and it’s where we all need to go. Instead of 9th grade me loving to read, but having a tough time enjoying A Separate Peace, we are giving students opportunities to show proficiency with learning standards in more engaging ways like being able to choose their own book in a Guided Reading setting.
We do this because the students in our classrooms come from a multitude of backgrounds and skill levels, and often do much better when we differentiate.
Students Proficient in Coding
So that’s one reason why I get a little uneasy when I hear policymakers say every single student should be proficient in coding. Or every student should learn computer programming. Some schools have even let programming skills count as a language requirement because a programming language is sometimes seen as a language.
But one problem I see is, as a special educator and as a case manager, I have continuously worked with students over the years who because of ADHD, Dyslexia, or other specific learning disabilities specifically have trouble with languages and with math. Both significant parts of what this computer science/coding push is composed of. I have even had high schoolers get language requirements waived, or have had to modify the math expectations because of these difficulties.
When I see President Trump’s new computer science initiative, or remember President Obama’s, or hear about Rhode Island’s, I think to myself, we still need to work on getting all our students through Spanish 1, or Algebra 2 before we start a new initiative that teaches skills that may not even be required as Moore’s Law and everything else increases our capacities exponentially every few years!We need to be doing the differentiation and the co-teaching and be using all the inclusion best practices to make sure our students are able to be successful in our current systems before starting initiatives like coding for all.
Coding Shouldn’t Be Mandatory
Don’t get me wrong. I think that learning about computer science or how to code is fantastic. I know that we need people with these skills in our economies, they are exciting career options, and the non-tech skills that students build while going down this tech route will make them highly successful in future academic and professional endeavors. The only thing I contend is that it should not be mandatory.
To illustrate this idea real quick, I had an unusual reaction from one of the students I worked with when we did our Monday morning “Weekend Wrap Up,” and I told them about my TEDx talk. As soon as I was done laying out my thesis to my resource class, I had one student shout out, “Exactly! Nobody else talks about this. Why do I have to take computers!?” Again, I think that it’s great to give the students exposure to things like computer science, and I think a general computer class should be as mandatory as a health class…we should have it. But what hit me so profoundly is that this student who struggled through his computer class (where it was mentioned that they learned how to program for part of it) has dreams of being a real estate developer, and has the personality and acumen to make that happen. I look at this student now as a 14-year-old and know he is going to be running things in the future. And for the tech side of things in his future, the part he doesn’t like, he is going to find someone he trusts and “outsource” that part of the job to make sure the bottom line stays in the black.
This anecdote illustrates why differentiation is so important. We have a student who in some ways is not ‘ready’ for the programming (i.e., struggles in math and science classes), and doesn’t have the interests, and his learning profile doesn’t entirely match up, but he spends a semester there upset with the system.
What if we kept with that push for more cross-curricular work, more student-led projects, more inquiry-based approaches to learning and folded in the computer programming into the core curriculum and let students choose if that is how they want to show their knowledge for example. Technology inclusion. Tech skills not siloed in a computer lab with skills that aren’t always easily generalized to other areas of the school day, but are built into the content, process, or product?
I recently gave a TEDx talk about this theme with the title of, “Teaching Every Student CompSci or How to Code is Not the Answer.” In it, I addressed inclusion only a couple times because the main focus was on the systemic implications of these top-down initiatives. But given my passion for special needs education, I wanted to write this post to express my TEDx viewpoint through the lens of differentiation more clearly.
At the end of the day, I think it would be great if we could give all the students all the tools for their toolkit. In an age where we have a global economy where you can outsource, where we have AI and computer programs doing more and more, and we are increasingly differentiating not only the classroom but the graduation path, I think we need to be cognizant that not every single student needs to be proficient with a coding language or know how a computer operating system works.
When we are supporting students 100% in the inclusive class, modifying as little as possible, and not just passing struggling students to the next grade, we will be doing a service to our students. That’s where we need to be focusing on putting our efforts and money.
It’s great to consider that a student knows how to program a robot for example, but we are living in an age where students show up to college and have to take remedial classes because they aren’t prepared. Let’s fix things like that before we start adding more requirements for our students to contend with.
Beckett Haight is a National Board Certified special educator who has been involved in Special Education non-stop as a student, a volunteer, an aide, or a teacher since 1994 when he got his first IEP. He spent six years teaching in high-needs schools in California and has spent the last seven years as a learning support teacher on three different continents and the Caribbean. You can find him professionally on Twitter or blogging about Special Education topics on his blog at BeckettHaight.com.