An interview with William Lau,
author of Teaching Computing in Secondary Schools
When a full-time teacher has a young family but still manages to find time to write a book, you know he is passionate about his subject … and has an angelic spouse! In college, Will studied computing and business and then began teaching IT, video editing and graphic design. He still recalls his first computer class at the age of 10 and feeling incredibly lost. So lost, in fact, that when the teacher asked students to shut down their machines at the end of the class, Will pulled the plug out of the wall! His shame and embarrassment when he realized his mistake was so acute that he vowed to help others not get so lost when learning about the power of computers and what makes them tick.
Zulama CEO Nikki Navta loves her copy of Teaching Computing in Secondary Schools!
His approach is user-friendly and assumes no prior knowledge of hardware and software. In fact, when teaching preschoolers and kindergartners, he starts off with basics like developing fine motor skills needed to operate a mouse and keyboard. With Will’s methods, it’s possible to teach anyone who wants to learn.
Yet Will admits that when teachers are unwilling or being forced to learn about computers, it’s very difficult to help them gain the right skills, much less get their students excited about computing. He recommends that administrators make sure teachers have adequate resources, primarily time and money.
His advice for teachers who want to learn and teach computing?!
Develop your own skills
Focus on student thinking rather than the activities
Unpacking that second idea, he encourages teachers to study how expert computer scientists think, and understand common misconceptions people have as they learn about computing.
Computer science is an incredibly dynamic subject to teach, because it changes every day. One day a teacher may understand mobile app development, and then a new technology like augmented reality emerges. Teachers need to be given time to constantly update their own skills.
Teaching Advanced Placement Computer Science, and learning about Pygame through Al Sweigart’s books. He feels a strong responsibility to give back to the network of computer science learners by providing research-based mentorship.
His goals for the future?
Let’s develop a global network of computer science educators, rather than remaining siloed in our localized CS communities! For example, we don’t know much about how Russia teaches computer science, but they are graduating top talent into the workforce. Computers are global, why isn’t computer education global?!
#EthicalCS: Spearheaded by Kara Chesal, senior director of strategic partnerships at #CS4ALLNYC, and Ed Saber, a CS educator, this edchat takes place Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST. Educators, computer scientists, and education policy experts come together to discuss how to make the field of CS more ethical.
#InfyEdChat: InfosysFoundationUSA invites education thought leaders to host these bi-monthly edchats. Topics range from “How to Start a Makerspace in the New School Year” to “Teaching CS Away From the Computer.”Here’s a guide to getting started with edchats if you haven’t tried it before!
CSTA Newsletter: Connect with fellow educators who teach computer science, and hear from innovators in CS curriculum, tools, and professional learning.
While it is incredibly important to discuss the lack of access to computer science (CS) education, it is also essential to talk about (and celebrate!) all of the men, women, and underrepresented minorities who have succeeded in CS—in ways big and small. Stories of triumph can inspire students and teachers, who feel like outsiders in CS, to keep going (Rework, 2016).
And success stories should reveal the bumps along the way, Leigh Ann DeLyser, Director of Education and Research at CSNYC and former CS teacher, points out. Leigh Ann’s inspiring story, which includes earning a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University, has had plenty of tough moments. “Every single day I was there at the University,” she says, “I thought that they would figure me out and kick me out . . . I had imposter syndrome. I spent hours on the floor of friends’ dorm rooms going, ‘Why doesn’t it like me?’ and struggling with our code just as much as everyone else does.” If students hear Leigh Ann’s story, they might not feel as alone or inadequate when they face their own challenges with CS courses.
As an educator, how do you help all kinds of students live out their own CS success stories? For one, you can share anecdotes like the ones above at the top of class each day! But there’s more to an equitable classroom than that. We interviewed Leigh Ann a few months ago, and we’ve compiled a bunch of her tips, along with ideas from other education resources, on how you can start to make your school or CS classroom more inclusive to all students—today.
Making CS More Equitable
One of the first steps to making computer science more equitable is to recruit all different kinds of students into CS classes. Unfortunately, cultural stereotypes often play too large a role in the recruiting process. Leigh Ann explains that we often assume that the kid wearing the Star Wars shirt is the most likely to thrive in a computer science classroom. But there are lots of other kids who don’t fit that stereotype who likely are just as interested in CS. Leigh Ann says, “No matter what a student is interested in, tech might be something that they can find a home in.”
Art Lopez, a computer science teacher in San Diego, agrees that active, inclusive recruiting is essential. He also believes that schools that have trained their existing teaching staff to teach computer science have an upper hand when it comes to recruiting: “One advantage to using existing personnel is that these teachers already know the community and can work to recruit students who may not view themselves as computer scientists” (Mindshift, 2016).
In addition to teachers, there’s another group that knows the school community well: the students. They can help with recruiting in lots of ways. Ask them to share their CS experience on social media, put up posters around the school, and chat with their friends.
Once you have a classroom full of CS students with different backgrounds, how do you make sure that they all want to stay in that classroom?
Although Leigh Ann encourages all students to make their voices heard in CS classes, she emphasizes that, “Our teachers . . . shouldn’t be relying on students to speak up.” Instead, she recommends actively engaging with students on an individual basis. CSTeachingTips.org provides a first step for giving students personal attention—learning their names. As simple as it sounds, this can provide the foundation for meaningful teacher-student relationships that can keep all students coming to class.
Another inclusive engagement tool that Leigh Ann loved as a CS teacher is walking a path in the classroom. She explains: “Rather than responding to raised hands while students are working on projects, choose a path . . . I would literally, during class, do laps of the room . . . Every student had to acknowledge that they were not stuck, that they didn’t need my help, that it was okay that I moved along to the next person.” Leigh Ann also had success with a “counting hands” technique. When students would raise their hands to answer a question, she would count all the hands that went up before calling on anyone. She found that this was a great way of stalling so that all students had a chance to think through the problem and participate in the conversation.
Even with the best intentions, though, sometimes we’re not aware of our bias. The folks at CSTeachingTips.org have a great idea for facing that issue head on. Bring up the effects of bias in class, so that teachers and students can have open conversations about it, rather than pretending bias doesn’t exist. In this dialogue, you can teach students about research that has been done on issues such as stereotype-threat and then discuss ways that everyone in the class can maintain an inclusive environment.
The Role of Mentors
Inside or outside the classroom, you can change students’ lives by serving as a supportive mentor. When Leigh Ann was discussing her path to a successful CS education, mentorship came up immediately. “What really got me is I had very supportive mentors while I was in school and then even after I got out of school who encouraged me.” As an educator, you can offer yourself up as a mentor to students by encouraging them to come talk to you after class or during office hours. You could also bring in older students, who have already taken your CS course, for mentoring sessions with current students.
Research backs up the importance of mentorship, especially for women and underrepresented minorities. The Atlantic reported on a study which found that women engineering students were more successful when they had women mentors. And when Carnegie Mellon scholars explored why their CS program was attracting more women students than average, they found that mentorship was a significant ingredient (Rework, 2016).
“What’s Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander”
Good CS teaching practice does not change based on the race or gender of your students. It’s about making your classroom culture welcoming, comfortable, and empowering for all students. Leigh Ann puts it simply: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
She elaborates, saying, “The best things that work for young women, also work for our young men . . . It’s not about looking at the specific categories of the people that are missing, but instead asking ourselves how can we take our instruction, how can we take our classroom practice, and make it better for everybody.” Other researchers agree. CMU scholars argue that if you create CS content specifically for girls, you are just reinforcing the very stereotypes you’re trying to eliminate (Rework, 2016). And researchers at the University of Washington found that “girls were almost three times more likely to be interested . . . [in CS] when the classroom was not stereotypical [in its design and decoration]” (The Conversation, 2015).
When it comes to equity in CS education, there are also systemic issues at play that can’t necessarily be solved in the classroom. But all educators can make a huge difference. Especially when you have students in your class who have never encountered CS before, you have the opportunity to shape their perception of the subject. As Leigh Ann DeLyser says “the teacher’s role is key in computer science.”
Please let us know if you have any other tools or ideas for helping make the CS classroom a more inclusive place. And please share your own or your students’ CS success stories!
Ready to level up your CS teaching? Check out the Computer Science & Game Design course, co-created by the CSTA and Zulama! You’ll learn game design and programming skills, earning a Computer Science & Game Design Certificate.
For additional reading on how to bring inclusive teaching practices to your classroom, or how to bring computer science to your school, check out these resources:
Teachers: Are you getting ready for your own summer of learning? Start by asking yourself a few questions that will help you figure out exactly what kind of program you need.
We know many of you are committed to your own learning, as well as your students’. For example, “three in five teachers are willing to spend their own time to learn more about computer science” (Google, 2017). Professional development (PD) should be a great experience–helping you meet your goals and engage your students–but that isn’t always the case. Starting with a little prep work can help you find that exceptional experience and leave you more prepared and excited about bringing new skills to your students.
Zulama is currently focused on supporting teachers who are looking for computer science PD, but the following essential questions can be applied to professional learning experiences of all kinds. These questions will help you figure out what PD will be the most fun and fruitful for you, and lead to the most engaging experiences for your students.
1. How much time do I have available to commit to PD?
Start with the basics. PD can range from three days of in-person workshops to 30 hours of self-paced online learning, so find the one that matches up best with your schedule. Teachers say that longer-term PD serves them better in their teaching practice (Gates Foundation, 2014), so consider options that let you pace yourself over time. For example, PD with an online component gives teachers the ability to continue returning to the course over the span of a semester or year. You’ll be less worried about running out of time, which means you’ll be able to tinker, play, and discover throughout your PD experience.
2. What is my end goal for participating in a PD opportunity?
Do your goals match up with the goals of the PD you are interested in? Is a given course preparing you to teach a specific course in the short-term or helping you build an adaptive set of skills? If you are looking to develop yourself as a professional in the long-run, make sure that the PD offering is aiming to involve you in an interactive project-based learning experience. The general consensus among teachers is the best PD programs “…involve hands-on strategies for the teacher to actually participate in” (Gates Foundation, 2014).
3. Which do I prefer, an independent or mentorship-based learning experience?
An online PD experience inevitably means more independence. This leads to perks including more flexibility and the ability to work at your own pace. In-person PD, on the other hand, allows for face-to-face connections, leading to a more disciplined use of your time. We often recommend combining online and in-person PD experiences as we find that the two together lead to the deepest learning.
4. Do I want to learn from fellow educators?
Find out who is driving the PD program you are considering. Have the PD leaders spent much time in the classroom? Was the program crafted by teachers like you who have experience bringing new skills and learning practices to students? Most teachers have had the best PD experiences when they know that the creators of the program have been in their shoes.
5. How much money is available to me for PD?
We ask this question next to last because it’s important to not let cost get in the way of finding the most effective, engaging PD for you. While price is a significant factor to consider, teachers and schools have found various creative ways to get outside funding for PD programs, and you can too.
6. Now… what’s out there?
Each PD program will have pros and cons, but there plenty of options are out there, so you can find one that suits your needs! For example, here is a chart that makes sense of some current computer science PD offerings:
So you’ve just signed up for a computer science professional development course for this summer (or you’re about to)! As our students know, a new learning experience can be both exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Here are five ways you can make the most of your PD:
1. Don’t be afraid to jump in and mess around.
Playing with a new technology is often the best way to learn it and GameMaker has some great tutorials. Consider your five-year-old and how quickly she figured out your smartphone!
2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
In the Zulama and CSTA Computer Science and Game Design PD course, the Support button is your friend, as is our customer service crew. If we don’t have the answer for you ourselves, we’ll work hard and quickly to find it out. But first, ASK. If your PD doesn’t provide customer service, ask another teacher or check for forums. Inquiry is part of learning, after all, and that’s what we’re all in the business of doing.
3. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Really. Please. A failed game build or line of code is just an iteration, and iterative development is the way to design anything. Failure is good. Failure teaches.
4. Don’t be afraid to play.
Building games can be an exciting avenue into CS. And if you build games, you should definitely play games. Ask your students what games they’re playing and try them out. You’ll better understand where you can go with CS and ways you can teach CS principles if you can speak your students’ language.
5. Don’t be afraid to dream.
As you work through your course, think about things you could do in your classroom to reinforce and explore CS principles. What can gaming and coding do for you? What can it do for your students?
Haven’t signed up for a CS PD program yet for this summer? Check out the Computer Science and Game Design course, co-designed by the CSTA and Zulama! You’ll learn game design and programming skills, earning a Computer Science and Game Design Certificate.
Sign up for our Computer Science & Game Design PD here!