Beyond the Screen: Coding and Learning at Shore

Now in its fourth year at Shore, the worldwide Hour of Code event in December has grown what those in the tech industry call a "long tail"—no longer confined to a single "hit" on just one day each year, coding at Shore extends throughout the curriculum at nearly every grade level, influencing learning in a host of smaller, but no less significant, ways.

Held annually during Computer Science Education Week, the Hour of Code started as a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify "code," to show that anybody can learn the basics, and to broaden participation in the field of computer science. It has since become a worldwide effort to celebrate computer science, starting with one-hour coding activities but expanding to all sorts of broader goals. Here at Shore, it has spawned a host of initiatives to make coding a year-long practice in the classroom.

Why coding? According to MIT's Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of the Scratch programming language—a core platform used in teaching and learning coding in schools—, "I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium." And becoming fluent in this new medium, believes Resnick, is critically important for young people. Code, and everything it brings to life, "enables people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people think about themselves and the world." Computers, he argues, are the new platform for constructing human knowledge.

Jill Codding, Shore's Technology Integration Specialist, explains, "It's not necessarily about educating future computer programmers. 
Instead, it's really about taking the time to understand something that's new and unfamiliar, to take risks, fail, troubleshoot, and try again. This type of iterative process is common across many disciplines, and it's something we emphasize daily at Shore. Coding happens to be a great environment to try things, without being afraid you’re going to break anything."

At the beginning of the school year, as part of the broader approach to teaching coding, she rolled out what's jokingly been dubbed "Coding with Codding," a weekly session in second grade classrooms to introduce programming with ScratchJr. "This is a simple but amazingly powerful platform," she says. Inspired by MIT's full-fledged Scratch platform, ScratchJr is an introductory programming language that enables young children to create their own interactive stories and games. Children snap together graphical programming blocks to make characters move, jump, dance, and sing. They can modify characters in the paint editor, add their own voices and sounds, even insert photos of themselves—then use the programming blocks to make their characters come to life. "The students are already beginning to program little games," Codding observes.

She next took coding to Kindergarten, where she has children explore concepts such as creating clear instructions, sequencing, patterns, even algorithms, sets of reusable instructions that let a computer repeat a task or calculation. "Before ever powering on an iPad, the students do things like 'program' the movements of a paper robot or even their classmates to complete a series of steps and reach a goal." The kindergartners, says Codding, are practicing problem-solving skills, critical thinking, "chunking" of information, and storytelling—knowledge they'll put to good use not just as they learn coding, but throughout their education.

Many Shore teachers have introduced coding on their own. In David Lund's fifth grade classroom, there’s already regular coding time built in to the curriculum; students are using the free learn-to-code Code Academy website to work through an HTML course. In sixth grade science, students are working with Lego’s NXT robotics platform, as well as tackling a more advanced course on Code Academy that has them create a website from scratch. And in seventh grade, students build on their Web-development knowledge to get started with Javascript, the coding language that powers many Web-native apps. 

During the Hour of Code week, a Shore parent and co-founder and General Partner at Spark Capital, Santo Politi, spoke with these fifth graders and Upper Schoolers in the Trustey Family Theatre about his distinguished career as a computer hardware and software engineer, programmer, and now venture capital visionary investing in consumer-focused startups including companies such as Twitter, the popular messaging platform, and Oculus VR, a virtual-reality pioneer acquired by Facebook. According to Politi, coding is one of the common threads that links all the best digital entrepreneurs he's encountered: "Almost anything you may want to do today, any field you may want to enter, requires you to know computers, and requires you to understand coding. If you don't, you're already behind." Another common thread, he says, is risk-taking. "My recommendation for students: do something you're uncomfortable with every day; take a risk. So that when the time comes to take a bigger risk—in your career, in life—you're ready."

Politi's visit in many ways affirmed the approach Jill Codding and other members of Shore's faculty take towards coding. "It was wonderful to hear his perspective. He's seen all sides of the technology that we take for granted today, from coding firmware for well-known devices to helping fund entrepreneurs working on the next Twitter," Codding says. "And one thing I hope students begin to see as they're learning how to code is that apps, gadgets, Web pages—everything they may know and love to use was created using code, and that whatever their medium might be, they, too, can be a creator themselves."
    • Redesigning the Google logo in fifth grade as part of the Hour of Code

    • Jill Codding kicking off Hour of Code Week in the Trustey Family Theatre

    • A Pre-K 1 "computer programmer"

    • Second graders learning ScratchJr

    • Fourth graders working together

    • Helping a fifth grader with a project

    • Sixth graders collaborating on a science coding project

    • Santo Politi speaking during Hour of Code Week