This past spring, through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we completed a project that identified factors that drive the willingness of teachers and mentors to participate in initiatives aimed at developing computational thinking skills. Here’s a summary of that effort and what we found.
Solid computational thinking skills are useful across domains and provide a key foundation for the development of tech talent. Developing these skills within computer science classes is constrained by several factors:
- Computer science classes are not widely available, particularly in schools that serve diverse populations.
- Educators certified to teach computer science are in short supply.
- There are limited incentives for teachers to pursue certification and few educators do.
- Computer science classes are largely taught at the high school level. If we want to develop strong computational thinking skills among students, they need exposure to and practice with them throughout their elementary and secondary school years.
- A strict focus on computer science as the domain where these skills are developed limits the points of engagement for both students and teachers. As a result, it weeds out both students and teachers whose primary interests (at present) lay outside of computer science.
Widespread development of computational thinking (CT) skills will require a different approach— one that can leverage the interests and passions of both students and teachers in domains outside of computer science.
Computational Thinking Interviews
Through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we interviewed a total of 11 teachers involved with either MPS’s efforts to introduce Project GUTS, SHARP Literacy’s Design Through Code (DTC) program, or TEALS. Recognizing that computational thinking is a perspective new to most teachers and they would benefit from outside support, we also conducted interviews with 10 mentors from the FIRST Robotics and TEALS programs. Each of these programs provides an opportunity for students to develop computational thinking skills. Apart from TEALS, all are in domains and classes outside of computer science.
We use the lens of Jobs to Be Done to understand how teachers and industry mentors make decisions about where and how to invest their time and energy. Adoption of a useful and effective practice will move no faster than the practice solves a real problem for teachers in the context within which teachers operate. Failure to understand the context within which a teacher might employ a practice and how this practice fits given their other priorities will, at best, slow adoption. At worst, it will lead to active resistance. For mentors, if the chance to guide students in work that can build computational thinking skills does not align with their own goals, pressures, and schedule, they won’t do it.
Findings & Recommendations
“I felt it was my responsibility as an educator to at least learn and bring coding to them”
For teachers, the primary factors which led them to participate in one of the three programs noted above are:
- Support from their school or district administration
- A desire to help their students develop coding skills
- For Project GUTS teachers, a recognition that the tools and curriculum provided a much richer way for their students to explore topics that involve dynamic systems
- A lower cost to deliver the experience for students
- Curriculum that fits within their schedule
Factors holding them back from doing more with the programs are a lack of experience with coding, modeling dynamic systems (Project GUTs), or design thinking (DTC).
“I want to help kids do cool, hard things.”
The mentors we interviewed are motivated by a desire to help students build skills–not just in coding, but an ability to work with a team– and to see them succeed in a challenging project. Their willingness to participate is tempered by the obligations they feel towards their colleagues at work– they want to know that the time they spend as volunteers at worst does not impact their team, and at best, makes them a better team member.
Given what we heard over the course of these interviews, we see a number of opportunities for interventions which could support teachers who want to expose their students to computational thinking in general and speed the adoption of Project GUTS in particular.
Engage students in coding as a way to explore or solve problems
“…the interactions of students, the sharing of ideas, are almost more adult.”
Project GUTS provides an opportunity to expose students to coding in ways that allow them to explore ideas and problems in science. The tools provide a way for students to test ideas and lets their curiosity around the topic or problem at hand drive their desire to master the coding required to do so. This approach offers both teachers and students many more possible points of engagement than would a program focused on simply learning how to code.
Leverage teachers’ enthusiasm for Project GUTS
We were surprised by the enthusiasm teachers showed for Project GUTS. Teachers involved with the program recognize its value, can see opportunities where it can be used effectively, and are excited enough by the possibilities that they look to get colleagues involved.
Support teachers who want to do more with Project GUTS
The teachers we spoke with all had specific ideas for the topics they’d like to explore with Project GUTS. Several mentioned a desire to collaborate with colleagues at their own school or to connect with colleagues at other schools working on the same topics. Beyond having additional training or ad hoc support from district specialists, the current set of Project GUTS teachers could benefit from:
- a program to develop and test models and integrate into curriculum;
- a network of local practitioners with regular opportunities to meet in person;
- training opportunities for their colleagues.
Create a mentor pool for Project GUTS teachers
Teachers were not completely confident in their ability to make full use of the tools without additional support. An outside mentor who can bring domain expertise around the systems to be modeled and some sense of how best to do so would provide welcome help.
The time commitment here need not be anywhere near as intensive as that required by TEALS. Having some availability to exchange ideas with a teacher and visit a class a few times per semester when students are working through models would be a valued addition to the support currently provided by colleagues and curriculum specialists within MPS.
Teachers value on-going relationships with mentors and want the same for their students. Having a mentor assigned to a teacher for the duration of a school year is preferable to a pool of volunteers where any one of whom might drop in on an ad-hoc basis. This partnership would be further enhanced if teachers have a chance to work with mentors who interests are strongly aligned with their own.
Demonstrate that the employer values mentors’ work with students
Mentors want to know that the time they spend with students is valued by their employer and that it does not distract from the work their team needs to complete. While mentors recognized that work with K-12 students can provide an opportunity to develop skills they can leverage in the workplace, few of those we spoke with indicated this was recognized by their employer.
Overt signals from the employer that mentorship work is valued as a professional development opportunity by the firm will leave mentors more willing to participate. As examples, a firm might:
- Provide employer sponsored opportunities for mentors to learn how to effectively engage with students– this would both demonstrate an employer’s commitment to the effort and help mentors be more effective in the classroom
- Incorporate meaningful student mentorship as a recognized track in building leadership and communication skills for employees
- Provide opportunities for mentors’ students/teachers to share their work with co-workers. This could come through on-site presentations, newsletter articles, or by encouraging attendance at off-site presentations.
Facilitate deep connections between mentors and the classroom
The desire of teachers for support they can count on, and that of mentors to see growth are more easily satisfied when mentors have an ongoing role with the class or classes they support. Mentors who have built good relationships with the students they work with are an asset to the teacher and allow the teacher to play a higher value role within the classroom.
Want to know explore our findings in greater detail? Our full report detailed report is available here. If you’re interested in leveraging what we’ve found, or helping Milwaukee move forward with any of our recommendations, let us know.
Computational thinking practices:
- Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts
- Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data
- Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns
- Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems