Own Your Teaching: 5 Success factors for Computer Science Professional Development for Teachers — What works?

4 min read

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Learning that sticks (Image Source)

Mrs. Lin, who taught computer science at a prominent private high school in the Bay Area for the past three years, decided to leave teaching to pursue a different career. Mrs. Lin confesses, “It was my first time teaching computer science. I struggled a lot in my first year so the school purchased an online CS course product. It was helpful for a few weeks but it also created new problems. Every student got a perfect score even though I knew some of them shouldn’t. The answers were available online and I felt like I had no control over their learning.”

Mr. Smith, a CS teacher at a competitive public high school in the area mentioned, “The students really want to learn CS but we don’t have the resources to offer the course to everyone. We’re already packing our labs to its max capacity. The teacher-student ratio is 1:34 and this is only because there are 34 seats. This Summer, we tried hiring new teachers but it didn’t work out — the candidate pool was small and none of them were ready to teach Fall at the AP level.”

The names of the teachers are pseudonyms as they wanted to remain anonymous for the interview. These are just a few examples of the many stories we hear from school admins and teachers struggling to offer quality computer science education. The interest and demand for CS education are spiking and states are making promises to offer this education to every student. However, schools cannot hire their way to a solution. What makes it even more challenging is that the CS teacher attrition is higher than other subjects. For those of the schools with a CS teacher — know that you are lucky!

The many stories, field research, and studies all point to this conclusion — the most sustainable and effective way to provide quality CS education is to support the teachers.

Challenges of Professional Development Programs in Computer Science

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The student-centered nature of CS education creates extra challenges (SolStock | Getty Images)

An ongoing computer Science professional development may be the only viable solution to offering quality computer science education. However, there are unique challenges when it comes to computer science professional development. Many of the participating teachers have little or no background in computer science or programming. The following findings are from an article by Yadav et al. [1]

Beginning teachers face a number of challenges, which includes:

  • Teaching outside one’s area
    Teachers expressed in many cases that they had to learn the concept and at the same time help the students on the go.
  • Feeling isolated
    Generally, one CS teacher teaches computer science at a school. When teachers get stuck or need help, there aren’t many places they can go to ask for help.
  • Teaching multiple subject areas
    Many CS teachers teach other STEM subjects such as Math and Science. This adds extra load to class preparation.
  • Classroom management
    Keeping students on-task in front of computers can be difficult when there are so many distractions online.
  • Insufficient planning time
    Planning day-to-day activities is not easy when teachers need to find resources, learn the content, and make adjustments.
  • High teacher-student ratio preventing addressing individual student needs
    Students working on individual projects may come across all sorts of issues. Troubleshooting just a few of them could take up a whole class time. Giving individual attention is nearly impossible when the teacher-student ratio is high.
  • Assessment
    Students can code in many different ways to produce the same effect. However, some approaches are more efficient and error-proof. Assessing the quality of code requires expertise.
  • IT challenges
    Setting up the right programming environment, updating the hardware and software require support and resources from IT. Often times for small schools, the responsibility falls on the CS teachers.

Making CS Teachable

From research on experiences of novice teachers, two areas were identified as being most challenging — the content and the pedagogy [2]. Good teaching requires a deep understanding of the subject matter and also the skills to represent and formulate the subject to make it comprehensible to others. Research shows that providing active support in the first year of teaching increases teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge, self-efficacy, and beliefs about what it means to be a successful teacher [3]. This induction program is shown to reduce teacher attrition rates during the first few years.

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What works?

Professional development and learning communities are crucial for supporting teachers. However, the landscape study by Menekse (2015) found that computer science professional development in the United States not coherent and that it does not specifically address the needs of teachers in terms of computer science pedagogical content knowledge. Menekse also found that there are five factors that make CS professional development effective. The following list is an excerpt from Menekse’s article [4].

  1. Duration of professional development programs
    Studies found that programs with longer duration have a significant impact in change of teaching practices and improvement in student learning. Furthermore, professional development programs with multiple sessions over time are more effective. Workshop style one-time professional development programs had no or limited effect on student achievement and change of teaching practices.
  2. Long term support
    The support at the implementation phase (first year) can substantially encourage teachers to try new teaching practices
  3. Incorporating and Modeling active learning methods
    Creating opportunities for learners to actively participate in the learning processes can significantly affect their interest, attention, and learning outcomes.
  4. Explicit focus on pedagogical content knowledge
    A majority of professional development programs were short of how teachers can teach a particular computer science subject and how they can understand the preconceptions that students bring with them. Effective professional development programs should incorporate pedagogical content knowledge to address representation and presentation of concepts in a specific subject matter to students with varying prior conceptions, learning experiences, and diverse interests
  5. Ongoing collaboration and communication with school leadership and district administration
    Last but not least, an ongoing collaboration and communication with school leadership and district administration is critical for the effectiveness and sustainability of the professional development programs. Even professional development programs with all other core features sometimes do not have long-term effects on teaching practices and student learning when there is no support from the school leadership.

A Brave Solution

There are many CS professional development online courses available. What sets Popfizz apart is the ‘Learn the content. Teach the content’ approach. The online professional development courses address the success factors listed above.

  • Duration of professional development programs
    The courses are 15 to 30 hours long which can be completed in series. The CS courses not only cover coding at various levels but also physical computing allowing teachers to design a CS pathway.
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The most updated list is available at popfizz.io/pd
  • Long term support
    The teachers attending the course get 1:1 live support. The teachers who completed the course many months back still reach out to us with questions.
  • Incorporating and Modeling active learning methods
    There are hands-on exercises and labs that require the teachers to learn the content and experience the thought process of the students. The courses also model effective ways to explain a concept.
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  • Explicit focus on pedagogical content knowledge
    The courses go over common student errors and misconceptions and how they can be revealed and corrected.
  • Ongoing collaboration and communication with school leadership and district administration
    Having data is helpful in moving conversations forward. We help guide teachers on the kinds of assessment and data collection that may be useful to reveal insights and track teaching effectiveness. Also, we offer consultation on establishing a well-aligned CS pathway across multiple grade levels.

Detailed information is available at popfizz.io/pd

Download the Professional Development overview: https://popfizz.io/downloads/pd/flyer/Popfizz_PD_Overview.pdf


[1] Muhsin Menekse (2015) Computer science teacher professional development in the United States: a review of studies published between 2004 and 2014, Computer Science Education, 25:4, 325–350, DOI: 10.1080/08993408.2015.1111645

[2] Yadav, A., Hong, H., & Stephenson, C. (2016). Computational thinking for all: Pedagogical approaches to embedding a 21st century problem solving in K-12 classrooms. TechTrends, 60, 565–568. doi:10.1007/s11528–016–0087–7

[3] Huling, L., Resta, V., & Yeargain, P. (2012). Supporting and retaining novice teachers. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 48, 140–143.

[4] Aman Yadav, Sarah Gretter, Susanne Hambrusch & Phil Sands (2016): Expanding computer science education in schools: understanding teacher experiences and challenges, Computer Science Education, DOI: 10.1080/08993408.2016.1257418

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