Differentiating instruction is not a new approach to bridging the varying learning styles of students with different backgrounds and learning abilities. For years, educators have strategized how to differentiate instruction in math, ELA, and science. Countless articles and books offer best practices for differentiation in those subjects, but comparatively, very little has been written about differentiating computer science instruction.
I believe computer science is more important than ever. In the age of artificial intelligence, the study of computers and computational systems—including their theory, design, development, and application–represents a new frontier in science.
New fields in computer science seem to emerge each day and now include computer systems and networks, security, database systems, human computer interaction, vision and graphics, numerical analysis, programming languages, software engineering, bioinformatics, and theory of computing.
But how does a computer science teacher differentiate instruction in this increasingly important topic? At the Florida high school where I teach, we offer a rigorous computer science program that offers three courses: Exploring Computer Science, AP Computer Science Principles, and AP Computer Science A.
Over the years, I’ve found that some topics within computer science offer simple opportunities to differentiate instruction. Here are some of those topics and the edtech tools I use to make these concepts even more accessible to students:
- Every computer scientist needs to master the nature of science and possess a complete understanding of the scientific method. Discovery Education’s Science Techbook is the perfect tool for teaching these critical concepts. Aligned to Florida’s academic standards and full of engaging digital resources, the Science Techbook takes what can be very dry topics and makes them all both very exciting and accessible through a variety of multi-modal avenues.
- NASA Connects is a forum moderated by NASA’s educational team. Membership is free for educational professionals and homeschoolers. This amazing website contains a plethora of tools that can easily be included in classroom instruction. The resource library contains discussions, articles, lesson plans that are standards-aligned, and professional opportunities for educators. I use this section to supplement many of my lessons. The fact that the NASA Connects resources also come in a variety of asset types is super helpful for differentiation.
- Code.org provides educators with a pacing guide used to pace instruction. This educational resource has many useful tools, but one of my favorite tools to use is the sample programs feature. This feature provides step-by-step instructions on how to create anything from interactive digital cards to websites and more. More importantly, Code.org offers a number of students the opportunity for hands-on learning, which supports my kinesthetic learners. I also like that I can see the work that my students have completed. This feature helps me check for understanding and helps me know what I need to review with them.
- Learning to code involves mathematical knowledge. VEX Robotics is a skills-based competition for elementary through college level students. The challenges change from year to year. The robotics team creates an engineering notebook that is part of the judging process. The notebook includes gear ratio calculations as well as coding triumphs and pitfalls. Students learn mathematical language by creating complex programs for their robots. Finally, they build and program their robots to perform specific competition tasks. Together, the VEX Robotics competition offers numerous ways for students to approach learning in a ways that suit their personal learning preference.
Differentiated instruction has many benefits for students. It increases motivation, engagement, and achievement. Students feel they are a part of the classroom and not as if they have fallen behind and need to catch up to their fellow classmates. They feel valued and that they can and will become better at what they are learning. This is true across computer science and every other academic discipline.
Computer science is still a relatively young discipline, especially in relation to its peers. Today’s educators are in many ways still pioneering the field of computer science instruction. It is up to us to make computer science as accessible to as many students as possible. In talking with my peers across Florida and around the country, I feel that not only do we have the edtech tools to do so, but we have the will as well!