csba at issue

By Hadi partovi

Talking tech with Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi


ech entrepreneur and investor Hadi Partovi is the founder and CEO of Code.org, a nonprofit working to bring computer science into the lives of millions of students through curriculum resources, teacher professional development, the global Hour of Code annual event and more.

California Schools sat down with him to hear more about how to better prepare students for success in the 21st century.

What is the mission of Code.org?

The mission of Code.org is for every school to offer high-quality computer science classes and to increase participation in the subject, especially among women and underrepresented minorities. When most people think about the value of teaching computer science, they think about jobs and technology, especially in California with the massive opportunity in terms of careers in technology, but what really drives Code.org is the fact that computer science is foundational for all jobs. Today, 70 percent of all current jobs in the U.S. are somewhat digital in some fashion and that’s only increasing.

How is Code.org increasing diversity in the computer science field?

We do a lot of things to increase diversity. There’s no one button to press or one lever to pull. There are a multitude of things — we help break stereotypes through participation, and it is a big part of the Hour of Code campaign that we run that reaches tens of millions of students. Many of those students are trying it for the first time. We have measured that participating in just one hour of code causes girls and underrepresented minorities to change their attitude towards computer science. They may decide that, “I liked this more than I thought I would,” or “I’m better at it than I thought I would be.” In fact, high school girls show the greatest increase [in interest] from just doing one hour. That’s just one way.

Partovi will be a speaker at CSBA’s Leadership Institute, which takes place July 13–14 in San Francisco.

Everything about our curriculum and our training programs for teachers are all designed with equity and inclusivity in mind. For example, the project focus and the creativity focus of our curriculum is designed to broaden participation. The casts you see in the videos that we produce show a diversity of role models in computer science, and the training we provide to teachers to prepare them to teach these classes often gives them the tools they need to increase inclusivity and equity in their classrooms.

Code.org offers resources for students as young as four years old. Why should students start computer science instruction as young as kindergarten?

What they’re learning in kindergarten isn’t really JavaScript and building HTML pages. What they’re learning is giving a really simple command in really simple logic. It’s more like learning basic problem solving at the level of learning for grades K-3. These kids aren’t learning to code the way you would think of somebody who’s preparing for a job interview. They’re more learning about ideas like looping and debugging. It’s more like learning to write a recipe in a cookbook than something complicated. The reason to teach them young is to have the foundational field. We also teach them about all sorts of other things. Kids learn that plants grow from seeds or they learn that bees make honey from flowers. Understanding the very basics of how the internet works, what digital citizenship on the internet looks like and how your smartphone works — things like that.

Why do you think that computer science instruction at the K-12 level is important for both students who will and students who won’t end up in a computer science career?

For the ones who will end up in a career, that’s an obvious answer, but the best way to think about it is the diversity problem. Careers in computing are dominated by white and Asian males; women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native-Americans are all being left behind in the field. Getting them exposed younger in the K-12 system will help them realize that they have a passion or interest for this field and it leads to the best careers in the world. That said, our motivation isn’t to focus on the kids who want to get jobs in tech. It’s that every single student is going to be graduating into a society dominated by technological change. If you’re in the dark about how the technology works, you’re going to feel left behind.

If you think about the impact that social networking is having on things as basic as our election, if you think about the impact that artificial intelligence is going to have on the workforce, the impact that automated driving is going to have on transportation, there are so many different things that are changing the world around us. If you want to become a doctor, you’re going to need to learn about gene sequencing and the methods that are being used for personalized medicine. If you want to become a farmer, you’re going to need to learn about how drones can be used for monitoring your crops or how self-driving tractors are going to manage your field. This goes on and on for every type of work there is. There is no career in the 21st century that is going to be completely devoid of some sort of technology, and so it is a foundation that is just as useful as learning biology or chemistry or algebra.

Why is it important to have computer science instruction within public school classrooms during the day and not just as an after-school program or extracurricular class?

If you look at who takes computer science in after-school clubs, it tends to be the same types of students that are being driven by the stereotypes — white and Asian boys. They’re the ones that have been encouraged by their parents that, “You’re good at computer science,” and that, “This is for you.” Whereas, if you teach computer science as part of a school day, you reach a much larger and more diverse audience. In Code.org’s classrooms, 45 percent of the students are girls. Forty-nine percent of them are underrepresented minorities. That’s because it’s integrated into a school day, so we are reaching a much more balanced population than when you put it in after school.

What do you see as the biggest roadblock in the fight to close the opportunity gap and to provide computer science instruction to all students?

There are two obstacles and both of them are easy [to overcome], but it’ll take a little time. The first is the mindset of the adult. The adults in education think that computer science is this new and scary field that they never learned. “Who’s going to want to learn it?” “How are we going to teach this?” Their own mindsets put computer science behind all the other things that they’re more familiar with such as math, English, science, history, foreign languages and all the other things in the school system. If these adults ask the kids, the students are most interested in technology, and they are also plenty aware that if they want to think about what career they’re going to get, it’s among the most important things they can learn. They’re just much more at home with the technology. So getting the adults in education, especially school administrators, to recognize this mindset shift is important.

The second obstacle is the shortage of teachers who have the skills to teach computer science, and this is a much bigger problem. The core work of Code.org is to offer professional training and professional development workshops that can basically help an existing teacher, begin teaching computer science. So whether you’re an English teacher, social studies teacher, math teacher, science teacher, a tech teacher or a librarian in a third-grade classroom, we have workshops that enable you to begin teaching computer science at your school, even if that’s a 10- or 20-hour module that is part of the library hours in an elementary school or a year-long AP [Advanced Placement] course. We’ve now shown successfully to hundreds and soon thousands of teachers that English teachers and social studies teachers can successfully teach AP computer science, and their students will pass the exam thanks to the quality of our professional development workshop and the quality of our curriculum.

What advice do you have for school board members who want to increase computer science instruction in their districts?

My first piece of advice is to just do it. You have to get over inhibitions and to recognize that this is a global movement that is happening in education. If you don’t do it, your school is already falling behind. My second piece of advice would be to look at the Code.org professional learning programs because our professional learning workshops and our network of partners throughout California will, at no cost to your school, train your existing teaching staff to be able to teach computer science. Many schools have done this without any new budget being spent because Code.org is effectively giving them professional learning for free so they can get their existing teachers to teach computer science. Our professional learning isn’t going to be free forever. It’s one of those things where it’s better to act on this now while it’s still free of charge for the school system.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.