Like millions of American middle- and high-schoolers, students at Beaver Country Day School are well-versed in the three ironically misspelled R’s of education: reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. But they’re also increasingly well-versed in what some might call the fourth pillar of 21st century education: computer programming.

It might not sound all that radical given that many schools now offer computer classes, but Beaver’s program goes well beyond the basics. Last year, teachers at the independent day school just outside Boston began weaving coding skills into the curriculum of nearly every class, from English to history. The idea is that learning to read and write computer language should be accessible not just to techies and gamers (the ones mainly flocking to school computer classes) but also to artists, jocks and bookworms. In other words, it should be part of the core curriculum.

“The notion of a standalone coding course never occurred to us,” said Beaver’s head of school, Peter Hutton. “Our big-picture goal is to make sure every student has some authentic interaction with coding and uses it as a problem-solving tool. We knew it would break down stereotypes about who writes code because now everybody does.”

The new cultural literacy

Indeed, coding is in these days. Witness the launch of Hour of Code last year, a big-league, celebrity-backed initiative that aims to shine the spotlight on coding as a vital educational subject and bring programming classes to every school in the nation. One reason for the interest is the growing need for workers with skills in technology, engineering and math. In other words, all those kids harboring dreams of becoming the next Zuckerberg or Gates need better training.

But the push for coding curriculum goes well beyond that. With the increasingly networked world and explosion of smartphones, apps and social media, computer technology now plays an ever larger role in communications, entertainment, buying choices, problem solving and just about everything else we do. It’s just “part of the DNA of the culture,” Hutton said.

Teacher Rob MacDonaldEach of us needs some mastery over the devices, algorithms and software programs that increasingly run our lives and power the world — a basic ability to program and control them — to function comfortably and expertly in this ever-expanding digital environment. 

“More and more, we see that coding factors into the big problems that need to be solved today,” said Rob MacDonald (at right), Beaver’s math department chairman and the impetus behind the school’s new coding program. “We’re teaching coding not because we think every student is going to have a job as a computer programmer but because of how that connects all the other work they’re doing. If our kids have that tool under their belts, it just makes them much more valuable problem solvers and creative thinkers.”

Coding Shakespeare

Unlike other schools that hire costly programming teachers and rearrange students’ schedules to allow room for additional computer classes, teachers at Beaver decided to take on the challenge themselves and set about creating inventive ways to organically integrate coding into the existing curriculum.

For example, art students last year were encouraged to draw using Pencil Code, math students learned to solve calculus equations using Python, and one English student used CoffeeScript to create an animation that helped fellow students better visualize scenes from “Macbeth.”

This year, teachers have expanded their use of programming in the curriculum. In addition, a new initiative has students working with a programmer at Google to pilot a coding language.

Best of all, Beaver’s early results suggest that coding really has become a must-have teaching tool. Just weeks into the school year, MacDonald has already noticed his geometry students gliding through the material faster and more engaged than ever before.

“Coding is just part of the problem-solving method in so many places in the real world now that it would probably be irresponsible of us not to include it in our curriculum,” he said.

Watch a Year 1 recap of Beaver’s coded curriculum:

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Inset photo (Rob MacDonald): Liz Linder

When computer coding is part of the core curriculum
Massachusetts prep school trains students in technological skills for the 21st century and beyond.