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5 Questions with Grant Hosford, CEO of codeSpark Academy

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Our award-winning Five Questions with education and edtech leaders continues with this insightful and thought-provoking Q&A with Grant Hosford, Co-founder and CEO of codeSpark Academy. His company is focused on teaching young learners how to code.  Here’s what we asked and what he had to say:
1. Your company teaches young students how to code, before they even learn to read. Why start coding so young?

Our work with millions of kids on codeSpark Academy, our award-winning computer science platform, has proven young kids can and should master the basics of coding well before they learn to read. Coding requires students to learn transferable skills like pattern recognition and sequencing that are foundational skills for reading.  So learning to code with a visual app like ours actually helps students learn to read.

What do we mean by sequencing? Well, letters are put in order for word construction, words are put in order for sentence construction and ideas are put in order for story comprehension. Just one out of sequence word or idea can obliterate meaning. Coding requires a similar process of putting commands together and provides a natural way to teach the importance of ordering things correctly.

An added bonus is that the study of computer science and coding can help build essential non-STEM skills such as perseverance, curiosity, adaptability and impulse control. The natural flow of problem analysis, solution construction, solution testing and solution optimization rewards those traits like almost nothing else can. The skills preschoolers can learn through coding, before they even know how to read, can help them tremendously in other areas.

 

2. That’s a fairly novel concept.  Is there any research that helps demonstrates this value?

Of course. Several experts have found that the logic and sequencing skills developed while learning to code enhance reading and math skills. Umaschi Bers, a professor of both child development and computer science at Tufts University, has published research studies showing that a simple 8 lesson coding introduction improved young children’s skills on traditional sequencing and reading comprehension tests.

And consider this example from a 2015 NPR story:

…before going through a robotics and programming curriculum, when asked to describe the process of brushing their teeth, children gave just three or four steps. Afterwards, they were able to break down the process into 20 or more steps.

 

3. That’s quite interesting. As we all know, the world is becoming increasingly tech driven. Do you see any other advantages for early coders?

Absolutely. Even if you set aside the fact that the 15 highest paying fields of study are all in STEM, having any job at all in the near future may depend on a basic mastery of computers and software. Kids who develop confidence and skill using technology for problem solving and creation are building a foundation for future success – especially give the rapidly changing world they are inheriting.

The reality is, today all companies are tech companies and the automation revolution is accelerating daily. Experts estimate that artificial intelligence (A.I.) and automation will displace or eliminate as many as 800 million jobs in the next dozen years alone. Today, it doesn’t matter if your career path is to be a marketer, ballerina or general contractor – there is no downside to establishing an early familiarity with how and why computers do what they do. They are everywhere, and touch everything we do. Students who are well versed in technology at an early age are poised to have a tremendous advantage.

 

4. Given the fact that you are designing these games for preschool age children, how do you do so in such a way that teaches coding while maintaining their interest?

codeSpark Academy is completely word free and using personalization technology to maximize accessibility. Pre-readers, non-English speakers, gifted learners and special needs students can all use our platform. Students are able to play these games independently and can learn key concepts without parent or teacher support.  In addition we know that what kids really want to do is create. So we balance structured lessons with powerful creative tools that allow kids to design, program and share their own video games. Kids are building tens of thousands of games a day with our tools.

At codeSpark we believe computer science is for problem solving and creating.  Any resource that only focuses on puzzles or the repetition of concepts is likely to turn your child away from computer science, maybe for good.  Our weekly testing with young kids reveals that making their own games and experiences is what gets them deeply engaged and excited.

 

5. So what are some tips for teachers and parents out there who are looking to get their preschoolers started on coding early?

For starters, I think it’s important to focus on research-based apps. There is an over-abundance of apps, board games and robots that claim to teach coding to young learners. Many of them are fun but shallow experiences and only a few leverage recent research on early learning. Luckily there are several good options for each age group. So, before you introduce your kids to a game or puzzle, do your own research to how effective it has been for other kids.

Second, understand that design and approach matter. Just like not all early learning coding tools are based on solid research, they also vary greatly in their level of polish, approach and age appropriateness. For example, our research-backed computer science platform for kids 4-10 years old uses silly characters called The Foos to create high levels of engagement and a “no words” interface to maximize accessibility.  Plus the first characters kids see are female in order to reinforce interest for young girls. If things like accessibility and gender parity are important to you, look for resources that share your values. They’re out there!

Third, make sure you use platforms that adjust to interest and ability.  Many beginning coding concepts can be, and are, learned quickly. Therefore, monitoring and scaling tools to your child’s interest is important; don’t let them get bored by the easy or frustrated by the complicated. Resources should offer a mix of activities so kids can practice transferring knowledge from challenges to creative play and vice-versa.  For older kids, advanced products such as Scratch and Hopscotch, where kids can make their own games, are readily available and quite good.

Finally, the stereotype of coding being a solitary and screen only activity are false and outdated. The number of group and offline computer science opportunities has exploded in recent years – even for young and early learners. Many community groups, schools and non-profit organizations such asFamily Code Night offer introductory coding camps or events. If you are a teacher, the best curriculums, like the one we created with early learning experts, balance the use of digital tools with worksheets and unplugged activities.  Group learning can also be emphasized by introducing coding as a collaborative and team oriented activity.

 

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