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Time to Level Up Computer Education

June 24, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

We’ve seen something of a paradox in education technology in the last few years. Districts make headlines for making major purchases of tools like iPads, but spending on computer science education has been falling. It’s time to refocus on teaching students not just how to consume technology, but how to control it and create with it. It’s also time to bust up the equity issues that run through the field.

A recent Mother Jones feature dug deep into several issues in computer science education. The author, Tasneem Raja, turned a spotlight both on how weakly supported the field is in the K-12 system and how the way computer science is currently introduced contributes to pronounced gender and racial disparities in who studies it. She emphasizes the benefits of teaching computational thinking from a young age and of encouraging students to see how they can use computational thinking in their intended careers.

The sophistication with which Raja discusses computer science education is a welcome addition to the discussion of education, technology, and educating students in the use of technology. As she illustrates, we still lack a shared understanding of (and in too many cases, an interest in) the teaching of computer science. For example, only 20 states and Washington, D.C., allow computer science classes to count towards math or science requirements in graduation. Minnesota is not one of those states.

Some have argued that computer science is a different field than, say, math, and that conflating those is problematic. However, that’s an argument for recognizing computer science as a distinct requirement rather than letting it lapse into elective oblivion. Hopefully, as the field develops, we will see more states and districts take it more seriously.

Part of that development will mean moving away from a programming-centric understanding of computer science classes. As computer classes have sprung up in schools, they’ve tended to focus on how to use computer-based tools (e.g. word processing) or on how to program computers. What’s too often been missing is an introduction to the thought processes of computer science, what Raja and others call computational thinking.

When I think about this in terms of my past as an English teacher, the difference between programming and computational thinking is similar to the difference between teaching students vocabulary or grammar and teaching them storytelling or research writing. Vocabulary and grammar give you the words and the basic rules for how to assemble them intelligibly. Knowing the elements and processes of story or research give you more ways to use words and basic rules for your own purposes.

Running with the writing analogy, it would be a mistake to treat vocabulary or grammar as fundamental building blocks that must be mastered before students can move on to purposeful writing. Well-crafted English curricula help students advance in both areas. We don’t expect students to master the use of the semicolon before we talk about characters, setting, or plot. Heck, students don’t even need to have mastered the period before we talk about characters, setting, or plot.

Imagine a situation where English was an elective focused heavily on vocabulary and grammar. How many students do you think would choose to enroll in that class? Or imagine a chemistry elective focused mostly on memorizing terms and formulae for rote application. That’s what too many introductory computer science classes look like.

Combine a less than scintillating pedagogical approach with the prevailing image of professional computer science as dominated by white guys and you’ve got a recipe for turning away a lot of students.

Raja’s reporting notes the success of other approaches to computer science. Emphasizing computational thinking and how students can use it to help others and be better at their future jobs has had much more success getting a wider range of students -- girls in particular -- interested and keeping them interested.

Indulging the writing metaphor one more time, helping students see how good writing can help them get or keep a job as well as helping some imagine themselves as authors, journalists, or advocates are much better at keeping students engaged than bending over backwards to get them excited about grammar. (Some will still love digging into grammar, of course.)

Ultimately, we want students to be adept not just at using apps but at thinking logically and algorithmically. We also want them to be able to think creatively, and to know when and how to apply logical and algorithmic approaches to achieve their creative ends. This will require more attention to the development of computer science pedagogy, with an eye on hooking a more diverse set of students at a younger age and keeping them on board. Without state support, including attention to computer science’s position relative to graduation and funding for public teacher education programs, that necessary change will be longer in coming. We can and should be more proactive about leveling up computer science education.

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  • Mary Treacy says:

    June 30, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Thank you for another thoughtful and timely piece - written by an English major with communication skills that recognize that the receiver matters.  My question—where in the curriculum do learners explore the social complexities of 21st century information and telecommunications technology?  Technology has re-ordered the very context of our lives—our politics, economics, environment….How do we understand, much less introduce young learners, to the forces that determine the control and flow of information?  How can 21st century learners understand the way things were in the old paradigm (consider the ongoing reflections on WWI).  Clear thinking such as this article inspires me to ponder the challenge to re-order our pedagogy—who’s going to be in charge of that monumental effort?  Probably a good idea to think about that.