How do we make high school CS classes more “real”?

October 19, 2009 at 10:39 am 1 comment

I started working on a reply to Alan Kay’s comment on my previous blog post, and as it got longer with more links, I realized I should just use blog-owner’s prerogative and make a new post.  The issue we were discussing was how to make the case that the AP CS should count as a course that fulfills the “science” requirement in Georgia.  I commented:

Barb and I were just talking last night about the issue you raised, that the AP CS curriculum doesn’t look like a science. In the argument that I offered to the GaDOE, Computer Science classes have a lot of science practices (even if the content is not easily recognized as science by a traditional scientist), such as developing hypotheses, experimentation, and analysis of results. However, most CS curricula (including AP CS) do not make those connections between debugging and the scientific method explicitly.

Alan replied that he’d like to see more “real science” in these classes.

While pretty much agreeing with your comments, I think the real issue is a much deeper epistemological one — and is a problem not just in computer “science” but in the teaching of most high school and many college “real sciences” which have deep models as the representations for their theories (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology).

In the “real deal” it’s not so much about “hypotheses, experiments, analysis” (the standard elementary school characterization of science) as it is about the goodness and depth of the mapping between the observations and the model (in the standard characterization of science, this could be thought of as real thresholds in what “analysis” actually should mean).

So, how do we make that happen?  How do we get the “real deal” into high school classes?

My suggestion is that this doesn’t happen by making the argument for “real” classes at the state level.  The job of the Georgia Department of Education Science Committee is, explicitly,  to ask if any individual class “aligns with the GPS science standards, and/or the national science standards.” State standards are not re-written all that often, and Georgia just rewrote theirs.  Take a look at a given set of science standards, like those for high school Chemistry.  There you see terms like “hypotheses, experiments, analysis.”  Terms like “modeling” and “mapping” don’t appear at all.

How do we get a modeling and mapping focus in these classes?  Georgia (probably like most states) takes their lead from national authorities, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science standards “Science for All Americans.”  Take a look at what AAAS says about how to teach science — it’s a pretty close match to what Georgia has in their standards.  Nothing about modeling or mapping there, either.

The suggestion that I’m making is, if you want to get science classes to change, to make them more “real,” get the National Academies, or AAAS, or similar respected body to issue a report.  Larry Snyder’s NRC report on “Information FITness” gets cited a lot when discussing what students need to know about computer science.  It’s hard to make the case at the State level, because people within the State look outside the State for evidence.  These kinds of national reports make a difference.

Now, how do you get CS classes to be more “real”?  One way is by changing the Advanced Placement class, as NSF is trying to do.  Another way might be to use the same strategy as for Science — get the recognized authorities to come out with a statement, a report that says, “Here’s what real Computing Education should look like.”

My own opinion is that radical change is not going to come out of the ACM/IEEE curriculum standards process.  I was part of the committee for the CS 2008 standards update.  It is hard to get a dramatic and powerful statement for change out of that process.  We’re in a challenging stage in our field — we’ve got lots of ideas, and few measures for determining which is better than the other.

There were easily a half dozen new approaches to teaching CS that were vying to get a mention (better yet, a recommendation) in the new curricular volume.   How do you decide?  We have no reliable and valid measures of computing knowledge that cross approaches and languages.  We as a field can’t even agree on the learning objectives.  We on the committee tried to come up with some measure about usage and peer-review, but even that was insufficient.  If three schools do kinda the same thing and the approach got mentioned in a software engineering conference article, does that count?  Maybe it should — do we have a better standard? To list everything is no recommendation or guidance at all.  One of the criticisms of CC2001 was that it recommended a half dozen approaches for CS1 already.  I pushed to get some of those off the list — don’t we have evidence that some of these aren’t really all that effective?  The push back was similar.  “How do we really know that these don’t work?” and “We know friends who use those approaches.  How can we say in this volume that they don’t work?”  The result is that the volume reflects the least common denominator curriculum, which is useful for describing current accepted best practice, but it’s not a forward-looking statement of what should be.

Seymour Papert in his book The Children’s Machine argued that part of what happened to Logo was school.  School has a process of compartmentalizing and turning new ideas into standard curricula.  We can argue that this is wrong (and Seymour did in his book), but it is the reality.  I am describing here the process (as I understand it now, incomplete as that understanding is) of how one achieves curricular change at the secondary level — you show how you can meet the existing standards, or you push to get the standards re-written, with the most leverage coming from authoritative statements at the national level.  It’s hard work, but as Seymour points out, that’s how the system keeps from thrashing.  The system is designed to make it hard to change the system.

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“Constant Vigilance!”: Working for Computing Education in Georgia Update on counting CS for high school graduation requirements in Georgia

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  October 19, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    I thought back today to how in my own experience at least one of the science classes I had, high school physics, was a “small science” class, in the way I characterized CS in a comment to your previous post. It had some powerful notions to teach: observing forces in nature and being able to predict them, and questioning our notions of “what is matter” and “what is energy”–“Are they different? How are they the same?” We explored these questions in the context of discoveries about them that were made by respected physicists.

    The idea of modeling and its power was there, but we didn’t practice creating our own models. We used models that were well established, such as “the law of gravity”. This practice was a bone of contention between me and my physics teacher, because she did not allow these models to be questioned. I don’t know how I knew it, but somehow I knew that there were deeper issues with these models that deserved to be explored. It’s possible I learned to think this way through an earlier science course. It may have even come from how I was brought up. It’s hard for me to know.

    So there was some allowance for asking questions of ourselves, changing our perception of what reality is, but there was not room for questioning established science. I didn’t particularly like this model, but perhaps it’s what’s the norm in high school science pedagogy.

    I thought about your question for a bit, and what it ultimately came down to for me is teachers need to challenge each other. Examples are powerful arguments to Americans, showing you have accomplished something, and then talking about how you did it. I saw a bit of this in the event on K-12 engineering held by the National Academy of Engineering. That’s just one step.

    The fundamental issue is an epistemological one, but for teachers. You are perhaps familiar with the works of Ivan Sutherland (I’m referring to Sketchpad) and Douglas Engelbart (NLS). The story I’ve heard about with the works of both is that a lot of people in the technology field saw their example artifacts, but they really had trouble comprehending their significance, because they didn’t have the first principles that were used to create them. The first reaction was to either say, “Oh that’s interesting,” regarding it as a forgettable triviality, or ask, “What’s the point?” Now, when people are shown those same examples, they tend to get bored, “Oh that’s old.” It’s no longer an interesting curiosity, because in some small ways we’re living what those people were discovering. It’s become old hat (or so people think). We got from there to here by the pursuit of trying to make computers easier to use, not in the process of trying to make computers something more than utilitarian devices. That’s the unfortunate part, but if you want to look at reality. There it is.

    I think a major challenge for innovators is the idea of challenging what exists, and then sharing the new thing so that others get it. The latter is the really hard part, because the challenge often carries baggage–you have to change your perception of what the thing is, or the purpose of your activity. Is more education the answer? Not necessarily. It depends on what people learn and the quality of it, and finding the right mix for comprehending the thing they’ve seen is not always intuitive. It turns out that the people who came up with the splendid examples had very unique outlooks on what they were doing, and their ability to scale the teaching of that outlook to others was very limited, partly because the people who saw what they did did not understand the first principles that the creators were operating under.

    When people have established themselves in their careers, do they want their boat rocked? Not necessarily. Too risky. Ultimately what motivates most people is their own self interest. So if a change can be shown to be in their self interest I think you’ll get their attention more readily. Trying to interest people in ideas for their own sake doesn’t grab too many, unfortunately. I hesitate to even talk about this, because taking this approach ultimately leads to people adopting shallow versions of what they’ve seen. In other words, they think they got it, but they didn’t get it totally. A phrase of Alan Kay’s just ran through my mind as I wrote this: “To hell with the adults.” I know this isn’t helpful, but it illustrates the conundrum.


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