Can computing curricula be neutral?

March 22, 2010 at 7:58 am 4 comments

Erik asked a great question in a comment to the “White Boys are Boring” post (a post which was clearly accompanied by a healthy serving of hyperbole, as Kurt pointed out):

Has anyone looked at the comparative efficacies of race/gender neutral programs to increase participation versus ones targeted at specific races or at women?

I do know that curriculum designed to address the needs of women and members of underrepresented minorities work better at attracting those students than the traditional ones — that’s one of the directions that the NSF BPC program has been exploring.  That’s not answering Erik’s question, though. The traditional computing curriculum is not neutral.

Media Computation was not designed explicitly to attract women and minority students.  We designed Media Computation to attract Liberal Arts, Architecture, and Management majors, and we used sources like Margolis and Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse to inform our decisions.  The result is that no published study has found a difference in success rates due to gender or ethnicity, and the published studies show that women are more likely to succeed with Media Computation than with whatever was the traditional curriculum.  That doesn’t mean that Media Computation is neutral — some students dislike it.  The distinction doesn’t seem to be due to gender or ethnicity.

When we design computing curricula, most teachers aim to make assignments and examples motivating and interesting, and in so doing, we speak to some members of our audience, and not others.  When we use video games or robots in examples, for example, we tend to get the boys more engaged than the girls.  I’ve found that it’s hard to be culturally neutral in my own assignments.  One year, I used an example in an object-oriented design course about parts of a car (lots of opportunity for aggregation and part-of relationships there), only to find that my students from the developing world didn’t have much experience with cars and didn’t know anything about parts of an engine.  Our introductory courses used to build assignments around board games like Yahtzee and Risk, which were really engaging for students who knew those games, and a drudgery for those who didn’t know the games.  (Implementing pages of rules for a game you’ve never played is dull.)  There were cultural biases in the choices of games, e.g., favoring the kinds of games that, in the US, middle class kids in Suburbia played.

The question to which I don’t know the answer is whether it’s possible to build “neutral” curriculum.  The academic answer seems to be “no,” but it’s still an issue being explored.  Some of what I’ve found from some digging:

Simply put, teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible. No math teaching — no teaching of any kind, for that matter — is actually “neutral,” although some teachers may be unaware of this. As historian Howard Zinn once wrote: “In a world where justice is maldistributed, there is no such thing as a neutral or representative recapitulation of the facts.”

Bottom line is that I don’t think that anyone can answer Erik’s question.  Maybe the academics are wrong and it’s possible to build neutral curricula — there certainly. are attempts today.  However, if we don’t know if we can build it, then we definitely don’t have any to compare.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Erik Engbrecht  |  March 22, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Perhaps instead of focusing on the cultures from which your students originate from or already resonate with, it would be better to teach them according to the values of the professional culture that they should be forming. Teach them to look to their futures as a cohesive social group, as opposed to their pasts as countless disjoint groups.

    The bias is inevitable unless you want to make the classes incredibly dry, so you might as well make them learn something from the bias just as they do from the core material.

    Reply
  • 2. Fred Martin  |  March 25, 2010 at 4:27 am

    Sounds like neutral = context -free, which would be boring. Better to give students a choice among multiple “biased” curricula, as you have done at GaTech.

    Reply
  • […] at his blog, Mark Guzdial has raised questions about the ability of (a) curricula and (b) instruction to be […]

    Reply
  • […] This story came across ACM Technews, with the claim that “University of Alberta researchers have found that high school girls become more interested in computer science if video game creation is incorporated into the lesson plans.” That’s a strong and surprising claim, countering what other studies (including ours) have found. […]

    Reply

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