A Joint Call for Research on Why Computer Science Education is Important for K-12

January 12, 2011 at 9:15 am 20 comments

A joint blog post by Chris Stephenson of CSTA, Alfred Thompson of Microsoft, and Mark Guzdial of Georgia Tech.

As much as we believe and try to make the case that studying computer science is good for all students, there is a profound lack of research to actually support this contention. With the movement to data driven decision making in every area of education, our inability to advocate for more and better computer science education in K-12 is severely curtailed by our inability to support our own observations and claims.

There are some things we do know which may help us make a more effective argument for K-12 computer science education, or at least make us better K-12 computer science educators.

We know that even pre-teen students have serious misconceptions about what computer science is and that this fundamental lack of understanding makes it very difficult to engage and retain students. Research has shown us that many students believe that computer science is simply using applications well. In one study, after six weeks of learning Scratch, Alice, Pico Crickets, and similar tools, and with Mike Hewner (a PhD student in CS education at Georgia Tech) lecturing them on CS topics, students still came away with the belief (for example) that “Someone who does Photoshop really well is a great computer scientist.” They probably think that programmers work in locked window-less rooms and never shower too!

We know that *not* having a CS background can be a serious detriment in a wide variety of professions. In 2005, Mary Shaw, Chris Saffidi, and Brad Myers presented a research paper focusing on the gap between professionals who program as part of their jobs and the number of people actually trained to do this work. These researchers estimated that by 2012 there will be 3 million professional software developers and 13 million people who program as part of their jobs but aren’t software developers. Brian Dorn’s just-completed dissertation shows why this is a significant problem. In his study of graphics designers who are self-taught programmers, Dorn found that in order to understand code fragments, the designers do things like search for a variable name — not knowing that that’s completely arbitrary and not useful. One of Brian’s subjects who was working in JavaScript, for example, stumbled onto a Java web page, and spent 30 minutes poring over language details that were irrelevant for his task.

We still don’t know, however, whether learning computer science helps with anything else in the curriculum. . We have results showing that learning a visual language *does* transfer knowledge to textual programming later. Chris Hundhausen just did a careful HCI study showing that learners could get started more quickly with a visual programming language (like Scratch, Alice, or Kodu), and that parts of that knowledge did transfer to textual programming. That’s a big deal, because it says that Scratch and Alice really are useful for learning CS that will be useful later in life.

There are, however, no recent, scientifically-valid studies that show that students are able to transfer key concepts that they learn in computer science to other learning or that students who study computer science perform better on high-stakes testing in other subject areas (specifically math and science). The last major review of the research in this space (by David Palumbo in 1990) showed little evidence that programming impacted problem-solving in other domains. Neither are there recent studies (the most recent was Taylor and Mountfield in 1991) that determine whether students who study computer science in high school perform better in any area of post-secondary study including computer science. Sharon Carver’s dissertation work in 1988 showed that one *could* teach Logo so that it improved how elementary students solved problems in other areas (e.g., debugging instructions on maps), but little research has followed up on that result.

This lack of research-supported evidence is particularly troubling in light of the current discussions about the importance of “Computational Thinking”. While there is strong support for CT in many parts of the community including the National Science Foundation, without a strong and agreed-upon definition and effective assessment measures for students at various learning levels, we don’t have hard evidence there that CT is useful let alone necessary for every student.

We do know that we need to do a better job of convincing students that computer science is worth their interest and we might actually be making some progress on this front. For example, many teachers are working hard to help students see the connections between the current technologies that students are interested in (social networking, mobile applications, etc.) and the issues that they care about (the ways that medical agencies use computers to track and control epidemics or how relief agencies depend on computerized logistical systems to get the right sort of aid to the right places at the right time in an emergency). But once again, we have not established scientifically whether these connections motivate students who would not otherwise be interested in computer science.

There are some things we do know and some we can even prove scientifically but the bottom line is that we need more research. We need research that is long-term, broad reaching, and scientifically valid. We need to know what our students are learning and why it matters to them. We need to know how to help them learn better. And we need to know how to do a better job of engaging, inspiring, and retaining them. It is time for computer science education to grow up and prove its value, just as all of the other core disciplines are now having to do.

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20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara Boucher Owens  |  January 12, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Peter Hubwieser from Germany is proposing a working group at the ITiCSE conference to be held in Darmstadt, Germany in June. He is looking for folks who wish to participate.

    “The ITiCSE call offers the format of working groups. We want to propose such a working group that should collect, evaluate, integrate and present research findings about Informatics in secondary schools. As a result we expect a comparison of the effects of different organizational conditions, teaching approaches, curricula, teaching methods of Informatics courses in secondary schools in different countries.”

  • 2. Bonnie MacKellar  |  January 12, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Honestly, unless we can show that CS and computational thinking skills transfer to math and reading, we will never make headway in K12. Teachers do not care whether students are in the pipeline for careers in computer science. Teachers may not even see that as a desirable career for their students, because of the reputation that computing fields have for mass layoffs. Teachers are judged on whether their students do well on the state math and reading tests, so that is what they care about. My teacher friends tell me all the time that when they want to propose a new teaching initiative, they have to justify it in terms of impact on state test scores.

  • 3. quantumprogress  |  January 12, 2011 at 10:38 am

    I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot recently. I’m a high school physics teacher at a school nearby to you, and I’ve been trying to introduce computational modeling to my 9th grade honors physics students. I’ve also been writing about it in my blog:

    Teaching Computational Thinking Part 1
    Teaching Computational Thinking Part 2
    Teaching Computational Thinking Part 3
    Teaching Computational Thinking Part 4
    Teaching Computational Thinking Part 5

    We’re just now starting to get into using programming as a tool to explore physics, but so far, my kids are really enjoying it.

    I’d love any feedback or advice you might have.

  • 4. Tom Morley  |  January 12, 2011 at 10:38 am

    As a non CS, the hardest issue for students is thinking algorithmically. Taking a big problem apart into little pieces, putting little pieces together into something bigger. Early CS courses (or perhaps just the students) tend to concentrate on the (ultimately irrelevant) details of a particular language. That being said, I’ve been a longtime LOGO fan.

  • 5. Alan Kay  |  January 12, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Hi Mark

    …. many reactions to this posting!

    But, let me have you try this on for size. Two things that are very clear when you work with young children e.g. 1st graders (around age 6), is (a) they are great at certain kinds of guided mathematical exploration and discovery, and (b) for them what we call STEM is essentially one kind of thing, and we would have to add at least an A (for Art) to this. I would also add a C.

    The great Reggio Emilia pre-schools have made much of this in often breathtaking projects done by 3-5 year olds — the core of which is making sense of aspects of their world and representing their findings in languages (many of which they are visual ones they make up themselves). This is pre-school as an atelier, and the teachers are actually called atelieristas. In other words, the center they have chosen is the huge one of Art.

    A question that intrigues Jerry Bruner to this day could be stated as, “If an adult sets out to learn something that is normally started in childhood, how much of a recapitulation of childhood style learning will help?”

    I think this is partly a “bell curve” question, and when we started extending the question to the whole population, the answer starts to approach “quite a bit!”.

    Applying this to your questions and issues would produce the idea that we should be teaching “thinking in general” especially about powerful ideas, and that a great way to do this would be to make a unified STEMAC curriculum even for high school students, even for most college students.

    As side support for this idea, I want to remind that it is not possible to choose and isolate any of the individual STEM subjects when moving into them as a profession (even for Math). They coevolved and they provide both examples and synergies for learning each other.

    So why cripple non-vocational learners by isolating them?

    There is quite a bit of evidence that a very large percentage of kids get through college without “learning to think and do with powerful ideas”, and it would likely be better for all parts of the bell curve to learn STEMAC as “facets” of really powerful ideas and perspectives!



  • 6. Chris Stephenson  |  January 12, 2011 at 11:54 am

    In 2005, CSTA did an extensive review of research literature relating to K-12 computer science education. This review can be found in Chapter Two of the report “The New Educational Imperative: Improving High School Computer Science Education”. You can download the report at:



  • […] Mark, CSTA, and Alfred collaborated on a blog posting that made a call for more research that would support CS Education in K-12. As this is a passion of mine, I thought it appropriate to continue the conversation and take a look more in depth about the kind of research that this would entail. […]

  • 8. Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser  |  January 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Great Call!

    As this is targeting a particular type of research, I think its important to talk about what factors would support CS Education in K-12 and what might be some viable research questions for each. The factors I came up with are: Transfer, Applicability, Career Readiness, and Meeting the Demands of the Economy.

    I think I’m going to direct you over to my blog for more details and some research examples for inspiration for those who might want to dive into this arena 🙂

  • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  January 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Found another response to this at: http://tutortechnologies.com/news/uncategorized/computational-thinking-in-k12-classrooms/

  • 10. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 13, 2011 at 11:42 am

    The call for research from researchers always sounds a little self-serving, but I agree that there is a lack of data on the advantages of CS education.

    One big problem is that CS is almost never a mandated course, so there is a huge self-selection bias. It is very difficult to determine whether differences between students who had CS courses and those who didn’t is due to selection rather than instruction.

    There is also the problem that the skills that CS is supposed to be helping develop are not ones that are easily tested on a mass-graded test. So showing a correlation with mass-graded tests misses the point. I never give tests in my courses that involve programming, because they don’t tell me anything I want to know about the students. I have to give programming assignments that require design and debugging of significant projects in order to see whether they have skills (and perseverance) needed to go on to subsequent courses.

  • 11. Mike Byrne  |  January 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Allow me to be a dissenting voice… There are a great many university subjects that are not (usually) taught in K-12: linguistics, chemical engineering, philosophy, probability and statistics, neuroscience, anthropology, computer science, psychology, architecture, women’s studies, astronomy, art history, materials science, etc, etc, etc.

    Advocating that any one of these things should be mandatory in K-12 means that you’re advocating that something else that *is* taught in K-12 should be kicked out–maybe not in principle, but certainly in practice.

    So, not only do you have to show that there’s value for CS education in K-12, you need to show that there’s value above and beyond whatever else would be removed in order to make room for it. That seems like a very high bar to clear. Arguments like “people have misconceptions about what computer science is” seem like incredibly weak tea here. Most K-12 students have equally strong, if not stronger, misconceptions about many of the subjects on that list. (As a psychologist who isn’t a clinician, I have very high confidence in that claim.) People not understanding a discipline doesn’t make it a K-12 priority.

    Not having a CS background being a detriment in other fields doesn’t strike me as particularly compelling, either. Being a poor writer is almost certainly a detriment in even more fields, so why not use the CS time to hone students’ writing skills. I think a great many people would agree that not enough of that is going on K-12 presently.

    In the cases of school systems that are better off and have more course offerings such that they actually do teach some of those subjects, my understanding (which is possibly quite of of date) is that the subjects that get taught as extras is decided based on (a) student interest, and (b) what the existing staff is able to teach. We all know how CS is doing on (a) right now, and my guess is that (b) isn’t a whole lot better. Given the conditions of most school budgets right now, I think trying to sell things to districts that they aren’t equipped to teach and that students and parents aren’t demanding is likely to be Herculean at best.

    Frankly, as much as it pains me that more of my psychology students don’t have training in computing, I don’t think CS would be my first priority in terms of changing the K-12 curriculum. This is not a self-serving argument, though, as it wouldn’t be psychology, either. (If anything, fewer people need training in psychology, or maybe more of the ones who get it should have training in a different kind of psychology… but I digress).

    I think a much stronger argument could be made to train them in probability and statistics, at the expense of calculus. Very few people–mostly engineers and physicists–really need calculus, but understanding a great many things in the modern world (e.g., evaluating risks for different medical treatment options) requires some competence in probability and statistics.

    And since I’m sure those comments will already make me unpopular around here, let me just add a tongue-in-cheek amplification of @gasstationwithoutpumps’s comment: The call for research on computing education from computing education researchers sounds more than just “a little” self-serving. 🙂

    • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  January 13, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      As always, Mike, you raise excellent points that I’ll have to give more thought to. I did want to defend myself on the last point. This isn’t the kind of research I do, but it’s research that needs to happen. I see this more like three physicists identifying a kind of physics research that really needs to happen, not that we are arguing for funding for ourselves. Chris, Alfred, and I think that we need to understand more about what the impact of learning CS has on learning in other fields because we think it’s important, no matter who does it. We have some seniority in the field now, so we’re in a position to say, “We need to go in this direction!”


      • 13. Mike Byrne  |  January 14, 2011 at 11:19 am

        I wasn’t really serious with that last paragraph, hence the smiley. I just thought the original point could be made completely over-the-top with a small wording change. I know that’s not really your area and I get that this is more a call for direction rather than increased volume in your area.

  • 14. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 14, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I want to amplify what Mike said, though I would dearly love to have more programming taught in the schools (and have done some afterschool and summer volunteer teaching to give at least a few students some exposure to programming), it is far more important to have statistics made a normal part of the curriculum. A lot of teachers around here even cut out the tiny amount of probability and statistics that is usually included in algebra classes.

    The AP stats course should have 4 times as many students as AP calculus (311625) rather than about 0.4x (126983). Of course, AP CS at only 19390 is about a factor of 10 too small. I think that a stronger case can be made for CS than for calculus as essential material—it’s just that the case for statistics and probability is stronger still. For that matter the case for stats is stronger than the case for trigonometry, algebra 2, or geometry.

    I would argue that the current math curriculum should be replaced with algebra, statistics, computer science, and algebra2+trig, cutting out geometry and calculus from the high school curriculum.

    There, I’ve made a proposal that puts in stats AND computer programming without requiring more high school courses, just removing some less effective ones that are currently there.

    • 15. Mike Byrne  |  January 14, 2011 at 11:28 am

      I would get completely behind this proposal; this is the best idea I’ve heard for K-12 math education in a long time.

      However, as you note in your blog post, we’re probably a lot closer to being able to support this in a K-12 context with probability and statistics than we are with computing. There’s wider agreement on the curriculum and more teachers already teaching it. But I’d certainly support a change that involved dumping both geometry and calc in favor of stats and computing.

  • […] the comments A Joint Call for Research on Why Computer Science Education is Important for K-12 « Computing Educa… a discussion has started on whether computer science should be required of all high school […]

  • 17. GArth  |  January 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

    I teach CS in a high school but I have to agree with Mike B’s comments. Our K-8 curriculum is packed and, if it was not, there are no teachers qualified to teach it in the building. The likelihood of finding and hiring a qualified elementary CS teacher, if we were so inclined, is pretty much zero. Of course we have teachers that could learn one of the elementary level languages (Kudo, Alice, Scratch) but the time to learn it and teach it is just not there.

    I also must strongly agree with Mike’s calculus vs. stats comment. I have taught both calc and stats at the college level and at the high school level. Calc is a specialty field, while stats bombard us every day. I have actually had to use my stats outside the classroom. Calculus, not so much.

    I do wish CS could be taught at the lower levels. I believe the thinking methodology and the organizations skills required are, at the very least, transferable. I also believe a minimum of a required “Intro to CS” at the HS level is a must with higher courses available for those interested in the field. My school happens to have this but only because the school hired a math teacher who was also a programming geek. It would be interesting to see the response to a hiring request from a high school for a certified CS teacher. Would there be any applicants at all?

    A couple of months ago I proposed a CS course for teachers to the dean of the Education department of my local state university. His comment was there was just no time in the students’ schedule for another course. He also stated there was no demand for CS teachers to justify the required School of Ed paper work and curriculum review to introduce a new course. I think this is a bit short sighted but it is very realistic. I think eventually this short sightedness it going to bite us (USA) where it hurts.

    Computers and computer based technologies are driving the world. If we do not teach students to manipulate computers then those that do know how to manipulate computers will manipulate those that do not. (I obviously do not teach English.) Speaking of CS, I need to go grade CS finals.

  • 18. Computer Education grants from Google « DECISION STATS  |  January 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    […] A Joint Call for Research on Why Computer Science Education is Important for K-12 (computinged.wordpress.com) […]

  • […] programming well would also teach things beyond coding?  Maybe even problem-solving skills?  David Palumbo’s excellent review of the literature on programming and problem-solving pointed out that there was very little link from programming to problem-solving skills — but […]

  • […] on mathematics.  When Sharon Carver showed impact of programming on problem-solving performance (mentioned here), she looked at what the students did — she showed that her predictions were met.  Lauren […]


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