Going beyond the cognitivist in computing education research questions
In Josh Tenenberg’s lead article in the September 2014 ACM Transactions on Computing Education (linked below), he uses this blog, and in particular, this blog post on research questions, as a foil for exploring what questions we ask in computing education research. I was both delighted (“How wonderful! I have readers who are thinking about what I’m writing!”) and aghast (“But wait! It’s just a blog post! I didn’t carefully craft the language the way I might a serious paper!”) — but much more the former. Josh is kind in his consideration, and raises interesting issues about our perspectives in our research questions.
I disagree with one part of his analysis, though. He argues that my conception of computing education (“the study of how people come to understand computing”) is inherently cognitivist (centered in the brain, ignoring the social context) because of the word “understand.” Maybe. If understanding is centered in cognition, yes, I agree. If understanding is demonstrated through purposeful action in the world (i.e., you understand computing if you can do with computing what you want), then it’s a more situated definition. If understanding is a dialogue with others (i.e., you understand computing if you can communicate about computing with others), then it’s more of a sociocognitive definition.
The questions he calls out are clearly cognitivist. I’m guilty as charged — my first PhD advisor was a cognitive scientist, and I “grew up” as the learning science community was being born. That is my default position when it comes to thinking about learning. But I think that my definition of the field is more encompassing, and in my own work, I tend toward thinking more about motivation and about communities of practice.
Asking significant research questions is a crucial aspect of building a research foundation in computer science CS education. In this article, I argue that the questions that we ask are shaped by internalized theoretical presuppositions about how the social and behavioral worlds operate. And although such presuppositions are essential in making the world sensible, at the same time they preclude carrying out many research studies that may further our collective research enterprise. I build this argument by first considering a few proposed research questions typical of much of the existing research in CS education, making visible the cognitivist assumptions that these questions presuppose. I then provide a different set of assumptions based on sociocultural theories of cognition and enumerate some of the different research questions to which these presuppositions give rise. My point is not to debate the merits of the contrasting theories but to demonstrate how theories about how minds and sociality operate are imminent in the very questions that researchers ask. Finally, I argue that by appropriating existing theory from the social, behavioral, and learning sciences, and making such theories explicit in carrying out and reporting their research, CS education researchers will advance the field.