Sally Fincher on the need for CER: What Are We Doing When We Teach Computing in Schools?
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this article appear in CACM for over a year. Last January and May, I heard Sally Fincher give two talks about computing education research (CER), where she started by describing (failed) efforts to teach reading over the last hundred years. She created a compelling analogy. What educators were doing when they simplified the learning of reading seem analogous to our efforts today to simplify the learning of programming — but those efforts to teach simplified reading led to significant harm to the students. What harm are we doing to students when we teach programming in these new ways? She is not calling for an end to these efforts. Rather, she’s calling for research to figure out what we’re doing and to investigate the effects. She agreed to write up her story for Viewpoints, which is published this month in CACM. Thanks, Sally!
Other approaches believe it is more appropriate to use real syntax, but constrain the environment to a particular (attractive) problem domain so learners become fluent in a constrained space. Event-driven environments (such as Greenfoot) or scaffolded systems (like Processing.js) aim for the learner to develop an accurate mental model of what their code is doing, and ultimately transfer that to other environments. Although whether they actually do so remains unclear: we may be restricting things in the wrong way.
Still others hold that coding—howsoever approached—is insufficient for literacy and advocate a wider approach, taking in “computational thinking,” for instance as embedded in the framework of the “CS Principles”: Enduring Understandings, Learning Objectives, and Essential Knowledge.
What is resolutely held common with traditionally formulated literacy is that these approaches are unleashed on classrooms, often whole school districts, even into the curriculum of entire countries—with scant research or evaluation. And without carrying the teachers. If we are to teach computing in schools we should go properly equipped. Alongside the admirable energy being poured into creating curricular and associated classroom materials, we need an accompanying set of considered and detailed programs of research, to parallel those done for previous literacies.