Archive for May 23, 2016

The Community of Practice for CS teachers? Suggestion: It’s not teachers

My Blog@CACM post this month is on the AAAS symposium I attended on undergraduate STEM education (see post here).  The symposium set up for me a contrast between computing education and other STEM education.  In math and science education, faculty are more likely to get continuing professional development and to value education more than CS faculty.

Why is it different in CS?  In the blog post, I suggest that part of the issue is maturation of the field.  But I have another hypothesis — I suggest that most CS teachers, especially at the undergraduate level, don’t think of themselves as teachers.

In my book Learner-Centered Design of Computing Education, I use Lave & Wenger’s situated learning theory as a lens for understanding motivations to pursue computing education.  Lave & Wenger say every learner aims to join a community of practice.  Learners start out on the periphery of the community, and work their way towards the center, adopting the skills, values, and knowledge that those in the center hold. They might need to take classes because that’s what the community values, or maybe they do an apprenticeship. The community of practice provides the learner and the practitioners a sense of identity: “I belong with this group. I do this practice. This is who I am.”

Lijun Ni taught me the value of teacher identity. Someone who says “I’m a math teacher” (for example) will join math teacher organizations, will seek out professional development, and will more likely be retained longer as a teacher. That’s their identity.

I believe that many science and math teachers (even at the undergraduate level) feel a sense of identity as teachers. Even at research universities, those teaching the intro courses in mathematics and science are likely teachers-first. They know that they are mostly no preparing future mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and physicists.  They are preparing students for their chosen professions, perhaps in engineering, medicine, or computer science. The math and science teachers belong to a community of practice of teachers, e.g., they have a goal to be like the best teachers in their profession.  They have an identity as teachers, e.g., they strive to be better math and science teachers.

I suspect that CS teachers feel a sense of identity as software developers. They see themselves as programmers primarily. They see themselves as producing future programmers. They take pride in what they can do with code. They have a sense of guardianship — they want the best and brightest in their field.

There’s a difference between CS teachers as programmers vs CS teachers. Programmers train other programmers. They learn new programming languages, new techniques of programming, the latest tools. Teachers teach everyone, and they learn how to be better at teaching. We need CS teachers to be teachers. It’s less important that they know the latest industry gadgets. It’s more important that they learn how to teach “all” about CS, and how to teach that CS better.

When Grady Booch came to SIGCSE 2007, I was surprised at how excited everyone was — people still talk about that visit (e.g., see the explanation for the BJC approach to computing). I realized that, for most of the people in the room, Grady was a role model.  He was at the center of community that they most cared about.  Note that Grady is not a teacher. He’s an exceptional software engineer.

There are serious ramifications of a teacher with an identity as a software engineer.  I had a discussion a few months ago with one of our instructors, who told me, “I just don’t get why women would even want to be in computer science.  Working in a cubicle is not a great place for women to be! They should get a better job.”  I was shocked. I didn’t tackle the gender issues first. I started out trying to convince him that computer science doesn’t just lead to a cubicle. You could study computer science to become something other than a software developer, to work somewhere other than a cubicle. He wasn’t buying my argument. I realized that those cubicle jobs are the ones he wants to prepare students for. That’s where he imagines the best programmers working. He doesn’t want to teach computer science for whatever the students need it for. He prepares future programmers. That’s how he defines his job — a master software engineer with apprentice software engineers.

I am calling out undergraduate CS teachers in this post, but I suspect that many high school CS teachers see themselves as software developers (or as trainers of software developers), more than as teachers of computer science.  I hear about high school CS teachers who proudly post on the wall the t-shirts of the tech companies who employ their former students.  That’s a software developer focus, an apprenticeship focus. That’s not about teaching CS for all.

What would it take to shift the community of practice of CS teachers to value teaching over software development?  It’s an important change in perspective, especially if we care about CS for all. Not all of our students are aiming for jobs in software development.

How did other STEM disciplines do it?  How did they develop a culture and community of practice around teaching?

May 23, 2016 at 7:35 am 23 comments


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