Require CS at University in order to Get CS into K-12 (Revisited)

December 15, 2017 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

I wrote a blog post in Blog@CACM in 2011: If You Want High School CS, Require Undergraduate CS.  Everything we’ve seen since then makes me more convinced this is a viable path to providing high-quality CS education for every student.

There is a growing body of evidence that every student at University will need computing. The recent report from Burning Glass and Oracle Academy shows how much in demand CS skills are, far beyond just those who will be professional software developers. Teaching everyone about computing would help in addressing Cathy O’Neill’s calls for more people to be investigating the algorithms controlling our lives. The argument for why University involvement is necessary for K12 CS Ed is based on an observation made recently by We are not producing enough CS teachers in University. If everyone took CS at University, that would also reach pre-service teachers. That would make it easier for those teachers to teach CS in the future.

Requiring CS at University may help with the bigger cultural and perception problem.  In England, we see that schools aren’t offering CS even if it’s part of the required curriculum, and students (especially females) aren’t taking it (see the Royal Society report from last month).  The problem is that we’re trying to shoehorn CS into a culture that isn’t asking for it, or rather, the students (and schools) don’t perceive a need for CS. This is a form of the same problem that came up when we were talking about getting more formal methods into software development practice. All professionals should understand the role of computing in our society and how to use computing as a literacy: To express ideas, to share ideas, and to use in developing ideas.

Schools follow society. Society is rarely (if ever) changed by schooling. If you want a computationally literate society, convince the adults. If most professionals use computing, the same professionals that students want to be like, then there is a social reason to learn computing. Social demand to prepare K-12 students in that literacy makes it more likely for that literacy to succeed in K-12 education.  Trying to teach all students something that society doesn’t value for everyone is counter to situated learning theory.  Students (even K-12 students) are engaged in legitimate peripheral participation — their “job” is to figure out what is expected of them in society. If they don’t see computational literacy broadly in society, students don’t get the message that it’s important for everyone to learn.

When I make this suggestion to University faculty, I often hear the argument, “Anything you require of students, they will hate.” Then they tell me an anecdote of some student who hated a requirement, or of some personal experience of a class they hated. I know of no empirical evidence that says that this is generally true. We do have empirical evidence that says it’s false. Mike Hewner’s work found that US students take required classes in order to discover what they like, and they make curricular choices based on what they like.

We are already seeing students from all over campus flooding into our classes (see the Generation CS report and the National Academies report). We are already learning how to manage the load. It’s already happening in some Universities that most or all students at University are taking CS. Why not require it so that we get the Education students who we may not be seeing yet in CS classes?

Instead of using Universities to make CS education work, we are pouring money into CS Ed via in-service professional development — a tenfold increase in England, and $1.5B in the next five years in the US.  In general, more money in education alone doesn’t change things. We have to think about systems, policies, and our educational ecosystem. Universities are part of that educational ecosystem.

Universities play a role in K-12 education in all other subjects. We have to involve them in order to create sustainable K-12 Computer Science education.

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State of Computing Education in the Commonwealth of Virginia: Guest Blog Post from Rebecca Dovi Do we really want computerized personalized tutoring systems? Answer: Yes

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