Archive for August 6, 2018

CS educators listen to authority more than evidence: Time to move on

My CACM Blog post for July starts from Stuart Reges’ inflammatory blog post in June “Why Women Don’t Code.”  I use his post and other writing as a foil to critique how we make arguments in computing education.  They tend to be arguments from authority, not from evidence.

Why is that? Why do CS educators use evidence and research less than (as quoted in the CACM post) Physics educators?  Is it because of the youth of the field, so when we grow up we’ll think more about research on how to teach well?  Is it because of the economics of the field?  Getting a CS background is so lucrative that students are desperate to succeed in the classes. We don’t have to teach well — student motivation will make up for where our teaching lacks. Or is it something else — is it something about CS in its nature that leads to opposition to using evidence and research when making educational decisions?

In June, Stuart Reges, principal lecturer in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, published a blog post Why Women Don’t Code that led to several articles and blog posts in response (e.g., Seattle Times and GeekWire). Reges argues that women are simply never going to enter computing at significant numbers, and 20% is about all that we’re ever going to get.

Our community must face the difficult truth that we aren’t likely to make further progress in attracting women to computer science. Women can code, but often they don’t want to. We will never reach gender parity. You can shame and fire all of the Damores you find, but that won’t change the underlying reality.

It’s time for everyone to be honest, and my honest view is that having 20 percent women in tech is probably the best we are likely to achieve. Accepting that idea doesn’t mean that women should feel unwelcome. Recognizing that women will be in the minority makes me even more appreciative of the women who choose to join us.

Hank Levy, Director of the U-W CSE School, wrote a great statement in response (see here). Levy disagrees with Reges’s conclusions, but supports Reges’s right to make his argument. Levy puts the current gender ratio in computer science in context by comparing to other disciplines.

I was most struck by the 20% claim. That’s easily proven wrong. There are many CS educational programs in the US with more than 20% female (like Computational Media at Georgia Tech). There are countries where CS is more than 50% female. How can Reges claim that 20% is the best that we can possibly do?

Here’s something important about Stuart Reges that people outside of CS education might not know — he’s a rockstar. He packs the house when he speaks at education conferences. He publishes regularly in the field. He has written a popular book on how to teach Java in introductory computer science (see Building Java Programs). Students love him, and teachers want to be like him. When Stuart Reges speaks, CS educators listen.

In this post, I want to step back and consider how Reges is making his argument, because it says something about how we make decisions in computing education. I am going to characterize the argument style in computing education as argument from authority which Wikipedia describes as “a claimed authority’s support is used as evidence for an argument’s conclusion.” We need to recognize the form before we can move beyond it.

Click here to read the rest of the CACM Blog Post.

August 6, 2018 at 7:00 am 8 comments


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