Archive for March 9, 2020

Defining CS Ed out of existence: Have we made CS too hard to learn and teach?

It was this quote in a tweet from Miles Berry that really made me sit up and take notice of the latest news about the Computing at School initiative:

“If computing increasingly means CS, it looks likely that hundreds of thousands of students, particularly girls and poorer students, will be disenfranchised from a digital education over the next few years.”

He was quoting an article from the New Statesman which can be found here. It describes the history of the rise of the CS curriculum in England. The key paragraph for me is:

The new curriculum was failing. While a tougher course had been introduced, few students were taking it and even fewer teachers could teach it. In many cases, even those who could felt uncomfortable doing so.

The government read the reports and has decided to respond. There’s now an enormous investment in England in trying to train new teachers. The question is whether that’s the right investment.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the headline of this May 2019 article is “Teachers and students in decline: the computing ‘crisis’ in Scotland’s schools.”

Experts are urging the Scottish Government to take radical steps to boost computing science education to prevent the subject from being squeezed out of schools.

The teaching of computing in schools is in “crisis”, practitioners have told The Ferret, with classes shrinking and teachers in short supply. The latest official data shows that the number of children studying the subject declined last year, while the number of teachers has fallen over the last decade.

Despite a national focus on delivering science and technology education and economic development, schools are finding it increasingly difficult to teach computing science to young people, critics say.

Let’s explicitly consider the questions raised in these two articles. Have we defined CS education in such a way that it’s too hard to teach? That it’s not interesting to learn? Maybe that it’s too hard to learn?

I’ve been writing in the last few months about the surprisingly low uptake of CS education in the United States (for example, in this CACM Blog post). No more than 5% of high school students in any US state are getting any CS classes, from the data available. There is value in setting high standards for CS education (as Alan Kay has been arguing), but that’s an argument for the end goal. Where do we start with CS education? How quickly can and will students learn CS education? What does it mean for something to be too hard to teach or too hard to learn?

Overall, US is following a similar strategy as in England and Scotland for computing in K-12: standalone CS classes, heavy emphasis on in-service teacher development, and counting the number of students in CS classes and the number of teachers leading those classes. There is integrated CS in the US, but as far as I know, no state is tracking those numbers. Public policy tends to focus on things that can be measured. Most of the argument against integration says that too little CS is covered in integrated forms. 95% of US students getting no CS at all is even less coverage than CS in integrated forms.

Let’s consider two hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1: We know how to teach computer science in such a way that all students can learn what they need to be technically-literate citizens, or even to develop the prerequisite knowledge they need to be software professionals. We have not yet achieved this goal because we do not have enough teachers to implement the curriculum. Larger investments in teacher development (perhaps including stipends or better pay to CS teachers) would allow us to scale CS Ed to reach everyone.

Hypothesis #2: We have defined computer science education in a way that is too hard to teach (so too few teachers are unwilling to teach it), and that is too hard to learn (which includes not being motivating enough to recruit students or engage student interest in order to achieve learning).

Given the evidence we have in the US, England, and Scotland, which hypothesis is better supported? You may have a Hypothesis #3 or #4 which is also well-supported by the evidence — I am very interested in hearing it.

In general, we tend to take the “insider view” of CS Ed, as Kahneman warned about (see excerpt here). If you step outside CS Ed, are we making progress along a trajectory that leads to CS education for all? And how long is that trajectory? If you were an Education faculty member and learned that CS had less than 5% of US high school students enrolled, wouldn’t it be reasonable to consider it a fad and likely to pass?

As I wrote in my blog post about what I got wrong in the last decade, I no longer think that CS for All is a matter of access. We have to figure out how to improve participation. I’m in support of Hypothesis #2. We need to re-think what and how we teach CS education. Because of my work these days, I suspect that we made a mistake at the design level. I was involved in the early days of the AP CS Principles (AP CSP) process. Most of the AP CSP curricula I’m aware of were developed by and tested with some of the best CS teachers in the US. That design and development process doesn’t promise a curriculum that many teachers can teach and that most students will learn from.

I just got back from a three day visit in Norway, where they are about to roll-out an integration of CS activities (explicitly programming) into mathematics, science, music, and arts & crafts classes. (See workshop about this topic here.). Maybe that would result in more students learning some computer science. Did US, England, and Scotland make a mistake by emphasizing standalone CS classes over integration?

March 9, 2020 at 7:41 am 23 comments


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