Posts tagged ‘CS for all’

The Story of MACOS: How getting curriculum development wrong cost the nation, and how we should do it better

Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) is one of the most ambitious US curriculum efforts I’ve ever heard about. The goal was to teach anthropology to 10 year olds. The effort was led by world-renowned educational psychologist Jerome Bruner, and included many developers, anthropologists, and educational psychologists (including Howard Gardner). It won awards from the American Education Research Association and from other education professional organization for its innovation and connection to research. At its height, MACOS was in thousands of schools, including whole school districts.

Today, MACOS isn’t taught anywhere. Funding for MACOS was debated in Congress in 1975, and the controversy led eventually to the de-funding of science education nationally.

Peter Dow’s 1991 book Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons from the Sputnik Era is a terrific book which should be required reading for everyone involved in computing education in K-12. Dow was the project manager for MACOS, and he’s candid in describing what they got wrong. It’s worthwhile understanding what happened so that we might avoid it in computing education. I just finished reading it, and here are some of the parts that I found particularly insightful.

First, Dow doesn’t dismiss the critics of MACOS. Rather, he recognizes that the tension is between learning objectives. What do we want for our children? What kind of society do we want to build?

I quickly learned that decisions about educational reform are driven far more by political considerations, such as the prevailing public mood, than they are by a systematic effort to improve instruction. Just as Soviet science supremacy had spawned a decade of curriculum reform led by some of our most creative research scientists during the late 1950s and 1960s, so now a new wave of political conservatism and religious fundamentalism in the early 1970s began to call into question the intrusion of university academics into the schools…Exposure to this debate caused me to recast the account to give more attention to educational politics. No discussion of school reform, it seems, can be separated from our vision of the society that the schools serve.

MACOS was based in the best of educational psychology at the time. Students engaged in inquiry with first-hand accounts, e.g., videos of Eskimos. The big mistake the developers made was they gave almost no thought to how it was going to get disseminated. Dow points out that MACOS was academic researchers intruding into K-12, without really understanding K-12. They didn’t plan for teacher professional development, and worse, didn’t build any mechanism for teachers to tell them how the materials should be changed to work in real classrooms. They were openly dismissive of the publishers who might get the materials into the world.

On teachers: There was ambivalence about teachers at ESI. On the one hand the Social Studies Program viewed its work as a panacea for teachers, a liberation from the drudgery of textbook materials and didactic lessons. On the other, professional educators were seen as dull-witted people who conversed in an incomprehensible “middle language” and were responsible for the uninspired state of American education.

On publishers: These two experienced and widely respected publishing executives listened politely while Bruner described our lofty education aspirations with characteristic eloquence, but the discussion soon turned to practical matters such as the procedures of state adoption committees, “tumbling test” requirements, per-pupil expenditures, readability formulas, and other restrictions that govern the basal textbook market. Spaulding and Kaplan tried valiantly to instruct us about the realities of the educational publishing world, but we dismissed their remarks as the musings of men who had been corrupted by commercialism. Did they not understand that our mission was to change education, not submit to the strictures that had made much of instruction so meaningless? Could not men so powerful in the publishing world commit some of their resources to support curriculum innovation? Had they no appreciation of the intellectual poverty of most social studies classrooms? I remember leaving that room depressed by the monumental conservatism of our visitors and more determined than ever to prove that there were ways to reach the schools with good materials. Our arrogance and naivete were not so easily cured.

By 1971, Dow realizes that the controversies around MACOS could easily have been avoided. They had made choices in their materials that highlighted the challenges of Eskimo life graphically, but the gory details weren’t really necessary to the learning objectives. They simply hadn’t thought enough about their users, which included the teachers, administrators, parents, and state education departments.

My favorite scene in the book is with Margaret Mead who tries to help Dow defend MACOS in Congress, but she’s frustrated by their arrogance and naivete.

Mead’s exasperation grew. “What do you tell the children that for?…I have been teaching anthropology for forty years,” she remarked, “and I have never had a controversy like this over what I have written.”

But Mead’s anger quickly returned. “No, no, you can’t tell the senators that! Don’t preach to them! You and I may believe that sort of thing, but that’s not what you say to these men. The trouble with you Cambridge intellectuals is that you have no political sense!”

Dow describes over two chapters the controversies around MACOS and the aftermath impacts on science education funding at NSF. But he also points out the problems with MACOS as a curriculum. Some of these are likely problems we’re facing in CS for All efforts.

For example, he talks about why MACOS was removed from Oregon schools, using the work of Lynda Falkenstein. (Read the below with an awareness of the Google-Gallup and EdWeek polls showing that administrators and principals are not supportive of CS in schools.)

She concluded that innovations that lacked the commitment of administrators able to provide long-term support and continuing teacher training beyond the initial implementation phase were bound to faster regardless of their quality. Even more than controversy, she found, the greatest barrier to successful innovation was the lack of continuity of support from the internal structure of the school system itself.

I highly recommend Schoolhouse Politics. It has me thinking about what it really takes to get any education reform to work and to scale. The book is light on evaluation evidence that MACOS worked. For example, I’m concerned that MACOS was so demanding that it may have been too much for underprepared students or teachers. I am totally convinced that it was innovative and brilliant. One of the best curriculum design efforts I’ve ever read about, in terms of building on theory and innovative design. I am also totally convinced that it wasn’t ready to scale — and the cost of that mistake was enormous. We need to avoid making those mistakes again.

June 18, 2018 at 7:00 am 5 comments

Google report in CACM: Is the U.S. Education System Ready for CS for All?

Jennifer Wang of Google has the Education Viewpoints column in CACM this month, and she reports on data that Google is collecting on systemic issues preventing CS for All.  It’s an important report that I recommend.

Interestingly, we also found that regardless of race/ethnicity or gender, 80% of students who have learned CS said that they learned CS in a class at school, about twice the rate of any other means of learning, including on their own, through afterschool clubs, online, or in any other program outside of school. This data strongly suggests formal education remains the best way to ensure widespread and equitable access to CS learning.

Yet, we found schools faced many barriers to offering CS classes. We asked principals and superintendents why they did not offer CS in their schools and districts. The most commonly cited barriers had to do with lack of qualified teachers and competing demands of standardized test preparation. Lack of qualified teachers was cited by 63% of principals and 74% of superintendents. Not enough funding to train teachers was cited by 55% of principals and 57% of superintendents. The need to devote time to testing requirements was cited by 50% of principals and 55% of superintendents. This indicates computing professionals can play an important role in expanding access to CS by supporting organizations that train teachers and by providing mentoring and resources to teachers and students.

Source: Is the U.S. Education System Ready for CS for All? | August 2017 | Communications of the ACM

August 25, 2017 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

CS Curricula, Standards, and Frameworks will Need to Change: Larry Cuban and Coding as Vocationalism

I just wrote a blog@CACM post (see link) below on a series of essays that Stanford educational historian Larry Cuban has written on “Coding as the New Vocationalism.”  His points are well-taken.  Schools have often been swayed by the needs of industry, and he sees the current “CS for All” effort as mostly being industry-driven.  The questions that he keeps returning to in his posts are, “What are schools for? How does real reform happen?”

It’s the latter set of insights that I think are missing from our current “CS for All” efforts.  I quote Cuban at the bottom of this post with his summary for how reforms succeed. Top-down edicts on what ought to be taught rarely work.  Remember the U. Chicago’s Outlier group research on the landscape of CS education from 2014?  Most professional development is requested by the school or district,  but in CS Ed, professional development mostly sent in by NSF, Google, and Universities (and today, likely, Code.org).  CS education will have to change to achieve the goal of being driven by district and teacher needs.

The most successful reform efforts are those that achieve the top-down goals in a process of mutual adaptation with teachers, an idea developed at Northwestern by a team of learning scientists led by Brian Reiser.

Whatever our curriculum, frameworks, and standards are today, they will change before we achieve CS for All.

Standards change in response to what teachers know, what we can actually teach them (at scale), and what they will actually teach (a process that has already happened in Georgia). We certainly can’t get the curriculum right yet — we’re decades away from reaching 100% of schools in any US state, with many, many teachers to prepare and to work with in a process of mutual adaptation.  I’m not opposed to defining curriculum, frameworks, and standards.  I’m opposed to thinking that we’re going to get it right — not today, when we have such a long road ahead of us.

The lessons that have to be learned time and again from earlier generations of school reformers are straightforward.

  • Build teacher capabilities in content and skills since both determine to what degree, if any, a policy gets past the classroom door.

  • With or without enhanced capabilities and expertise, teachers will adapt policies aimed at altering how and what they teach to the contours of the classrooms in which they teach. If policymakers hate teacher fingerprints over innovations, if they seek fidelity in putting desired reforms into practice, they wish for the impossible.

  • Ignoring both of the above lessons ends up with incomplete implementation of desired policies and sorely disappointed school reformers.

Source: Coding in Schools as New Vocationalism: Larry Cuban on What Schools are For | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM

July 24, 2017 at 7:00 am 2 comments

Universities need more Blacks: How do we know if we’re making progress?

The below article is pretty stunning — a sitting justice on the Supreme Court calling out an elite University for a lack of diversity.  This isn’t just about the University of Michigan. This isn’t about computing, but it could be. Sotomayor is speaking about an important social need, where computing is part of the problem.  We see that in the Generation CS report. We are falling further behind in getting African Americans into CS. (An interesting side note here that Georgia Tech alumna, Sarita Yardi (whom I mentioned in this blog post), just won an award at the University of Michigan for her work in promoting diversity.)

Daryl Chubin sent me a workshop report on “Better STEM Outcomes: Developing an Accountability System for Broadening Participation.” How would we know if we’re doing better?  We could measure participation rates in Universities, but that will take time to change.  How do you know if you’re doing the right things now for success later? For example, what would you measure at the high school level that would suggest progress towards broader participation in the future at the undergraduate level?  It’s a good question — we’re far from where we need to be, but we need to take meaningful steps towards the goal of broad participation in computing.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Monday said future diversity on college campuses is a key to diversifying society at large, noting the lack of black students at the University of Michigan is a “real problem.”

Sotomayor, the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court and daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents, was asked by a moderator what a university will need to look like in the years ahead to be inclusive and innovative.

“It’s going to look a lot like Michigan,” she said to applause, “but with even greater diversity.” The percentage of black undergraduate students at the University of Michigan has been pretty steady in recent years at less than 5 percent. Hispanics are 5.5 percent. White undergraduates are 65.4 percent.

Source: Sotomayor says University of Michigan needs more blacks

July 14, 2017 at 7:00 am 1 comment

From Design of Everyday Things to Teaching of Everyday People: Human error? Student error? No, Bad Design

We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.

Continue Reading June 26, 2017 at 7:00 am 19 comments

We need to separate Computing for All from Software Development: Claims that coding is not “fun,” it’s technically and ethically complex

The problem with the article linked below is that Code.org and the author mean two different things by the word “programming.”  Programming can be fun, insightful, sloppy, small, and still useful without demanding “superhuman focus” and “manic attention to detail.”  This is an issue I’ve talked about with respect to the thick line between programmer and user where most people will be in the future. I’m teaching an ethics course this summer — building software for others is technically and ethically complex, as the author states.  But building software as an end-user, as a hobbyist, as a scientist or engineer exploring an idea?  We need a different word.

Programming computers is a piece of cake. Or so the world’s digital-skills gurus would have us believe. From the non-profit Code.org’s promise that “Anybody can learn!” to Apple chief executive Tim Cook’s comment that writing code is “fun and interactive,” the art and science of making software is now as accessible as the alphabet.

Unfortunately, this rosy portrait bears no relation to reality. For starters, the profile of a programmer’s mind is pretty uncommon. As well as being highly analytical and creative, software developers need almost superhuman focus to manage the complexity of their tasks. Manic attention to detail is a must; slovenliness is verboten. Attaining this level of concentration requires a state of mind called being “in the flow,” a quasi-symbiotic relationship between human and machine that improves performance and motivation.

Source: Coding is not “fun,” it’s technically and ethically complex — Quartz

June 19, 2017 at 7:00 am 5 comments

Using tablets to broaden access to computing education: Elliot Soloway and truly making CS for All

I recently had the opportunity to visit with my PhD advisor, Elliot Soloway. Elliot has dramatically changed the direction of his research since we worked together. And he’s still very persuasive, because now I keep thinking about his challenge to push educational technology onto the least expensive devices.

When I worked with Elliot in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, we emphasized having lots of screen real estate. Though the little Macintosh Plus was still popular through much of that time, Elliot was hooking up 21-inch, two page displays for all our development and at the high schools where we worked. The theoretical argument was the value of multiple-linked representations (like in this paper from Bob Kozma). By giving students multiple representations of their program and their design, we would facilitate learning across and between representations. The goal was to get students to see programming as design.

But in the mid 1990’s, Elliot changed his direction to emphasize inexpensive, handheld devices. I remember asking him why at the time, and he pointed out that you could give 10 students access to these low-cost devices for one of the higher-end devices. And access trumps screens.

Now, Elliot has a project, Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center, that produces software for learning that runs on amazingly inexpensive computers. Go to http://www.imlc.io/apps and try out their all-HTML software on any of your devices.

I purchased an Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet last year as a media consumption device (reading, videos, and music). For less than $100, it’s an amazingly useful device that I carry everywhere since it’s light and mostly plastic. Here’s some of IMLC’s software running on my inexpensive tablet.

Teaching Computer Science on a Tablet

I have been arguing in this blog that we need a greater diversity of teaching methods in computer science, to achieve greater diversity and to teach students (and reach students) who fail with our existing methods. Elliot’s argument for inexpensive tablets has me thinking about the value for computing education.

If our only CS teaching method is “write another program,” then a tablet makes no sense. Typing on a tablet is more difficult than on a laptop or desktop computer. I have been arguing that we can actually teach a lot about coding without asking students to program. If we expand our teaching methods to those that go beyond simply writing programs, then a tablet makes a lot of sense.

Could a focus on using tablets to teach computer science drive us to develop new methods? If more CS teachers tried to use tablets, might that lead to greater adoption of a diverse range of CS teaching methods?

Elliot’s argument is about bridging the economic and digital divide. Can we use the low cost of tablets to break down economic barriers to learning computer science? Computing education via tablets may be key to the vision of CS for All. We can outfit a whole classroom with tablets much more cheaply than buying even mid-range laptops for an elementary or middle school classroom.  There are people suggesting that if we buy kids iPads, we’ll improve learning (e.g., Los Angeles schools).  I’m making the inverse argument.  If we as computing curriculum/technology developers and teachers figure out how to teach computing well with tablets, we’ll improve learning for everyone.

I started checking out what I could do with my less than $100 tablet. I was amazed! Moore’s Law means that the low-end today is surprisingly capable.

GP, the new blocks-based programming language that I’ve been working with (see posts here and here), runs really well on my Fire HD 8 tablet. In fact, it runs better (more functionality, more reliable, greater stability) in the browser of my Fire tablet than the browser-based GP does on my iPad Pro (which costs about a magnitude more).  (There is an iOS version of GP which is fast and stable, but doesn’t have all the features of the browser-based version.)

GP running on a Fire HD 8 Tablet — two Media Computation projects (mirroring on left, removing red eye on right)

Our ebooks run well on the Fire HD 8 tablet. I can program Python in our ebook using the tablet. Our approach in the ebooks emphasizes modification to existing programs, not just coding from scratch. Tweaking text works fine on the tablet.

Running Python code on the Fire HD 8 Tablet

A wide range of CS education practice activities, from multiple choice questions to Parsons Problems, work well on the Fire HD 8.

Parsons Problem on Fire HD 8 Tablet

I tried out WeScheme on my Fire HD 8, too.

I bought the cheapest Chromebook I could find for this trip. I wanted a laptop alternative to take to China and for commuting on the Barcelona subway, rather than my heavier and more expensive MacBook Air. All of these browser-based tools (GP, Python programming in the ebook, Parsons Problems) run great on my $170 Acer Chromebook, plus I get a keyboard. Even a Chromebook would require different teaching and learning methods than what we use in many CS courses. I’m not going to run Eclipse or even JES on a Chromebook. (Though Emacs has been ported to the Chromebook, it only runs on certain Chromebooks and not mine). Google is aiming to merge Chromebook and Android development so that apps run on both. I don’t really understand all the differences between tablets and Chromebooks, but I do know that Chromebooks are becoming more common in schools.

A Chromebook costs about twice what a low-end tablet costs. While that is still much less than most laptops, twice is a big markup for a poor student or a budget-strapped school. It’s worth pushing for the lowest end.

CS education researchers, developers, and teachers should explore teaching computing with tablets. Some are doing this already. The next version of Scratch will run on mobile phones, and the current version will already run on some phones and tablets. Creating CS learning opportunities on low-end tablets will make computing education more affordable and thus accessible to a broader range of potential CS students.  My proposal isn’t about offering the poor a cheaper, low-quality alternative. Tablets force us to expand and diversify our teaching methods, which will lead us to create better and more accessible computing education for all.

June 14, 2017 at 7:00 am 9 comments

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