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MSPnet Blog: “Computing for all #2: Can we get off the pendulum?”

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posted February 12, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

Technology and education: Albatross or Panacea? This dyad sums up the swings of attitude that mark the successive waves of response to innovations in technology for education. Some people see it as an answer to the persistent imperfections in education — new technology, made widely available, will support good pedagogy where it has not been before, bridge achievement gaps, overcome resource deficits rooted in poverty, neglect, or prejudice, and ensure that the United States achieves or regains its status as the greatest among great nations.  The president’s recent roll-out of his “computer science for all” initiative asserts:

In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘R’s.’

Does he mean that no one can function in this economy if they don’t know how to program a bubble-sort in their favorite language, create a data array, have a first-hand knowledge of such light classics as Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming?  

After savoring the familiar odor of hyperbole, the jaded observer thinks:  O dear, here comes another cycle of high followed by low.  Will this kind of advocacy do more harm than good?   In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the albatross is a Good Thing brought down by the narrator’s unthinking, callous act. His wrathful shipmates hang it around his neck, and it becomes a reproachful burden, instead of a token of good luck.

I mean, the last thing we want to do is make any respectable (even exciting) field of inquiry and invention unpalatable by misrepresentation and over-promising.

Valerie Strauss recently asked, All students should learn to code. Right?  Not so fast. Strauss reposts as part of this column a thoughtful, characteristically skeptical piece by Larry Cuban predicting, on the basis of the LOGO phenomenon of the 1980s, that the latest surge of enthusiasm for coding and computer science will very likely suffer the same pendulum swing from Urgent to Irrelevant that LOGO did.  His reasons are summarized in this pithy comparison:

“True believers” are seldom reflective so do not expect a glance backward at why Logo became virtually extinct failing to last beyond a few schools where children continue to program using Logo-derived languages. Why?

1. While the overall national context clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that schools as institutions have lot to say about how any reform is put into practice. Traditional schools adapt reforms to meet institutional needs.

2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding , for the most part, catered to mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class students. They were (and are) boutique offerings.

3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding.

4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer and the research supporting such confidence is lacking.

I agree that “everyone should code” is both unrealistic and poorly justified, as it has currently been advocated.   I think we could make more progress (both in expanding people’s understanding of computer science or computation, and in empowering people to adopt such knowledge as a valuable tool for growth, creativity, and employment) if we did a better job envisioning what we’d like a classroom to look like that is deeply conversant with the tools and the insights of computer science — in the same way that the classroom is already deeply infused with the tools and insights of literacy and numeracy.

Sometimes the tools, concepts, and special arts appropriate to these ways of knowing and doing need to be explicitly taught, reviewed, played with;  sometimes, maybe most of the time, they are part of the ground of our learning and doing, no more a subject of explicit attention that are all the other technologies with which classrooms (homes, workplaces) are filled.   A new forum on MSPnet has just started, which explores just this premise:  “Computational thinking in elementary school,” moderated by Katie Rich.  (Go join that discussion!)

We can stop the pendulum from doing damage by thinking more carefully and more concretely about claims and experiments, and recognizing that while computer science may be well understood by its practitioners, the science of teaching it and learning it in the ecology of the classroom is a new one, and thus appropriately an area of active, patient, and imaginative research.  Heaven knows, we still haven’t gotten a clear sense of how best to integrate more familiar, foundational habits of mind in the classroom — such as geometry, or scientific inquiry, or the revolutionary insights of evolution (Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!).

Our society has many urgent problems to address, and each of us has our own urgent problems, too.  To meet them usually requires growth — growth of individual capacities, and of the capacities of communities or organizations.  It is alas true that the unfolding of events often happens at a tempo very different from the growth of insight or capability that education seeks.  This is an irony, if you will, of education, which nevertheless cannot be well done in the absence of hope.

On my wall for many years has been posted a motto from the socialist philosopher Gramsci:  “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

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This blog post has 1 comment.

Getting onto the pendulum in the first place.

posted by: Talbot Bielefeldt on 2/13/2016 5:12 pm

Larry Cuban is probably correct regarding the code-for-everybody movement. To add to his list of concerns is the fact that use or enjoyment of computers (or cars, or music) does not depend on knowing the mechanics. A relatively small number of people are thrilled at the recognition or creation of an elegant algorithm, well-turned brake drum, or complex chord structure. The world would probably be a better place if all schools had classes in coding, auto mechanics, and music theory, but it would still be hard to find large numbers of people to teach or take the classes.

I recall that one of the issues with Logo was that the approach was most effective when taught by someone who already had an extensive CS background. That implies a generational timeframe for implementation, even if the theory behind teaching computational thinking is valid.