CS for All? Where Are We Going to Fit It In?

Last November, Virginia became the first state in the US to require computer science instruction – specifically “computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding” – at all levels K-12. For elementary students, teachers will be expected to integrate the concepts into the rest of their instruction. In middle and high school, students can choose elective courses in computer science but will not be required to take one.

Is this a good thing?

Lots of politicians, business folks, and other education “experts” have declared that CS for all students is necessary. Some say that the economic future of the country depends on training many more computer programmers, although the case for that is rather shaky (like that for the emphasis on STEM). Others seem to believe that CS would be beneficial to every high school graduate for a variety of rather murky reasons.

I certainly believe that everyone should have a fundamental understanding of how the hardware and software they use every day works. If we’re going to depend on computers to run our lives and the rest of the world, we should at least know a little about what’s happening.

However, I’m not sure these new requirements from the department of education will ever get that job done.

For one thing, these new Standards of Learning will not be tested which means it’s quite likely that, in most classrooms, the content will be added in when time allows. I also suspect that many teachers will be given the requirements with little or no help implementing them. Professional development of any kind is not given a big priority in most districts, especially for something not tested.

All of which points to a larger problem for not only CS for all, but also for STEM, the maker movement, design thinking, project-based learning, and the other “reform” ideas we have been pouring into schools in the past decade or two: there’s no room for them in the “normal” school day.

Coding is done in an hour. STEM lessons are done in after-school programs. Students go to maker spaces for special activities, in they same way they used to go to the computer lab. We bring out the projects after the “regular” work is complete.

If computer science and the rest of this is really important, it needs to be part of the standard curriculum. Every day for all students, not just on special occasions for the kids we know will pass the standardized tests.

Fitting it in shouldn’t be hard since much of the mathematics and science curriculums used in schools is crap and could easily be trashed (or at least minimized).

Replacing the classical, college-prep academic training that begins early in elementary grades with curiosity-driven, hands-on activities would not only allow plenty of time for CS and the rest, it would also make school more meaningful and interesting for students.

A win for everyone.

Digital Citizenship Was So Last Week

Last week was Digital Citizenship Week. My Twitter and RSS feed was full of posts about activities teachers were doing with students around the topics related to working responsibly online. Lots of pictures of kids doing digital citizenship stuff.

But what about this week? Will Internet safety, validating information, and fair use of copyrighted content continue to be front and center in classrooms?

In most schools, the answer, of course, is no.

As with Hour of Code, Digital Learning Day, and many other education-related special events, these topics are highlighted for a specific amount of time and then we go back to “normal”. There’s a reason why none of them are scheduled in the spring during testing season.

Certainly there are some teachers who keep these important topics in front of their classes every day. Better yet, they continually model best practices for working on and learning with the web in full view of their students.

However, if any of these topics and issues were really important, they would not be optional, distinctive occasions. Digital citizenship, coding, and the rest would be a core part of the standard curriculum, essential learning for every student.

Instead of one-and-done annual diversions from “real” learning. After all, none of this stuff is on the test.

The Mathematical Obstacle Course

In a Medium post, a “research mathematician turned educator” discusses how extremely talented students are often disillusioned by high powered mathematics competitions like the International Math Olympiad.

Of course, extremely few high school students will ever be involved in this kind of “cheap competition that brutalises the subject into a performance act”, and this piece is of very limited interest to even most math teachers.

However, this observation accurately describe the high school math experience for most students.

School maths is engineered as a relentless competition, where students are ranked and judged according to the narrowest measures of aptitude. The spoils go to those who can mercilessly commit facts and procedures to memory (irrespective, and often at the expense, of understanding), and recall them in the arbitrary confines of exams.

In most high schools, the math curriculum imposed on students is a complex obstacle course aimed directly at Calculus, a class few of them need or will ever use.

Your New Curriculum?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most take the format of an intelligent conversation between two or more people, or someone telling a good story.

icon for tell me something i don't know podcast

Then there’s the program called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which the producers (who also do the more conventional but also excellent Freakonomics) describe as journalism wrapped in a game show package.

On most segments, they have a panel of three very smart people and a general theme. Audience members (often experts in a specific field of study) are then invited on stage to tell the panel about something they may not know related to the theme. The panel gets to ask any questions they might have and, after all the stories have been told, they decide who did the best job.

It’s all simple, very nerdish fun.

However, as I was listening to a recent episode, it struck me that this is very much what school should be.

Stay with me.

Currently, in most classrooms, a teacher stands in front of a group of students dispensing information. Or at least they direct the distribution of that knowledge in some way.

So, what happens if the teacher walks into the classroom and instead challenges the kids to tell me something I don’t know?

There would have to be some structure, of course. I’m pretty sure teenagers could reel off a whole lot of trivia they consider interesting that would baffle most adults. But the show itself provides some of that organization.

The rules of the game are that the IDK (short for the “I don’t know”) presented must be something we truly don’t know, something that is actually worth knowing (which may eliminate everything on the E! channel), and something that is demonstrably true.

Ok, there are probably more than a few details that need to be worked out before anyone puts this idea into practice.

But what better way to get students to look at learning in a different way than to ask them to choose a topic they find interesting, immerse themselves in the details, and then put the material they find into a compelling form for a live audience?

Enlist Your Kids in the Cyber Army

If you don’t read the publication called The Hill,1 you probably missed a recent opinion piece pushing a new topic for our already overloaded K12 curriculum: hacking.

According to a professor from Carnagie Mellon University, there is a “critical national shortage of” computer security experts and the first thing we need to do to correct this is “promote hacking at the K-12 level”. “[W]e need a national push to build effective cybersecurity education programs.”

No. Just no!

He’s very right that privacy education is essential for kids. Most adults as well. I agree completely with his positive definition of the term “hacking” and that “we need to recognize that hackers are valuable”.

However, we do not need yet another program designed to solve perceived corporate personnel shortages. Too many schools have already bought into the STEM crisis myth.

Or one to feed students to build his college program, which seems to be an underlying goal of his proposal.

And I’m extremely skeptical of his conclusion that “we need to embrace hacking as an essential skill for kids to learn in order to keep this country safe in the future”.

Instead, how about going back to the original concept of K12 education? The one where students received a broad liberal education and had the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, especially leading up to high school where they would have the option to take some vocation-specific electives.

Maybe “hacking” should be a part of that experience. Building a child cyber army to fight off the bad guys should not.