Education: What Are We Doing When We Teach Computing in Schools? (CACM May 2015, pp24-26)

This article initally caught my attention with it's graphic and caption “SCIENCE:Gravity makes haveier things fall faster.” The author goes on to recount her experience with just such a poster in a local elementary science fair and her lack of success in having it taken down. The point: we have started pushing instruction of computing (and programming) into schools where there are non-specialist teachers who are expected to understand the material well enough that the students come away with correct knowledge. 

She goes on and makes an interesting comparison to ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet), an experiment from the 1960s that was in vogue when I was just starting kindergarten. I was fortunate to have avoided it, but my sister, just a couple of years younger, did not. My mom swore it was horrible for her learning to read and, in fact, part of the author's point in his comparison is that research-based studies of ITA showed that was really true and eventually lead to it's discontinuance. The point here: we're pushing computing without putting the effort into research-based instruction so we don't really know what works and what doesn't and choices are being made based on the appeal of the evangelist. An additional point: watering down the topic to make it more understandable/appealing doesn't necessarily help students with what they really need to be learning. For ITA, it was how to read English and it didn't work. For computing, the question becomes, do restricted environments like Scratch and Alice really help in the long run?

This hits home with me since the local middle school where my children attended (past tense) started a “Software Engineering Pilot Program” two years ago. It's not clear where the author of that program got the curriculum and since he left before it even got underweigh, it's not clear we'll find out. But it's also not clear what the basis for evaluating the program's success will be. In the public education arena, success is often measured either by standardized exams of debatable value, or by popular response.  Neither will help us to know if we are really improving student's knowledge of how computing works.