Thursday, July 27, 2017

Do We Want Computer Science to be Required?

Is making computer science a required course for everyone really a good idea? Doug Bergman made some interesting comments on Facebook today:

"A required course means people HAVE to take it, which on the surface is what we say we want in CS, but when you dive deeper forces us to ask different questions. I do not want to be like math where everyone takes it but few actually like it."

We're really a long way from that nationally of course. Mostly people are focusing on CS being at least available for everyone. The school I teach at does require a year (well two semesters) of computer science for graduation. So we're a bit ahead of the curve. We work hard to have a course that builds enthusiasm for the subject rather than killing it. And we offer several opportunities for a second semester after our first course that almost everyone takes. Other subjects do that as well I believe. We still often take the fun out of some courses. We need to avoid that everywhere but for CS which is still gaining acceptance this may even be more critical.

IF we are to have CS as a required course we really did to be thoughtful about how those courses are taught. We have to make them relevant understanding that relevant means different things to students of different ages and backgrounds. One size does not fit all. We have to have classes taught by teachers who are enthusiastic about the course. The last things we need are teachers who don't want to be teaching computer science and who don't enjoy the material themselves. They'll teach students to also hate the subject in spite of their best intentions. In short, if we don't teach required courses in ways that encourage all (or at least most) students we risk losing traction in offering CS to everyone. We don't have hundreds of years of being a core subject to fall back on.

So perhaps for now access for all students is enough. On the other hand if, as some of the data suggest, CS is offered a lot more often to students of privilege (for various definitions of that sometimes incendiary word) maybe we do need to push a few (many?) for people into the field to get the diversity that we know the field needs? Over the years, before we required a full year of CS, many of my students took advanced CS courses because their parents pushed them into it. Parents who are engineers, scientists, executives, and similar see the need for CS education and want it for their children. Do barbers, mechanics, sales clerks, and other jobs that traditionally haven't required advanced education see the need for their children? Obviously some do and they push and support and motivate their children just as hard, if not more so, than parents with a lot of education do. But are they there for all students? If a parent, like my grandparents a generation or two ago, think that high school is plenty of education are they going to push their child into CS? Can we bet their future on it? It's complicated.

Ultimately I think we will get to requiring CS for all students. We'd better do it right though.


Charmaine Bentley said...

In addition to avoiding CS teachers who are not enthusiastic about their subject, we might want to consider the inadvisability of recruiting CS teachers whose primary goal is to get out of teaching what they were previously assigned (math, science, English, band, etc.)

Garth said...

My big question is that definition of CS that still seems fuzzy. A required year of Python programming? Never. A year of a combination of Office (or some apps), hardware, networking, AV, programming and some other odds and ends, maybe. Just think of the war this would cause with the other required course teachers and the elective teachers. A new required course would mean something else would have to be cut. Panic in the streets.

Unknown said...

I say split the difference: have a one semester required course to give students a taste. At my school, every grade 6 and grade 7 student learns a little Python (after learning Scratch in grades 4 and 5). Later, they are offered electives should they decide to pursue it further.

On a side note, unenthusiastic teachers is a separate issue - this applies to anybody teaching anything. If you've lost enthusiasm for your subject, you should change subjects, or leave the profession.