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C'est la Z

CS - it isn’t all that

I've dedicated my entire career - something like 32 years, to CS education and the spread of CS education. So, while I try to be a cheerleader I also think it's important to call out things that we do or say that are maybe not so great.

So, I hope I don't annoy too many people (or maybe I hope I do) with this post and maybe a few more to come.

Before diving into specific CS teaching methods, we started with some general discussion. What is CS? Why study CS? Why it's important to offer etc. This is is really red meat for CS teachers so rich discussion quickly ensued. Nothing particularly new, I've heard and has been part these conversations so many times.

Lots of good stuff but there were a few things that always come up in these conversations that I think are worth calling out.

  • CS is creativity
  • CS is problem solving
  • CS is making mistakes
  • CS is building projects.
  • Students like CS, it's fun.

These aren't bad things and in fact are almost always good things. What I want to call out is that they're not CS and certainly not exclusive to CS.

The big thing I don't like about this is that the good things here are not exclusive to CS and are not always in CS. CS can teach problem solving but so can Math. Creativity? How about writing or the arts. Making mistakes? Science? Math. and on and on.

On the flip side CS doesn't necessarily have these and other good attributes. CS is generally perceived as fun but then again we're CS educators. Math teachers think math is fun. Likewise, as long as CS classes are populated by students electing to be there and as long as the content is lightweight it's not surprising that many kids think it's fun. When standardized testing sets in and teachers are pressured to cover more with less in less time, this will probably change.

I will not infrequently say that something I'm teaching is "inherently cool" but the truth is it isn't. There are plenty of things that I might think are cool or neat or fun but that doesn't automatically mean all our students will feel the same way.

Problem solving and creativity?

As I said before, just about every other field can be about these but CS might not. Back when the code school / bootcamp boom started in the Ruby on Rails days, those code schools taught neither problem solving nor creativity. They taught rote pattern programming to create a very specific type of application to solve a specific problem that was in demand in the early days of the second internet boom.

CS also isn't also necessarily taught in a creative way in the K-College classroom. I've seen many classes where student create a game but they all code it together and the creativity consists of students deciding on the sprite to use for the player. Yes, this allows for a controlled form of creativity on the visual part of their project but not on the problem solving side.

I don't mean to be down on CS. CS can incorporate all these good things and more but I think it's important to recognize that other fields can be these things as well and CS might not be all we think it's cracked up to be.

CS does, though have one edge over most other fields. As the new kid on the block K12 CS education is not as highly regulated and restricted as other fields. We don't have standardized exams nor standardized curriculum. The closest we have are APCS-A and APCS-Principles. This means teachers are more free to teach what they want how they want. This can be great with a well prepared, qualified tearch or less great with a less ready one.

As CS becomes more part of the system I expect teachers to have less freedom in what they teach and how they teach. As a community we might be able to steer the ship towards keeping the good stuff but then again, we might not.

It's important, as a community of educators, that as CS becomes more standardized that the teachers and not the curriculum providers, not the standards makers, and not the gorillas in the room with the oversized influence but none of the actual teaching or CS experience have a voice to keep the good stuff and not go the way of other disciplines that are no longer considered cool.

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