Skip to main content

C'est la Z

Teaching CS - How early and how often?

A big part of the CS4All movement has been making computer science available at all grade levels. Of course that can mean many things. Grade levels could be elementary, middle, and high school or it can me k-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12 or maybe even every grade.

Does it mean required at every level or just an option?

This has led to many discussions and, at least from the ones I've listened in on, the prevailing feeling from the CS side is all CS all the time.

I don't know if this should be the case. It's important to think about other factors - bang for your buck, budgets, student workload, available faculty, what are the other requirements, and more.

This question also isn't limited to computer science, or at least it shouldn't be. K12 schooling is still a zero sum game - there are only so many minutes in a school day and while CS is important, so too are most if not all of the other subjects and some, like art and music are in danger or being left by the wayside at the expense of CS. Of course, on the other hand, there are some subject that I feel are already given too much time or the wrong amount.

That said, this post is about CS. We have neither the funds nor the faculty to offer CS as a requirement in every grade but is it even necessary? I don't know. An important part of offering CS in K12 is so that it's on a student's radar so they can consider studying more after HS. This is particularly important with some colleges requiring students apply as a CS major before even attending. Another side is to give a student the base level knowledge that we feel every educated person should have just as we seek to do this in biology, chemistry, history and so on.

I know that we can accomplish these goals with a single class requirement and two years of offerings overall . How do I know this? Because we did this at Stuy. Doing this requires two basic things:

  1. A well taught, well designed intro course that exposes students to the subject.
  2. Covering enough material deeply enough so that students are well prepared for the next steps in college should a student take them.

The required intro gives the base level that everyone should have and a more advanced follow up elective sets students up for success if they want more in college. Truth be told the required course should really be a year rather than a semester but we still made it work.

This fits well in the Stuyvesant program and given New York graduation requirements adding a single required course or even a required year fits pretty easily and adding electives also isn't a problem.

If you can't offer or require more then this can be enough. The question, though, is - "is it ideal?" I'd be hard-pressed to say that a school should require more than a year of CS. If you do it right and follow up with electives a year is plenty. If you don't do it right, well, then multiple years of bad CS isn't any better than 1.

What about earlier grades? Middle school? Standalone CS is nice but is it necessary or are we better off embedding CS into other classes? I haven't landed on an opinion on this but I do know that we've had a few middle school teachers graduate from my State Certification Program and I'd love to get their opinions over the next few years. As a general statement, I think it's safe to say that if you can fit in some meaningful CS in middle school that would be great but if I had a choice to either require it in middle school or in high school, I'd opt for HS. Middle school is too far from college and work. Why would I say this? Because of what I've noticed. There were periods of time where CS, or at least programming or web dev were introduced in a lot of Stuy's feeder schools and more often than not, when I surveyed students about past experiences they either barely remembered them (wait, I think I did something like making a web page in 7th grade…) or in any event based on my surveys, it made little difference towards either success in High School CS nor in interest in doing more CS.

Finally, the primary grades. When the whole CSforAll thing got started I noted that a lot of what we'd see in the elementary schools would be a rebranding of stuff that already being done in schools that can afford it - logic, problem solving, algorithms etc and also a relabeling of already taught concepts using CS or CT vocabulary. This is all good stuff and since it's more foundational it's probably pretty important. Of course, when schools and teachers had the freedom and budget, this was already happening prior to the CS movement even if we didn't call it CS.

So, do we need CS at all levels? Probably not. Would it be nice? Sure but we're not serving kids if we're just CS zealots. We have to look at the big picture and the whole student. If I ran a school system and could only afford CS at one level I'd go high school as I outlined above. If I could do two, I'd hop down to elementary school and then fill in middle last. Of course, that's just me.

Of course non of what I've said talks at all about digital citizenship or fluency but that's for another day.

comments powered by Disqus