CS For All The Time


A question that frequently comes up with respect to CS for All is what does it mean?

To me it means giving all students some fundamental exposure to computer science so that they can:

  1. Make use of those thinking skills, problem solving approaches, and
  2. practical tools regardless of their future paths.
  3. Provide a path for the subset of "all" that desire to further pursue
  4. computer science.

But even with this, how do you do it?

Does it mean that you require computer science? If so, do we require it every year? some years? One time only?

Does it mean you offer it as an elective? If so, when?

I think about this a fair amount but decided to write something up when I saw this tweet:

I responded that I've seen many kids get their first exposure in high school and from that go on to careers in tech so it's clear to me that high school isn't too late. I was reminded that I was talking about kids who went through my required HS CS class so the kids had no choice but to be exposed to CS but the people advocating starting at an elementary level are talking about a compulsory experience so to compare a required elementary experience against an elective high school one is really apples to oranges.

Even thought it's an unfair comparison there are a lot of things it can lead one to consider.

Should we teach CS in every grade? Probably not. How about every band? Maybe. For those of you not living in the K12 world "by band" usually refers to a set of grades - kindergarten to 2, 3 through 5, 6-8, and then high school. Where should it be required and where an elective?

Teaching a required CS class in every grade or band is going to be a huge undertaking. I'm also not sure it's required. To get the best bang for your buck you want to expose the kids to CS in a way and at a time when they might pursue it further. If you're having only one required experience, I don't think the elementary grades are the place.

There's that point in time, I think around first through third grade where dinosaurs are all the rage. Maybe more so in NYC where we have access to the American Museum of Natural History but still. Lots of young kids want to be paleontologists but it doesn't hold. Okay. maybe I'm being a little silly here but I think the basic point is accurate. Kids are exposed to many things in the early grades that just fade away.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't do CS or CS related things in grade school. Things like the activity Fred Wilson described in his post on this year's Hour of Code or the problem solving and logic games good teachers do if given the time and resources. Things that have always been done by some teachers in some schools but are now being relabled CS or Computational Thinking. These are great practices and should be made available to all students as part of their elementary education but I doubt that they'll lead to many kids following CS as a career path. I'm not an elementary school expert but to me, even though I see great value in the early logic / problem solving stuff, I don't see hyping CS early as making a difference unless there's some follow up before the interest fades.

That brings us to the middle school bands. I've dabbled a little here but it's also not my wheelhouse. In my experience, kids in lower middle school can dabble in DnD tools and start to develop some coding skills and explore some of the CS concepts that they'll see in late HS or college and those in upper middle school can play with the text based languages to do the same. What I also noticed is that what can be accomplished in a month with those kids in middle school can be done in a week or two when the kids are a year or two older and with greater understanding and retention.

As a side note, before people get up in arms with "I teach middle school kids APCS-A and they all master it" let me say that I'm describing my experience across a range of middle school kids. There will always be few outliers who can do more when younger. That said I'm betting that most people who say that any middle school kid can indeed master APCS-A hasn't done so in an inner city poor public school. Have you done it while teaching a class of 34? With a class of low income students with all the disadvantages and challenges inherent to that population? What's more did you then have to teach them a data structures course a year or two later to see if they really mastered the original material.

This brings us to high school. As with my original tweet, in my experience if you give kids a good first CS experience in high school you can indeed give them everything needed for CS for All and it's close enough to college so that they might very well continue on the CS career path.

So where does this leave us? We certainly should embed computational thinking practices (whatever that actaully means) in the elementary school, particularly if we can do it in a way that also supports other academic areas and while it's nice to have a CS middle school experience and if we can afford to offer one that's wonderful. On the other hand, I don't think it's as important as elementary exposure and high school exposure so if we have to cut a corner, that's the place. To me, and of course I'm biased, the critical time for a requirement is high school. Sure, if it's an elective kids won't take it but that's true of a lot of subjects. I don't know what the research says but people do indeed change directions. How many of us are doing what we thought we'd be doing in grade school or middle school. Heck, even high school. I have a friend that did computer work in his twenties and thirties, then went to law school and practiced law for a bunch of years and then in his forties started a production company in LA.

I'm a big believer in CS for All but to me it doesn't mean it has to be in every grade or every band. If I could only do it in one place it would be required in the high school. If in two I'd add the elementary school piece and then finally the middle school.

As a final point I'd like to add that school is a zero sum game. There are only so many minutes in the day and as we add CS we remove something else. I believe we can add CS or, more specifically CT to the elemntary schools without cutting anything and I know there's room in high schools in NY. I'm not sure about middle schools. In any event, I'd hate to see music and art programs - already decimated by budget cuts and misguided policies like the small schools movement take a further hit so as to get CS everywhere.

Just some food for thought.