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What CS should we teach in HS

I wanted to chime in on Alfred Thompson's post last week on what to include in a HS CS class but was working on moving blogging platforms so didn't get a chance so I'll say a few words here.

If you've been here before you probably know I'm not a fan of the standards and I certainly am no fan of the College Board and the AP program so what's my take?

The truth is, my take doesn't matter. Not in terms of specifics anyway. Every school is different. Different kids, teachers, parents, community, and culture so while there might be some things from the program I designed at Stuy that work at another school there will be plenty of things that don't. I'm now designing first year experiences at Hunter and while I take lessons earned away from my Stuy experience, I'm now teaching different kids in a different environment so the answer to the question "what do I teach them and how?" is different.

The important thing to consider are the questions you should ask and the answers you come up with.

The first question is "why?" Why are you doing CS in your school? Is it for kids already interested in CS? Is it "for all?" In either case, what do you want them to get out of it?

Is it for employment after high school? If so you might want to consider locally used tools and technologies and also look at more vocational tech like DevOps, SysAdmin and networking.

Is it in support of other classes while in high school or college? You might want to look at aspects of CS that cross over into other disciplines.

You'll then have other questions dealing with resources, class size, required classes vs electives and so on.

At some point schools get to the point of figuring out what specific topics to include. Many teachers now veer to an assortment of hot topics that interest them or alternatively go the other way and try to do whatever the students want. I'm not a big fan of either. Don't get me wrong, if I worked in a rich private institution with tiny class sizes and lots of resources I'd love to be student directed after the basics but that's a luxury that public school educators can't really afford. I'm also not a fan of the "hot topic" approach.

At Stuy, I tried to look at the complete sequence as a program. I wanted the designation of "Stuy CS graduate" to mean something so I looked at what the kids trajectories were after graduation and I tried to develop a program that best launched them on that trajectory. That meant designing an intro class that could both launch CS minded kids into our more advanced classes and also give non-CS kids everything they needed for their next levels.

The motivation and design of the intro course is a topic unto itself but I'll share what I considered when designing our post AP CS courses. One of the first guidelines I follow is "don't give them a course that they'll have to take later anyway." A second is "set up courses that support the students in what they'll have to take later" and finally "fill in the gaps."

With this in mind, we ended up with a Graphics course, Systems course and a two semester Software Development class and it's worked pretty well.

Had I been at another school and designed it's sequence it would likely look different. I would have developed the program the same way but would likely have ended up with something different albeit with similar themes.

I get emails and calls now and then from schools asking for advice on building their CS programs. Some want the easy way out - they want a drop in curriculum with little regard for the fit or worse, they want APCS because it's AP. Those conversations usually don't go anywhere. Other schools ask for help and ask for a curriculum. I'll say I can't help with that but I'd love to talk and to get to know the school and together we can come up with the right program. That's a longer process and is more work. It's also more likely to result in a good sustainable program and building those are both better and a lot more fun.

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