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C'est la Z

What is a Syllabus and why does it matter?

Over in the Facebook CS Ed groups there was a discussion of the forthcoming code.org APCS-A curriculum. As far as I can tell, the curriculum isn't actually available yet so I can't really comment on it but the discussion started with a concern about some of the announcement. It made me think of what a curriculum was when I started teaching, what it is now, and the ramifications of the change.

Back when I started, I might get a math curriculum, a section of which might have looked like this:

Day Topic Chapters
5,6 solving simple linear equations 3.1 - 3.4
7 solving more complex linear equations 3.5, 3.6
8-10 graphing linear equations 4.1

etc.

That was it. As a teacher, you knew the topic. If you had to get an idea as to the depth of which to cover you looked at the text and other resources you had in school and consulted with your colleagues. You knew yourself, your school and your students and you designed lessons to suit.

This is a far cry from what you'll see today. Going back to the forthcoming code.org apcs-a curriculum.

Here's the blurb that code.org provides:

CSA curricula have traditionally been focused on the building blocks required to design solutions to problems through programming. Creating this new curriculum with equity in mind means reimagining the structure and pedagogy to excite and inspire students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and young women while teaching the technical building blocks and preparing students for the AP® exam. Code.org’s CSA curriculum:

  • Incorporates culturally responsive and equitable teaching strategies and frameworks by considering cultural references and learning styles throughout the curriculum — from the vocabulary, to the visuals, to the sequence of concepts taught.
  • Acknowledges diversity of experiences and interests. Students investigate real-world problems during class activities and make connections to their own work. Projects are carefully designed to be instructive yet open-ended, enabling students to demonstrate mastery of concepts and engage in their passions without making assumptions about their cultural background or life experiences.
  • Brings to life a “Software Engineering for All” narrative. This narrative helps students envision themselves as software engineers, and the curriculum uses videos featuring presenters from different backgrounds who work in technology to help students visualize opportunities for their own futures.
  • Helps students develop and model valuable, real-world career skills. In addition to skills like tracing code segments and documenting code, Code.org’s approach to CSA incorporates collaboration and career skills that go beyond the AP® CSA course requirements. For example, our curriculum includes a student-friendly code review tool, which is a common quality assurance practice in the technology industry.

There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this but it is worth noting that the APCS-A class is indeed a course concerned with "building blocks required to design solutions to problems through programming." It is based on a college CS1 class which is all about programming to solve problems. Like it or not, that's the course.

Now, having a culturally responsive course etc. etc. is all good and I guess that since APCS-A is usually implemented a full year course to cover a half year of college material there should, in theory, be room for all the additions but that's not really here nor there.

The thing is, APCS-A is supposed to be about programming. A well taught APCS-A will be culturally responsive etc. but that's the implementation. Unless something changed, that's not actually in the course as defined by the college board or the college classes on which it's based.

This says to me that when code.org publishes its curriculum, it will most likely resemble the products pushed by most modern curriculum providers - really not just a curriculum but a collection of very detailed units and lessons.

Now, I do think that some of the things mentioned in the code.org blurb like collaboration, software engineering, and other topics like ethical ramifications should be in curricula but even so, the exact lessons should be teacher designed and tuned to their school and students.

Again, nothing wrong with any of this. It can be a great and valuable resource, particularly for an inexperienced teacher.

But then, there is something wrong overall and it's with the direction those with influence are taking as a profession.

Teachers are less and less expected as much to know their subjects, their students, and how to teach but rather to follow the script. This approach might get those students past the standardized exam but in the long run it's not giving students what they need nor deserve.

I've seen this every year in my undergraduate CS classes. Since APCS Principles was launched many of my students have come in having taken the classed and "passed" the exam. Truth be told, the majority of them come in basically knowing nothing. This wouldn't be a problem if they didn't come in thinking they knew quite a bit. You can contrast that with the students that come in having taken APCS-A. These students, by and large, do indeed have a reasonably solid introduction to programming under their belts. Further investigation usually reveals what "curriculum" they learned under and the CS background of the teacher.

Some will argue that we need the crutch of the scripted lesson in order to get started. Fair enough. I don't disagree with this basic premise but the truth is that history seems to indicate that we're not going to get beyond this. My favorite example is the old Cisco networking class. Some teachers knew legit networks and decided to teach the class - that was great. Some didn't and just had their students use the Cisco provided computer based modules which, in my opinion, weren't so great. Of those that didn't start with a networking background, just about all I've met never moved beyond where they started in networking knowledge.

I fear we're already seeing that in CS. School supervisors don't know any better so they see that they can check off the computer science box. Many teachers probably don't know better because their short term training is focusing on how easy CS is and how you don't have to learn anything to teach it rather than the truth - it's just like anything else, it takes time and effort to really master.

I already know that my view isn't the popular one but I'll say it over and over until I retire - CS teachers really do need to know CS and providers that provide short form "training" and scripted content, unless they push with even more vigor, the next steps, are ultimately going leave us in no better shape than we started. Kids in well to do schools with administrations that can afford to bring in knowledgeable experts and the gap will widen with the poorest getting the low end scripted curricula.

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