​Moving past the myths in computer science education


It seems nearly everyone who cares about education — from scientists and leaders of major tech companies to parents, teachers and students — feels passionate about advancing computer science (CS) education in our schools. This is certainly with good reason; the more we learn about preparing students for the future, the more widespread the agreement that computer science education is essential in today’s curriculum.

But agreement about the value of computing education doesn’t always translate to agreement about actions. Misconceptions, biases, and lack of quality research impede our progress toward wisely incorporating CS into our schools and our curricula. What we are not doing today ultimately impacts how well, or how poorly, we are preparing students to be tomorrow’s citizens, workers, and leaders.

At the recent SXSWedu conference, I spoke with three education experts about the future of computer science education and what needs to be done to bring computing education into classrooms today.

We unpacked several myths associated with CS education and discussed different approaches to dispelling these common misconceptions. Here are a few of the most notable points:

Myth 1: Computer science is only for rich kids on white collar job paths.

With each passing day, computer science skills and processes are becoming core requirements for more and more jobs outside of traditional IT and Silicon Valley, transforming CS knowledge from an “upper-class skill” to a requirement for all students. In saying this, we’re not talking about turning kids into code monkeys who memorize steps but don’t understand computing logic.

Rather, a good CS education teaches students to decompose complex problems into simple steps, think critically, experiment and fail on the path to succeeding, and understand the fundamentals of logic and programming so they can apply this knowledge to learning new technologies as they progress in their education and careers.

The entire spectrum of future jobs – whether blue collar or white collar – will require students to understand and be skilled in computing at some level.

Carol Fletcher, deputy director of the Center for STEM Education at the University of Texas, Austin, put it simply: “If we teach students a foundation of computational and algorithmic thinking skills, this will empower them to better problem-solve and experiment in the future.”

Myth 2: Technology is everywhere, so CS education is accessible to all.

While it’s most certainly true that we are increasingly surrounded by technology, it’s decidedly untrue that every student has access to one or more computers at or outside of school.

High school principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman has dedicated her career to improving education for low-performing urban high schools and low-income children in North Philadelphia. One of her goals is to infuse computer science into teachers’ daily curricula. Yet, she faces a constant struggle both with hiring qualified CS teachers and with students lacking access to technology outside of school.

As she explained during our conversation at SXSWedu, resources are limited when working in underprivileged communities, and many schools and students lack the hardware, the broadband, or both, as required to consistently practice and learn CS.

This much is not a myth: Access to computing education is a major issue nationwide. From inner-city to rural schools and everywhere in between, we must focus on providing CS education to all students. While incorporating CS into our public schools is the surest way to ensure access, sometimes we have to get creative and offer alternative solutions.

Wayman, for example, works with nearby universities and local businesses to establish after-school programs to offer computer science education to students. She also encourages teachers to leverage their students’ ability and willingness to learn.

“I think my students are bright enough to say, I can take this a step further on my own if I just learn, research and play with this thing called a computer that a lot of people take for granted,” she said.

Myth 3: Teachers should be experts in computer science to teach it.

It’s difficult to stand in front of a classroom and teach a subject you don’t feel fully comfortable with. Yet, in any school, subject or classroom, no one knows or does it all. Teachers should be empowered to apply this philosophy to computer science, and as educators, administrators and experts in CS, we must support them.

From funded professional development to ongoing community support, we need to provide teachers with the resources they need to feel comfortable in this new territory and to model successful strategies for applying it in their own agendas.

Addressing these myths is critical to providing good CS education for all students. At SXSWedu, we ultimately agreed on one most important element in approaching CS education: Give kids opportunities to solve problems.

As Ted Fujimoto, founder and co-chairman of the Right to Succeed Foundation, put it, “The environment we need to provide is giving students the space, time and stimulation to experiment and to break things. Test their flawed theories and see how far it goes — many times that’s the best learning — when you find how things break.”

We need to be bold enough to apply this philosophy to providing CS education, too.

Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy. She leads an international team at Oracle responsible for philanthropic outreach to advance computer science education. She also serves on the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Education Board and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) Advisory Council.