Dan Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and prolific author on the science of teaching and learning, is always an interesting read, and his latest article for Education Next does not disappoint. In it, he asks readers, and himself, to consider the following important question:
“Shouldn’t teachers learn how children think during their training? In this essay I consider why they don’t, and what we might do about it.”
A summary of the article won’t do it justice; it’s a compelling read that all teachers could benefit from engaging with. It offers plenty no matter your subject or your level of experience. In my own deeper reading of the essay, I found a particular point by Willingham that I think connects it to one of the primary, but surprisingly one of the least discussed, challenges facing the current CS for All movement.
In a recent article published by CMU, my co-author and I argue that in order for teachers to be successful in teaching computational thinking (CT), a framework for teaching CT needs to exist as it currently exists for other subjects. This framework could then offer up milestones for both teachers and students; milestones that could be used to help individualize and tailor instructional goals for students. An example used in our article is one familiar with all elementary teachers: sight words. Sight words need to be mastered in order for students to become proficient readers. Teachers of first, second and third grade are all very familiar with what these sight words are and utilize them to tailor instruction, based upon how well their students are mastering them. Our paper, then, posits that algorithms serve much as those sight words do a in this case, as a framework for the teaching of computational thinking.
What we didn’t discuss in the paper, and what Willingham explains in his article, is that as important as identifying a framework is, it’s only the first step; the next step is actually teaching the framework, which involve the hundreds of decisions teachers make daily about how to best tailor their instruction to the individual needs of each student:
“I’ve suggested that teachers’ study of psychology ought to focus on consistencies in children’s cognitive, emotional, and motivational makeup, and that future teachers be asked to learn some of these consistencies. It’s important to note that these consistencies are abstractions (emphasis mine).”
Willingham then goes on to describe what these consistencies often look like in a classroom.
“A shy 3rd grader who is mentally overloaded by a rapid series of five instructions may just look blank.A 10th grader who is mentally overloaded by a stereotype threat during a math test may respond with anger. Or with resignation. Teachers need to learn not just the abstract generalizations that scientists have described but how they play out in particular contexts.”
How do teachers learn this? “The problem cannot be solved by just tying scientific abstractions to classroom examples; education students need sustained practice in making those connections.”
What Willingham is describing is how an experienced teacher can understand and diagnose how a student is struggling with a particular concept and then design the necessary intervention. This happens best, however, if the teacher is working within a framework with well-established milestones. An experienced 2nd grade teacher knows the most difficult sight words to master, can anticipate which students will have problems with those sight words, and quickly diagnose a problem and design an intervention. Additionally, these targeted interventions also work best when there is open communication and trust between the teacher and students.
The goals of CS for All are laudatory, but it will take time, training and money; probably more money than what is currently earmarked before teachers are able to create frameworks around computational thinking and then apply learning cognition to these frameworks.