The evolution of tech continues to redefine everything from education to the economy. Its influence extends to the very core of workplace competence and success, asking, just what is a “basic skill”?
In January of 2016, then President Barack Obama addressed the changing demands of the 21st century economy, and identified computer science (CS) as the “new basic skill” required of contemporary students (Smith, 2016). To meet the challenge of his time, he announced a plan to give all students access to CS education.
President Obama’s identification of the importance of CS education mirrors the attitudes and opinions of many educators, and also that of the nation’s parents and students themselves. This is emphasized by the findings of a recent study conducted by Google; 82% of students were at least somewhat interested in learning CS, with 84% of parents citing CS as being at least as important as required (and more familiar) subjects like math and reading.
Reflecting on the all-pervasive presence of the new basic skill of the century in society, former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt recently stated,
“If you are joining the company in your 20s, unlike when I joined, you’re going to learn to code. It doesn’t matter whether you are in sales, finance or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code.” (Wattles, 2016)
Immelt describes a goal in which the transferability of the fundamental skills of computer science is recognized and valued, and CS-training byproducts (e.g. problem decomposition, logic, identifying alternative solutions, creativity) are also appreciated for their non-CS application within the workforce.
The advent of the paradigm-shifting technology is nothing new. Richard Meyer sums up this all-too human pattern well in his book, Multimedia Learning, reminding us of the past inventive advances – film, radio, television and then, computers were all going to change student outcomes for the better. Mayer identified that these technologies, and many other educational reforms, all follow a familiar pattern:
- First, grand promises about how technology would revolutionize education
- Second, an initial rush to implement cutting-edge technology in schools
- Then, a new perspective, once it became clear that that the original hopes and expectations were largely unmet
Meyer cautions that enthusiasm around those types of goals has, in the past, waned as educators have struggled to action them. With all the hype around CS education, it appears we are in the initial rush stage that Meyer describes. What do we do to avoid the fate of CS education becoming another addition to the list of education fads that burn brightly for a time but soon become extinguished?
One thing we could consider is to spend more time thinking about the development of the instructional materials used to teach computer science. Schools have been teaching conventional subjects for decades. As a result, schools have both third-party research and the accumulated knowledge of teaching experience to evaluate the instructional materials used to teach these subjects. When it comes to conventional K-12 subjects, schools have learned not to rush the adoption of instructional materials.
This contrasts with CS, where blocks-based programming languages (see figure 1) have been quickly and widely adopted by many schools and educators as an instructional material to be utilized to teach programming. (Grover & Basu, 2017) (Weintrop & Holbert, 2017).
If we examine how instructional materials are chosen to teach CS, and how tools are chosen to teach other subjects (e.g. Math, Science), we are quickly reminded about Meyer’s warning about the rush to implement cutting-edge technology in schools.
The National Research Council provides a guide for selecting instructional materials for K-12 science. Their recommendation includes the identification of reviewers and facilitators that work with a curriculum framework that is based on standards. The process is summarized in the following figure:
The guide provided by the National Research Council, and the experiences of many teachers, both communicate the effort and seriousness of the production that goes into deciding which instructional materials will be used in subjects like math and science. Does the enthusiasm to teach CS match the enthusiasm to be thoughtful and deliberate in choosing the instructional materials offering to deliver the promise of CS education?