COMMENT: Navigating nuance is key to improving computer science education – EdSource | Team Cansler

Alison Yin/EdSource

In data science classes, students write computer programs that help analyze large amounts of data.

Almost three years after Covid, we are getting used to this ongoing borderline state of being neither fully in the pandemic nor fully free of it. This gray area is difficult to navigate, but this in-between reality offers some useful lessons from an unlikely source: computer science. As a proponent of equity in computer science, I understand how “ones” and “zeros” are the foundation of computer languages. While binary thinking can be a useful tool for simplifying data processing and creating code, our polarized society shows that either/or thinking “IRL” (in real life) has limited value. If we only rely on two opposite extremes, we are ill-equipped to tolerate ambiguity and embrace complexity as we work to build a more equitable future.

Unfortunately, we don’t teach these skills enough in school – but we should do it. A computer science education can help students practice critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. Extending computer science learning opportunities to the diversity of California’s students can help close the digital divide and create opportunities for more people to participate in the digital economy. And it can empower students to use technology to solve real-world problems, but only if they’re taught a nuanced approach that examines the ethical implications for society. Teach students both dangers and Technology promises will help future generations mitigate algorithmic biases that misidentify people of color, threaten civil liberties through flawed facial recognition, or stop the spread of social media misinformation that undermines our democracy and further polarizes our electorate.

Ironically, too often advocates rely on black-and-white thinking in our quest for a silver bullet to fix our education system and prepare students for a lifetime of complex choices. Recent education debates are often formulated as a mishmash: should schools develop skills? or Build character, prepare students for college or for a career, advancing a STEM-centric curriculum, or teaching liberal arts. From class reductions to approaches to teaching children to read, we can learn much from well-intentioned policies with unintended consequences, especially for our most vulnerable students. Carefully evaluating a both-and approach can be more helpful than swinging the pendulum from one school reform trend to another.

Similarly, introducing computer science classes into K-12 resembles a chicken and egg problem: how can we increase teacher capacity if we don’t have a curriculum, and if we expand the curriculum, how will we achieve that? enough teachers? In reality, we must do both at the same time.

Fortunately, California’s roadmap for equity in computer science education aligns with the Governor’s California Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan. California has already begun investing in the training of our teachers to build a healthy infrastructure to support the expansion of computer science education. This year, California awarded UCLA a $5 million Educator Workforce investment grant to enable professional learning for teachers, counselors and school leaders through the Seasons of CS program. And the Commission on Teacher Credentialing administers a $15 million grant fund to help teachers earn their supplemental computer science certification.

Learning to manage nuance fosters interdisciplinary connections and opens up the possibility that multiple goals can be achieved simultaneously. The governor’s latest state budget allocates $1.5 million to a new informatics project that joins nine other California technical projects in support of teacher professional development. This is a significant step in building the capacity of teachers with tools to integrate computer science with math, science and social studies, while recognizing the importance of computer science as a discipline on a par with other foundational skills.

With this foundation of teacher support and recognized computer science standards, we are poised to enable all students to access and engage in a culturally appropriate computer science education that prepares them for college, careers and community involvement. Improving teacher education and ensuring all high schools offer computer science will be a big step for California students to lead our technological future.

As this effort continues, we must continually “debug” and refine our policies to achieve the best results, accepting that there may be different methods to achieve our common goals and recognizing that it is better to start somewhere rather than being caught in analysis paralysis and going nowhere. It is better to avoid a single dogma by incorporating multiple viewpoints from teachers, academia, industry, and equality advocates. Coalition work can be messy and slow, but by sharing goals, using data as a guide, and examining unintended impacts, we can ensure that California computer science education is equitable, scalable, and sustainable over the long term.

Relying on extremes to solve complex problems does little to solve them and can sometimes make them worse. Instead, we must learn to deal with nuance. Like the ones and zeros of code, our lives are often punctuated by ups and downs, but some of our most meaningful insights can be found in the space between them.


Julia Flapan is Director of the Computer Science Equity Project at UCLA Center X, School of Education and Information Studies and co-leads the CSforCA Coalition, where she works to expand teaching and learning opportunities for girls, college students of color, and low-income students.

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