COMMENTARY: Navigating nuance is key to improving computer science education – EdSource

Nearly three years into Covid, we’re adjusting to this prolonged liminal state of neither fully in the pandemic nor completely free from 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 computer science equity advocate, I understand how “ones” and “zeros” are the underpinning of computer languages.
While binary thinking may be a useful tool to simplify computing data and create code, our polarized society shows either/or thinking has limited value “IRL” (in real life). Relying only on two opposing extremes leaves us 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. A computer science education can help students practice critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. Expanding 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 equip students to harness technology to solve real-world problems, but only if they are taught a nuanced approach that examines the ethical implications on society.
Teaching students both the perils and promises of technology will help future generations mitigate algorithmic biases that misidentify people of color, threaten civil rights with faulty facial recognition or stop the spread of misinformation on social media that erodes our democracy and further polarizes our electorate.
Ironically, in our quest to find one silver bullet to fix our education system and prepare students for a lifetime of complex decision-making, advocates too often rely on black-and-white thinking. Recent debates about education are often framed as one-size-fits-all: Should schools build skills or build character, prepare students for college or for a career, advance a STEM-centered curriculum or teach the humanities.
Whether it be class-size reduction or approaches to teaching children to read, we have much to learn from well-intentioned policies with unintended consequences, especially for our most vulnerable students. Carefully considering a both/and approach can be more helpful than swinging the pendulum from one school reform fad to another.
Similarly, introducing computer science education in K-12 is a lot like a chicken-or-egg problem: How can we scale up teacher capacity when we don’t have a curriculum, and, if we scale up curriculum, how will we get enough teachers? In reality, we need to do both simultaneously.
Fortunately, California’s road map to equity in computer science education is guided by the governor’s California’s Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan. California has already begun investing in the education of our teachers to build a healthy infrastructure to support computer science education expansion.
This year, California awarded a $5 million Educator Workforce Investment Grant to UCLA to provide teachers, counselors and school leaders with professional learning via its Seasons of CS program. And, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing is administering a $15 million grant fund to support teachers in obtaining their computer science supplementary authorization.
Learning to navigate nuance fosters interdisciplinary connections and opens up the possibility that multiple goals can be accomplished concurrently. The governor’s recent state budget allocates $1.5 million for a new computer science project that joins nine other California subject matter projects in support of teacher professional learning.
This is a significant step to build 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 par with other foundational skills.
With this foundation of support for teachers and approved computer science standards, we are poised to provide all students with access to and engagement in culturally responsive computer science education that will prepare them for college, careers and civic engagement. Increasing teacher preparation and ensuring all high schools offer computer science will be a huge step for California’s students to lead our technological future.
As these efforts continue, we must continually “debug” and refine our policies to get the strongest results by accepting that there may be different methods of achieving our shared goals, recognizing it’s better to start somewhere than be caught in analysis paralysis and go nowhere.
It’s better to avoid a singular dogma by engaging multiple viewpoints from teachers, higher education, industry representatives and equity advocates. Coalition work can be messy and slow, but by sharing goals, using data as a guide and examining unintended effects, we can ensure computer science education in California is equitable, scalable and sustainable in the long run.
Relying only on the extremes to confront complex problems does little to solve them and at times, can exacerbate them. Instead, we need to learn to navigate nuance. Like the ones and zeros of code, our lives are often punctuated by peaks and valleys, but some of our most meaningful learning can be found in the space between them.
Julie Flapan is the director of the Computer Science Equity Project at UCLA Center X, School of Education and Information Studies and co-lead of the CSforCA coalition, where she is working to expand teaching and learning opportunities for girls, students of color and low-income students.
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Unfortunately the same practices that leave rural underserved communities in CA continue to perpetuate the inequality and inequity in the funding system. Again as usual funds are awarded to UCLA or other prestigious universities to decide how to dole out or utilize the funds. To often funds are awarded to metropolitan areas where industry, higher education and opportunities abound. Rural underserved communities are left scraps or nothing. So much for your equity.
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