A week after New York joined Chicago and San Francisco to become the third big city public school district to announce plans to offer computer science classes in all its schools, teachers and experts in the field shared with atombash.com their opinions and ideas about what computer science teachers and students need to succeed.
A common feeling among teachers is that many school administrators don’t understand what tools computer science teachers need to most effectively teach, and many also lack a basic understanding of what computer science actually is.
Laura Blankenship has taught computer science to high schoolers at Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania for the past six years. Blankenship serves on the Computer Science Teachers Association’s board of directors, and says that schools often won’t allow teachers to install the teaching programs they want to use onto school computers.
“The challenge for computer science teachers is the lockdown of computer equipment,” says Blankenship. “I’ve had a principal tell me, ‘Why can’t you just use Photoshop?’ (to teach computer science)”?
Blankenship says there is often a disconnect even between teachers and the personnel in schools’ IT departments as well. It might seem odd that people who work with computers wouldn’t understand a computer science teacher’s needs, but IT departments deal more with computer hardware. Also, because the IT department is responsible for keeping computers free of viruses, they tend to be leery of unfamiliar software.
“There’s a thinking among IT staff that if they don’t understand it, it can’t be on a computer,” says Blankenship.
Most educators interviewed agreed that computer science education should begin at an early age. San Francisco’s Unified School District announced in June that its schools would offer computer science classes to all grade levels, including preschool, something Scott McQuiggan, co-author of “Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Developers, Educators, and Learners,” believes is vitally important.
“Exposing students to computer science at a young age is critical,” he said. “It’s an interest that’s harder to entrench in students as they get older.”
Asked whether there should be a standardized curriculum in computer science classes, Sheena Vaidyanathan, who teaches computer science at schools in California’s Los Altos School District, said that while teachers should be responsible for their students mastering certain concepts, they should be free to teach those concepts however they feel works best.
“I’m going to guess that teachers who are comfortable with the material will want to make their own lessons,” says Vaidyanathan. “I wouldn’t want to see a system where we have to do all the same projects because it would kill creativity.”
Blankenship says that some standardized curriculum may help new computer science teachers.
“I prefer the freedom to teach what I want, but some teachers like having the structure of knowing they’ll start here and end up there,” she says.
While no teacher offered what they consider an ideal class size, they agreed, as most teachers likely would, that smaller classes are best. “I’ve had as many as 22 students in a class and it’s very difficult because computer science is hands-on,” Blankenship says.
Carl Frank, who teaches computer science at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts agrees. “If you’re teaching history, a bigger class won’t matter because you’ll still teach the same way, but some CS students are going to need more individual attention.”
Another issue that school districts will have to contend with is ongoing professional development, teachers say. “Ongoing professional development is key, because things change so often in this field,” Vaidyanathan says.
Frank says he would like to see what he calls, “computer science specialists” located throughout each state, available to assist teachers with any concerns.