Glaciers and CS in the Classroom are related

Since I have no imagination of my own and I am brain fried from a long school year I am going to grab on to Alfred Thompson’s blog thread “Computer Science and ?” and go my own direction.  I figure I could write lengthy comments on his or just grab it and go.  So stand by for a hand flailing, jumping up and down, end of the school year and I need to think about how I am going to improve next year, pissed off at my local university education department because they are antique idiots, I may not know what I am talking about but I sure have fun talking anyway kind of post.

After 30 years of teaching I know using computers in the classroom is just a pain in the ass.  Just ask any teacher that does not use computers in their classroom regularly, or even those that do.  Things like:

  1. Not enough computers.
  2. Take forever to boot.
  3. Cannot install needed software without tech support.
  4. Kids lose focus on the lesson when they surf the internet.
  5. Have to herd kids to a lab on the 3rd floor.
  6. Have to reserve a lab.
  7. If doing BYOD the kids do not have the needed software installed.
  8. If doing BYOD the kid does not BYOD or does not own a D.
  9. Mac, PC, Chromebooks, iPads, oh my!
  10. School is too paranoid to do BYOD. Johnny might have bad things on his computer and show Mary.
  11. Limited bandwidth.
  12. It takes too long to teach the kids how to use the software when they could be factoring polynomials by hand.
  13. They might discover WorlframAlpha and move from 19th century symbolic manipulation to 21st century problem solving. Can’t have that.
  14. “If you need it, it is not going to work.”
  15. As least twelve other issues that make using computers in the classroom a pain in the ass.

Teaching would be so much easier if all we had were smart, eager to learn students and intelligent, well-to-do, and supportive parents.  Teaching requires we overcome the fact we are a bit lacking in these areas.  Teaching kids to operate in the 21st century also requires we overcome the computers in the classroom issues.  We have no choice.  Not teaching kids to use computers is like not teaching them to write.  There are solutions to every one of the issues I have listed.  Not all the solutions are easy and sometimes a risk is required but getting knowledge to kids is always work and the risk is worth the result.

In my mind overcoming the “computers in the classroom” issues starts with teacher training.  As I have seen it teacher training has not change a whole lot in the last 40 years.  The math methods course I took 40 years ago is minimally different from what is being taught today.  Yes, there are exceptions out there but they are not the norm.  We are using yesterday’s methods to teach tomorrow’s teachers and that is just going to result in the US not keeping up with the Jones’.  As the school IT department I am amazed at how little the student teachers we get know about computers.  And these are people who supposedly grew up in a technology generation.

A second major problem with getting CS in the classroom is textbooks.  The idea that textbooks do not make the course is simply BS.  Most teachers will say “Give me a textbook and I can teach the course.”  Whole states base their curriculums on the textbooks the state buys.  Districts actually check that the teacher is on the proper page at the proper time and has not deviated for the approved curriculum.  Very Orwellian.  Textbook authors, especially in math, seem to be all traditionalist.  Want to find the roots of a polynomial?  Here are several techniques used in the 18th and 19th centuries to do this.  Computer methods are “Extras”.  Why you want to find the roots in the first place is usually in a separate chapter (near the end of the book) or are in problem set “C”.  One out of 30 kids might be able to do problems in set “C” because the rest are still trying to figure out the algorithm to find the roots.  Using computers to solve problems as might occur in a real physics or chemistry lab would require trashing 90% of today’s math textbooks and starting over.  It would also require teaching teachers how to actually teach problem solving as opposed to teaching algorithms.  Teaching algorithms is so much easier than teaching problem solving.  Problem solving requires some kind of higher order thinking and kids are usually not into any order of thinking.  For a teacher to write their own material to “modernize” the math classroom requires time, initiative, and sometimes approval from on high.  Teachers can be drastically short on all of those.

A third problem is the hardware and infrastructure itself.  The schools I am familiar with are all operating on shoe string budgets for technology.  My wife teaches at a public middle school.  About 500 kids.  Just today they were notified of their tech budget for next year.  $1000.  Yes, that is 3 zeros.  For the whole school.  Network infrastructure is usually 10 years out of date.  Schools are often trying to operate 200 computers on an internet pipe intended for a single residential house.  The situation for rural schools can be even worse.  I know several Montana rural schools that are still on dial-up.  Using computers in the classroom is literally not possible.   If schools were businesses they would go out of business for being 20 year out of date.

So is there a solution?  Having the government come down and mandate some form of CS requirement in the high schools is one approach.  In little Montana (population-wise) there would be a sudden need for over 100 CS knowledgeable teachers, or at least teachers will to attempt integrating CS in the classroom.  We are back to teacher training or lack thereof.  The textbook issue could be a bit tricky.  It would require the states the textbook publishers write for to rethink their curriculums.  I really do not think Texas is coming out of the Dark Ages.  School infrastructure issues are only going to be fixed with large sums of money.  As long as school budgets are based off of local taxes (or tuition in my case) we are out of luck there.

So no solution?  On the contrary.  It is up to teachers, the people in the trenches, who can actually see the need for CS in the classrooms and in the school, to drive the needed changes.  Teachers will have to write their own materials or adapt what they have so it is brought into the 21st century.  Ignore the 30 problems in homework part “A” and spend a day on one problem in part “C”.  The parents will also be a driving force in many schools.  The parents that not necessarily work in the tech fields but those that use computers every day and realize the need for a broad CS background to succeed.  We cannot rely on teacher education programs to rewrite 40 years of complacency, or textbook publishers to look beyond making a buck.  Change will have to happen at the grass roots level.  Teachers, parents and, in many cases, the kids themselves will have to make it happen.  It is just going to take a while.

Looking at my post title “Glaciers and CS in the Classroom are related” and taking the comparison a bit farther.  Many glaciers are retreating.  Hopefully I just picked a crappy title.


3 Responses to “Glaciers and CS in the Classroom are related”

  1. Bri Morrison Says:

    First, let me say that I so appreciate your sense of humor and your witty posts – they are a delight to read.
    Second, I greatly sympathize with you and my future vision is to up-end my school’s college of education teacher prep classes with regards to computing technology. Currently for their “technology” requirement all education majors are required to take the intro programming class (in Java). The same one the CS majors take. Ridiculous. We do not want them to become software developers – we want them to have the knowledge of how to integrate technology into the classroom and use it to teach – and to teach the students how to use to solve problems. I have big plans for them – if only they’ll listen 🙂

  2. gflint Says:

    How to convince prospective teachers to have nothing to do with teaching programming – make them take a Java class.

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    Java is a poor first language for teaching, but a single Java course is not going to make anyone into a software developer either.

    The education department should be teaching a course on teaching CS, probably starting with Scratch and Python and emphasizing the concepts that need to be conveyed, common student misunderstandings, and how to correct those misunderstandings. (Students would probably come out of such a course better programmers than the students who take a CS 1 Java course, but that is only a side effect.)

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