Saturday, March 12, 2016

Coding as a catalyst for reorganizing our failing K-12 schools

Last update: Friday 3/11/16
Last month Melinda Anderson published a short, controversial piece in the Atlantic Monthly, "Will the Push for Coding Lead to ‘Technical Ghettos’?" She quoted a few experts who expressed concerns that the recent proliferation of boot camps and grass roots coding organizations might succeed in teaching disadvantaged students how to code, but fail to teach them the more important underlying skill:  computational thinking. 

She concluded that the graduates of these training operations might only find employment in positions at the bottom of the world's increasingly computerized economies. Like many other readers of this article, I think Ms. Anderson and her experts have drawn fallacious conclusions from incorrect assumptions.

A, Computational Thinking
For the purposes of this discussion I suggest that computational thinking skills enable their possessors to divide processes into two parts: the part that should be computerized vs. the part that should be left to humans. Computer systems are becoming more adept on an expanding range of tasks; hence this ability to identify the shifting boundaries between computability and non-computability will become one of the most powerful determinants of who will lose their jobs vs. who who remain gainfully employed. So how does one acquire these critical survival skills? Please allow me to digress for a few moments before providing my answer. 

I remember reading one of Herbert Simon's insightful essays about fifty years ago wherein he described how he had acquired his superb skills in advanced mathematics many years after he graduated from college, skills that enabled him to switch from inquiries into the qualitative aspects of administrative behavior to highly quantitative economic studies, skills that ultimately led to his receipt of a Nobel Prize in economics and to his becoming one of the founding fathers of the field of artificial intelligence. 
  • Simon said that he learned college/graduate level math through his careful reading of good textbooks and his diligent commitment to doing all of the exercises at the end of each chapter in those texts. For a while he had been baffled by warnings in the prefaces to more advanced texts that readers should have "mathematical sophistication" in order to understand the chapters that followed. Eventually he realized that "mathematical sophistication" was what one developed by solving good mathematics problems, the kind of problems found at the ends of the chapters of good textbooks ... :-)
I suggest that Ms. Anderson's "experts" come down from their clouds and admit that computational thinking skills are best developed by solving computer problems. Indeed, every person I have ever met who demonstrated substantial computational thinking skills had spent many, many hours writing code to implement their solutions to problems, starting with simple problems, then advancing by degrees to problems of greater complexity. Some were graduates of formal programs in computer science, some had majored in other STEM programs, others were college drop-outs, and still others had learned everything they knew from textbooks and Websites.

It's essential to draw sharp distinctions between bootcamps for adults and programs run for school-age children by grass roots coding organizations like Black Girls Code, Code/InteractiveQeyno Labs, and Luma Lab
  • Boot camps promise coding jobs for their adult graduates. Thus far, the best have delivered on these promises. But I notice that the camps with the best placement records are also famous/notorious for being highly selective. Their all-day, six month coding courses only admit students who already demonstrate substantial aptitude for computational thinking. 
  • But I am unaware of any camps that promise lifetime employment. If the Java-JavaScript-Python music stops five or ten years from now, their graduates may face unemployment ... unless, of course, their computational thinking skills alert them to this fall-off in time for them to acquire new hands-on skills that will enable them to jump to safer sides of the shifting unemployment lines ... :-)
  • By contrast, grass roots organizations don't have short-term employment goals for their school age students. None of the organizations whose activities I track on this blog has ever made absurd promises that their young students would obtain careers in software development by attending a workshop on a weekend, participating in a hackathon, or enrolling in a two or three week coding camp during the summer. These  programs that are barely long enough for students to acquire rudimentary coding skills and certainly not long enough for them to develop computational thinking skills.
  • What these programs try to do and what they succeed in doing is expose young minority consumers of computer systems to the production side, to give them a glimpse of what goes on "under the hood", to let them see that it's fun-exciting-satisfying to write the "software that's eating the world" ... to learn that Black and Brown people who look like them write some of this software and, most importantly, to learn that they themselves could learn how to write professional quality software if they really wanted to. In other words, the grass roots organizations expose their young students to new perspectives, to new possibilities that these kids had never considered before ... possibilities that should have been presented to them by their local K-12 schools ... but weren't.

B. Broken Traffic Lights

My comment about our K-12 schools brings me to the title of this note ... almost. But first, I have to make another digression, this time to an important insight I obtained fifty years ago from my sister, Dr. Jacquelyn Lowe Petersen. My sister was a superb community organizer who attributed much of her success to her recognition that local communities were also "students" -- students who had to learn how to solve simpler problems before addressing more complex challenges:
  • She observed that low income communities, especially minority communities, were often angered by local schools whose teachers didn't believe their minority students were "teachable" and by schools whose principals failed to hold their teachers accountable for their failure to provide adequate instruction for their minority students.
  • Her insight was that most low income minority communities weren't ready to address these big challenges ... yet. Replacing bad teachers and/or bad principals was way beyond their current collective skill sets. So their efforts to confront the local schools were usually derailed by bureaucratic obfuscation and delays.
  • These communities needed to learn how to hold the bureaucracy responsible by challenging the bureaucracy on simpler problems -- like fixing the broken traffic light on the street corner that most of their children crossed on the way to the school's entrance. Focusing on simple problems, like a broken traffic light, enabled the community to take the first steps towards organizing itself as a problem-solving entity, e.g., identifying which residents were able to commit time during the week and on weekends to participate in the group's activities, identifying potential leaders who could speak for the group during meetings with the school's administration, contacting potential allies (e.g. sympathetic elected officials, pastors of local churches, locally-oriented media), etc, etc, etc.
  • Once the group succeeded in pressuring the school's administration to arrange for the city to fix the broken traffic light, it would have gained the skills, confidence, and credibility to attack larger issues. Each successive victory would teach the group more skills that would enable it to address even larger issues ... until finally, in the not-too-distant future, the community group could address its ultimate concerns -- the incompetent teachers and their supporters in the school's administration who were preventing their children from receiving the education their children were entitled to receive.

C. Broken Schools

Unfortunately, my sister's insight is as applicable today as it was fifty years ago. Our K-12 schools are still producing too many minority graduates who lag far behind their White counterparts in their readiness for college. They lag behind in reading, writing, math, and ... oh yes ... in computational thinking. What's to be done? Reforming our failing school systems is a challenge that's way beyond the collective skill sets of concerned parents in most minority communities. What would my sister do? She would identify the "broken traffic light", i.e., she would look for a problem that parents could learn to address fairly quickly.  

No. Wait. The good news is that she wouldn't have to look for the broken traffic light because the grass roots coding organizations have already found it. Our K-12 schools should be exposing minority kids to career possibilities related to software development, careers that currently require coding skills, careers that will always require computational thinking skills. And that's what organizations like Black Girls Code, Code/Interactive, Qeyno Labs, and Luma Lab have been doing. That's the good news.

The better news is that these community organizers have not only been teaching young minority students about new career possibilities; they have also been teaching their parents. They have been teaching parents that their kids have what it takes to pursue these new possibilities. From what I've seen it's difficult to say who's more excited by the workshops, hackathons, and coding camps: the students who learn about great stuff they never knew existed or their parents who learn that their kids can become part of this great stuff if given more chances to learn.

In my opinion the best news is that these organizations have also been mobilizing enthusiastic parents in local communities across the nation into volunteer groups to support their workshops, hackathons, and summer coding camps. That's what the volunteer groups are doing today. But tomorrow? ... Tomorrow these volunteers may be applying their collective energies to pressuring their local schools to upgrade their computer courses and computer facilities ... and thereafter ... they might apply their positive energies and greatly enhanced collective skills to addressing the full range of reforms that will be needed to stop our K-12 schools from failing to meet the needs of their minority students.

Update Friday 3/18/16
Black Girls Code has volunteer chapters in 15 U.S. cities in operation or under development ==> Atlanta, Austin, Boston, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Dallas, Washington DC, Detroit, Memphis, Miami, New York City, Raleigh-Durham, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, St. Louis