The nationwide rush to implement computer science (CS) education in schools is often attributed to a desire to increase workforce preparedness. This makes sense given the growth in CS-related jobs both in the tech sector and elsewhere. Typically we imagine students occupying in-demand jobs with titles like “software engineer,” “data scientist,” and “information architect.” Expanding and diversifying the pipeline of talent that can take on these roles is a worthy goal for our work.
But what does that imply for “Computer Science for All” initiatives here in New York City and across the country? We don’t expect every student to pursue a career in software engineering. Rather, we speak of CS as a new basic literacy that all students need to learn, with broad implications for how students are prepared for any pathway after high school, and we need to update what and how we teach our students to meet the demands of our changing world.
On the one hand, our students’ future success will depend greatly on their ability to interact with technology. That’s why all kids must understand how technology fundamentally works and be empowered to participate in its design and development. They have to be prepared for a lifetime of learning and adaptation, and to contend with the social, economic and ethical challenges that new technologies will surely bring.
But we also need to recognize the important generalizable skills that CS can nurture. CS is more than just content. CS encourages students exercise their creativity, collaborate with peers and build analytical skills and solutions-oriented thinking that will serve them well in any career path. These are among the most important skills students can attain, not only for job opportunities and security, but also for navigating their daily lives as computationally literate citizens. These aren’t really “soft skills,” they are “real skills.”
The Key to Today’s Education Challenges
For several years now, I’ve had the pleasure of working with CS teachers and students in New York City and across the country. Through these experiences, I have observed and participated in CS teaching and learning at its best, in many forms.
For example: students engaged in hands-on CS often work in teams to examine a problem, determine how to solve it and then test and refine their ideas until they develop the best solution. As in mathematics, sometimes a comparison of different solutions is itself a worthy use of class time—an opportunity for students to communicate their strategies to make their thinking visible, and respond to real-time feedback. These experiences strengthen the skills consistently valued by employers of all kinds.
Put another way, CS holds the key to many of today’s education challenges. The last thing we should do is limit our view of how it benefits students—and, furthermore, who should have access to it.
As you might expect, making computer science for all a reality is more than adding new curriculum to schools. It’s the pedagogy that needs updating as much as the content, in order to help teachers make the critical shift in the direction of hands-on, interdisciplinary frameworks that put students in the role of problem-solver. Many teachers who are new to CS are also learning a new pedagogical approach at the same time.
Fortunately, there are plenty of models for us to consider:
- The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), now adopted by 16 states, which encourage teachers to take on the role of coach as students work in small groups to learn by doing. Not only does NGSS incorporate CS and engineering principles across multiple grade levels, it also champions crosscutting concepts so that students and teachers can better connect topics across disciplines.
- Initiatives like the XQ Super School Project support communities to reimagine school environments and teaching models to better prepare students to become lifelong learners and thinkers. Many of these schools emphasize real-world problem-solving in their curricula, often by having students collaborate with local partners outside of school—regardless of the career path each student chooses to pursue.
- The informal education community actively supports the CS movement by serving youth both in and out of school. Here in New York City, we have big cultural institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Hall of Science and myriad smaller organizations like Mouse, Beam Center and The Knowledge House that develop and deploy innovative learning experiences to the same students we aim to serve in formal K-12 classrooms.
Efforts like these are exciting, but they are most effective for students when they work together. To elevate CS in our schools to the level it deserves, we all need to do our part to connect CS learning in and out of the classroom. CSNYC has long supported community and afterschool programs that work to expand access to quality CS education for all students.
As a nation, we’re on the verge of some major changes in our schools. That means we have important decisions to make in our local communities about what academic opportunities we prioritize for students. CS isn’t just for future programmers; it has the power to transform education to meet students’ cognitive and real-world needs. It’s time we fully integrated it into the K-12 curriculum without qualifiers or excuses.