Computation as a literacy of its own

Computer Science Education Week begins on December 8th this year. While I have marked the event in small ways in my classes in years past, this year I have been asked to help the whole school celebrate the week by participating in the Hour of Code movement.

I used to have conflicted feelings about hopping on board the Hour of Code bandwagon:

  • Hour of Code is the product of a year-old non-profit organization, (founded in 2013), which has a tidal wave of public attention and corporate support. Something so new, that’s moving so quickly, hasn’t had much time for critical analysis. I wanted to know what was all about a little more before putting it in front of students.
  • When one of my intellectual heroes, Bret Victor, cited another one of my intellectual heroes, Seymour Papert, in criticizing the rhetoric of Hour of Code, I paid attention. There was a pedagogy and a purpose to computer science education that seemed to be missing from and that made me uneasy.
  • An hour of code? What about poetry? What about dance? What about Shakespeare? What about _____? What is it saying to students that programming is privileged in this way?
  • An hour of code? When has meaningful learning ever happened in just one hour of just one week of a year? Isn’t computer science an academic discipline worthy of deep thought?

…but things have changed. I was asked to get on the bandwagon. And it turns out the view is different from up here: 

  • Computer Science Education Week, which has been around for a number of years, is officially being produced by this year. Having these two align, rather than having a brand new piggyback off of the work of another coalition, makes me feel a little bit better. (I’m still researching more about and would welcome insights anyone out there is willing to share.)
  • The rhetoric feels a little bit different this year. It strikes me as being angled more toward access and inclusivity.
  • Maybe an hour of code doesn’t preclude an hour of anything else. Maybe a day or a week to celebrate computer science will invite more week-long celebrations of more things that our students should come into contact with — not belittle or jettison them.

And lastly, having the entire school participate in the Hour of Code creates a platform to say some important things. Here are the three things I want students to take away:

First, that computer science offers a powerful lens to view the world. What do I mean by that? Here’s an analogy:
Something transformative can happen in literature classes when students realize that storytelling and symbolism and metaphors are real — that they don’t just exist in books and in classroom conversations. Our very identities are wrapped up in the stories we tell; the metaphors we use shape our experiences. It’s a revelation when you begin to think that when we study books we are studying ourselves and our shared condition. Connections are everywhere; words take on new meaning; you can never un-see connections and significance all around you.
Computation can be similarly transformational when you see the world in terms of big problems that can be decomposed into smaller, more manageable problems, which can be solved one at a time, and as layers of abstraction, some of which we understand and some of which we don’t understand yet.

Second, that computational literacy is a social justice issue. 
We learn from Freire that literacy is more than just encoding and decoding words. And so computational literacy isn’t just functional either: it’s not that all students should be making apps. It’s also political: the people who speak the language can participate; the people who don’t, can’t. Think of it this way:
Everything that you see on a computer has been designed by someone. The placement of each button, the font of each word, the background color of each screen.
Every experience you have on a computer involves a decision made by someone. Where will your information be stored when you create a new account on that site? How much of it will be shared with other people? Will it ever be deleted?
Without computational literacy to make decisions like these for yourself, you will always be subjected to live with the decisions of others. You deserve to have the power to ask the right questions, and when you don’t like the answers you receive, to create new solutions. Anything less is oppressive.

And third, your voice deserves a chance to be heard.
Should all students become professional programmers? No! But all students deserve the opportunity to be heard. The message behind the Hour of Code shouldn’t be that the world needs more programmers; it’s that the world needs more kinds of programmers. People of different backgrounds with different intellectual and professional aspirations. People of different races, cultures, genders, ages, and shoe sizes. There is tremendous power in computer science not only to see the world differently but also to affect the world differently; diverse voices to represent that world need to be part of the conversation.

*This entire post needs a big footnote crediting Yasmin Kafai, my professor and advisor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Her keynote at FabLearn two weeks ago has had me thinking about equity, inclusivity, and diversity in computer science classes, and her larger influence on my thought in only the last few months has already been indelible.


One thought on “Computation as a literacy of its own

  1. Pingback: Not so much a blueprint as a recipe | They Call Me BC

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