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What's a Computer For? Part II

Computer science is the new basic skill.


In an educational setting, granting agency to the learner represents the wisest allocation of resources with the greatest potential return on investment. When used as material, the computer can help a student learn what we have always valued with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. Yet the real power emerges when a student is able to learn new things that were previously not learnable, and in new ways. The power of the computer lies in its ability to be used to create a wider, deeper range of personally meaningful projects.

A teacher's technological fluency and awareness of computers' potential predicts what students can do. Despite popular myths and a few exceptions, children rarely know more about computers and their applications than adults.

If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a way of making mathematics.

Teachers who lack technological fluency may still value the computer as an instrument for project-based learning. In their classrooms, kids can make a five-slide PowerPoint presentation about frogs, write a five-paragraph essay on a blog, publish a book report via a wiki, or use iMovie to report on a summer vacation. These are hardly transformational activities, but they grant some agency to the learner.

Bad Standards

According to renowned computer scientist Alan Kay, the computer revolution hasn't happened yet. Look at the average American student's twelve-year course of study and you will be hard-pressed to find any study of computer science. MIT mathematician Seymour Papert suggests that an impartial observer might conclude that we have enacted a conscious policy of depriving children of understanding the very technologies central to their lives, which seems antithetical to education.

Don't believe me? ISTE's National Educational Technology Standards and groups such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills don't mention programming or computer science once in their educational visions for the future. One of the AP computer science tests has just been dropped, and few students have any meaningful computer science experiences during their K12 careers.

Computer science matters for several reasons: (1) mastering the machine, (2) addressing economic imperatives, and (3) understanding the world.

Mastery of the computer leads students to understand the strengths, weaknesses and appropriate use of technology. It places them in a position where they are empowered to make informed decisions, explore powerful ideas, and express themselves in ways we have yet to imagine.

It is undeniable that knowledge of computer science has great implications for personal career prospects and our nation's economic development. Curiously absent from the hyperbolic discussions of flat worlds and global competitiveness are concerns over statistics such as those from the Computing Research Association that show that the number of college freshmen who list computer science as a probable major has fallen by 70 percent since 2000, or that computer science remains a rarity in the K12 curriculum.

The Power of Computer Science

I disagree with those who protest that not every child needs to be a programmer. We expect students to have all sorts of learning experiences. Why not explore the most powerful new science of the past century? In 1975, my junior high expected every student to learn programming in a nineweek course between baking a souffl? and making a wooden tie rack. Nobody ever questioned the value of souffl? baking, yet anti-intellectualism or fear of computers makes us question the value of programming. More than three decades later that school's computer curriculum consists of keyboard instruction. The "Algebra II with Computer Programming" course I took is now part of the fossil record.

If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a way of making mathematics. The power of computer science is evident in all of the natural and social sciences, not to mention the arts, commerce and politics. Agency over the computer not only has vocational benefi ts but also is required for understanding the world. The computer should be used transparently across grades and disciplines, but students also need the formal understanding necessary for solving problems unforeseen by the traditional curriculum. Computer science should be taught as a basic skill.

Gary S. Stager,, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate.