Technology & Education Is Computational Fluency a Requisite Skill?

Technology & Education

written by Mike Sterling for Canadian Community News

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Sometimes the letters to the editor are more interesting than the articles.  A recent letter exhibited how differently people see things.

The article in Scientific American called 'The Coding Revolution' 19 July, 2016 by Annie Murphy Paul  said in brief:

  • Champions of universal coding believe computer science instruction in public schools can close achievement gaps among socioeconomic groups and help U.S. and Canadian students keep pace with those in other countries.
  • But coding for all entails steep logistical challenges, including a shortage of teachers, the absence of an agreed-on curriculum and disparities in students' access to computers.
  • Some critics argue that coding represents a too narrow technical focus and that it is being pushed on schools by business leaders concerned about their bottom line.
  • A potential middle ground involves teaching “computational thinking” a habits of mind that include breaking down a problem, designing systems, and running small experiments to see which approaches fail and which succeed. The White House's Computer Science for All Initiative embraces coding as well as computational thinking.

Her viewpoint was challenged by two readers.

One said: "... but to get tied up in deep angst about computational thinking and to talk about massive involvement of such thinking in all disciplines will stall any implementation of appropriate levels of computer literacy in grades K-12 for many years as focus groups are created, data taken and reports written"

So the letter writer is telling us that teaching computer science and critical thinking widely and in depth is not feasible at this time.

One wonders how subjects enter the curriculum?  I mean how did society put arithmetic into children's daily study?  Did the students of Babylon take kindly to the base 60 that they used in computation?

The letter writer David L. Streiner from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, McMaster University seems to imply that it is too much to expect of the educational system.

So we have two views.  One says that teaching computer science early is teaching critical thinking and not just rote learning.  The other view says that the educational system and learning does not respond quickly.  There are a lack of teachers and reports that come from long studies.  Maybe even double blind studies that Behavioral Scientists might do.

Click the orange arrow to read the second column

Here is my view:

The world has changed and we are moving toward a tipping point as shown by IBM's Watson.   Everyone needs to have as much computational fluency as they can get.  In the same way that Euclid's Geometry entered children's lives, so too must computational fluency. 

Yes, it's true that the better students will excel and the less gifted will have difficulty.  Is that a reason for not going forward quickly?  After all most kids now have a computational powerhouse in their hands all the time in their phones.

Computer Science gives us a deep look at critical thinking, just as Euclid did, but more so.  Not everyone can be or wants to be a computational expert, but a high school graduate needs to know how Excel works and how to develop schema to make it useful in their lives.

Our educational system has to keep pace. The letter writer is correct about lack of teachers and curriculum, but that's not an excuse to be slow.  Do we think that China and Japan will worry about double blind studies?  No, they are forging ahead.  Why? Their growning economies need skilled workers, so do ours.

Again, not everyone can do the job.  I have experience in this.  I once hired a PhD in Mechanical Engineering with 5 years experience in computer science away from a top 10 company.

I had to get rid of him after 3 months.  He could not think critically and he could not code.  He had gotten by using a good memory and hiding in a large company.  He did not have the requisite skills.  Could he eventually have learned them?  I have no idea.  I think not, but I'm not sure.

I do know that the best computer scientists are also very clear thinkers.  Clear thinking is the elusive goal


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Saturday, November 26, 2016