Quickfire Questions in Computer Science Education

Five minutes to think of pressing questions in CS Ed.

Is there such a thing as either too many questions or questions that are too large to answer? I ask this question because I completed a five minute question brainstorming session, whereby the goal was to identify problems of practice, in my case Computer Science Education (CSE), through questioning, and the session fell flat. At the end, I felt weary and disappointed. But, not to worry. These are familiar feelings for which I have developed strategies to overcome.

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger supplies anecdote after anecdote of individuals who were not afraid to ask the important questions that led to great innovation. Knowing how to question is key, yet in schools, young students are actively discouraged from asking them and instead become conditioned to simply answer questions posed by teachers. That pattern persists as students move into the workplace, where questions are considered disruptive to productivity. This five minute exercise was designed to overcome these ingrained barriers to questioning.

My eight uninspiring questions.

I thought of eight questions, none of them particularly inspiring, ranging from gender inequity to computational thinking, the Maker Movement to pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986). Interestingly, the problem may not be a lack of quality questions. From a neutral observer’s point of view, there are at least one or two questions here that have potential, especially the ones about the lack of support for CSE research and the mystery of the derision computational thinking faces from those in Computer Science.

Rather, the issue I am struggling with seems to be with the resulting disappointment and weariness. I was expecting to be inspired, despite Berger’s caution against over-reliance on the eureka! moment to fuel change and advice about taking a more level-headed approach to developing questions. But, it is difficult to read a book that is essentially designed to inspire change and not expect or hope to be inspired. My expectations went unmet, and my negativity took hold.

Pessimism happens to be a family trait. I am often initially disheartened by anything that requires significant change or effort, like systemic racism, Universal Design for Learning, or Thanksgiving dinner. For me, to formulate questions that might lead to change in CSE was to uncover and be overwhelmed by the many daunting systemic issues in CSE. There is just an enormous amount of work that needs to be done in CSE to make Computer Science accessible, teachable, and understandable.

I have been struggling with issues in CSE since the moment I set foot into the computer science classroom five years ago, from trying to figure out how to teach young children, to evaluating the tools and methods to use, and researching what to teach. Once I started studies and research, I further encountered the larger systemic issues with access, engagement, and racism. Writing down these questions all at once reminded me of the long journey I have made and the long journey I have ahead of me.

Berger does not warn readers that big transformative questions can be daunting. His stories about medicine, education, and business are carefully chosen, depicting individuals who struck upon a question, a long-term vision, and overcame all obstacles and failures to succeed. Their questions had the power to disrupt industries, businesses, and institutional inertia, but Berger never describes how questions have the potential to disrupt the individuals who ask them.

Luckily, this is not new ground for me. Over time, I have developed strategies to overcome this familiar negativity by taking a short break, then diving into the work that is needed to start addressing these large problems. Computational thinking in particular has been a revelation to me, specifically decomposition, which when applied to large problems can break them down into multiple smaller, bite-sized pieces. Once I have identified a subproblem, a starting point, and begin to make incremental progress, pessimism gradually gives way to focused optimism.

Brainstorming these questions was an uncomfortable process for me. But despite these feelings of disappointment and weariness, my long experience with them gives me confidence that this questioning will end up being helpful. I may not have followed Berger’s script exactly, but the next step will be the same: a launching into more inquiry that will eventually lead to action.

Reference

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. Bloomsbury USA.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14. https://doi.org/10.2307/1175860

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