Progressive Education and the Promises of CS Education

I just finished reading “Loving Learning: How Progressive Education can Save America’s Schools” by Little and Ellison.  Its been in my reading queue since Amazon recommended it to me, and it came up in library request roulette.

Throughout the book it surprised me how the ‘features’ of progressive education often align with the features of computer science education that is often touted to the media such as open ended projects, just in time learning, real world scenarios and issues, and sparking that interest in students who were other dissatisfied with school.

While I am on the fence about ‘progressive education’ vs. traditional education, especially in high schools where students have been acculturated into one or the other for years before arriving at our doors, I see many parallels between the lessons of progressive education and the attempts to bring computer science to the mainstream and incorporate the maker movement.

First, there is an ongoing conversation among instructors of early courses between content and student interest, skills and open ended projects. At AFSE we constantly have that conversation – how do you find the balance between student interest, self directed projects, and student choice and the need to cover specific curricular elements? Identifying the appropriate mastery goals for students (what every student should know or be able to do at 100% before moving to the next course) and including instruction and practice in those goals is important. How do you tailor instruction in a classroom of 30+ students (twice the size of what progressive education argues should be the max), provide appropriate individualized feedback at two levels – micro for the assignment and macro for the overall progression through the course, and tailor assessments? It’s a monumental job and requires a balance between outcomes and student choice.

Apparently traditional progressive education is actually high standards, just through alternative assessment.  From the book:

Over the past century, progressive schools have put a lot of effort and attention into developing effective alternative forms of assessments. Instead of the one-size-fits-all standardized exam .. we have always favored the sorts of evaluations supported by research and described in the landmark NRC report How People Learn, as those that “provide students with opportunities to revise and improve their thinking, help students see their own progress over the course of weeks or months, and help teachers identify problems that need to be remedied.”

This seems to fit well with the iterative nature of programming assignments as the move on the CollegeBoard to portfolio assessment for the CS Principles course.

Sean Stern, Eric Allatta and I  wrote a paper for the Every Child a Coder workshop in Boston this June.  I will post more about the workshop with a link to our paper when it becomes available, but the themes in the paper address our balance between content and rigor, assessment, and finding meaningful experiences for students.

More to come, but I’m curious what others see.

Leave a Reply