Sunday, March 6, 2011

Agile Education and the CS Principles Course

One of the things about the Agile movement that attracted me from the beginning was how proponents would go back to the core goals of development, like "getting something working that the client really needs," and from that develop practices that turned standard development idea on their head. That resonated with my own experiences in how to attack problems like natural language understanding and the design of learning environments.

I recently gave an internal "brown bag" talk on how several of these upside-down Agile practices could be fruitfully applied to educational design and academic research.

Then I happened across the AP CS Principles course, and specifically their learning outcomes document (PDF). I have great respect for the goal, the people involved, and the effort invested, but that "requirements" document is wrong in so many ways that I felt a need to try and articulate why.

My own approach to designing courses and other learning experiences is based on the 6-question framework developed by Alex Kass, Ray Bareiss, Danny Edelson and myself in response to the many flawed designs we'd seen (or created) over the previous decade at the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern.

Question #1 in that framework, "What mistakes are people making that matter, and who cares?" is the most critical. It defines what you need to teach. It's where at least half the designs we saw failed, including the CS Principles learning outcomes. Pull out just the statements about what a student will learn to do. Here are two:
  • "The student can analyze the effects of computing within economic, social, and cultural contexts."
  • "The student can use abstractions and models to solve computational problems and analyze systems."
Try and find any outcomes that a student would say "I can't do that but I'd love to learn how!"

In case it's not clear why this matters, read the UW CSE120 blog on a pilot run of this course. Look where student engagement occurred. Without engagement, nothing else happens when it comes to learning

It's easy to criticize. That's the point of this blog. But it's not enough to criticize. What would a better answer look like? What would happen if I applied the 6-question framework to the course with the same intent as the CS Principles course?

That's my plan for the next several blog posts. Stay tuned.

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