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Communications of the ACM


How We Teach Should Be Independent Of Who We Are Teaching

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Valerie Barr

Credit: ACM-W

For many years I have been part of discussions about how to diversify computing, particularly about how we recruit and retain a more diverse cohort of CS students.  I wholeheartedly support this goal, and spend a considerable amount of my effort as chair of ACM-W helping to drive programs that focus on one aspect of this diversification, namely encouraging women students to stay in computing.

Of late I have become very concerned about how some elements of the diversity argument are being expressed and then implemented in teaching practices.  A shorthand has developed that often comes out as two problematic claims:

Problem 1. Women are motivated by social relevance, so when we teach them we have to discuss ways in which computing can contribute to the social good. 

Problem 2.  Students from underrepresented minorities (URM) respond to culturally relevant examples, so when we teach them we have to incorporate these examples into course content.

This formulation of what we should be doing in the classroom is problematic for a number of reasons: 

  1. These statements are silent on the subject of white and Asian men, the groups that dominate in CS classrooms, effectively implying that these people are not interested in computing for the social good or culturally relevant examples, that they are only motivated by the hard-core geeky techie parts of computing. 
  2. This formulation paints all women with a single brush, and does the same for URM students.  Some women are interested in the social relevance of computing, but are all women going to be motivated by this?  Some URM students are motivated by culturally relevant examples, but are all URM students going to be motivated by this?
  3. While painting women and URM with a single brush, this formulation implies that members of these groups are not interested in computing for techie reasons, that members of these groups won’t ever be excited about the technology in its own right.
  4. Further, there is an implication that we need to discuss the social relevance of computing only when there are women in the class, and we need to utilize culturally relevant examples only when there are URM students in the class.
  5. The logical, and dangerous, final conclusion is that if there are only Asian and white men in the room then we do not need to make any changes at all to course content or pedagogy.

These assumptions about students can have a very negative impact on our teaching, causing us to potentially drive away the very students we are hoping to recruit and retain.  As we continue efforts to diversify computing, we cannot afford to paint any group in a monochromatic way. We have to embrace the richness of today's student population by making what we teach meaningful and relevant to them.  There are women who want to geek out about hard-core tech, and there are men who care deeply about computing for the social good.  There are students of all genders and ethnic and racial backgrounds who will be happy with an old-fashioned lecture, and those who will thrive on active learning with examples drawn from a range of cultures and application areas. Many students will be motivated by knowing how the techniques and subject matter they’re learning fit into their future workplace or life goals.

In order to change the toxic climate in tech, a climate that, for example, leads 45% of women to leave tech jobs within 5 years, we have to teach everybody differently.  If we pretend that all women students are the same, and all URM students are the same, and all Asian and white male students are the same, then we will never adequately address the blind spots and weaknesses in instruction and curriculum development that have led to our current situation.  A rich approach to curriculum and teaching pedagogy will maximize our ability to reach all kinds of learners, all parts of the student population.  We have to use varied content and pedagogies regardless of whom we see in the room and work to connect to what students know or care about.  This approach will guarantee that all students, including those from the groups that currently dominate computing, will be exposed to a rich, multi-faceted, view of computing, be better equipped to address the challenges of the field, and be better equipped to work collegially within a diverse workforce.


Thanks to several colleagues who gave me important feedback on prior versions of this post. 


Walter Falby

Ms. Barr:

Your blog entry made a number of valid points about teaching. We should not paint all underrepresented students with the same brush. I cannot speak about women in computing. I can speak about Blacks in computing. I've been a software developer for 38 years. I've worked in Michigan and Ontario, Canada. I've been the only Black or one of a handful of Blacks in every company. I've mentored students in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). I've also been involved in the Hour of Code in DPS. In Detroit, Black students are in the majority. To these students the messenger is as important as the message. If they don't see people like themselves involved in computing, they won't think there is a place for them. It is not only the content that should be relevant but the delivery as well.

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