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Coding in Schools as New Vocationalism: Larry Cuban on What Schools Are For

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Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Mark Guzdial

Larry Cuban is an educational historian who has written before on why requiring coding in schools is a bad idea (see here). Jane Margolis and Yasmin Kafai wrote an excellent response about the importance of coding in schools (here). Cuban has just penned a three-part series about "Coding: The New Vocationalism," likely inspired by the recent NYTimes article about the role that Tech firms are having on school policy (How Silicon Valley Pushed Coding into American Classrooms).

  • In Part 1, he describes the dance that schools have had with industry over more than 100 years, between preparing future citizens and preparing future workers.

Preparation for the workplace is not the only goal for public schooling. Yet that has been the primary purpose for most reformers over the past three decades. And a century ago, reformers had also elevated workplace preparation to be the overarching purpose for tax-supported public schools.

In the new vocationalism, Cuban sees that schools have been tied to economic growth and the needs of information-age society. Cuban sees coding advocates blending the roles of school in preparing citizens and school as preparing workers, by arguing that computing is necessary for modern society.

  • In Part 2, he points out that any education reform faces the reality of what teachers know and what they will actually do in the classroom. He draws on efforts in the 1950's and 1960's, and then uses the story of Logo to explain how reformers often get it wrong.

The lessons that have to be learned time and again from earlier generations of school reformers are straightforward.

  • Build teacher capabilities in content and skills since both determine to what degree, if any, a policy gets past the classroom door.
  • With or without enhanced capabilities and expertise, teachers will adapt policies aimed at altering how and what they teach to the contours of the classrooms in which they teach. If policymakers hate teacher fingerprints over innovations, if they seek fidelity in putting desired reforms into practice, they wish for the impossible.
  • Ignoring both of the above lessons ends up with incomplete implementation of desired policies and sorely disappointed school reformers.
  • In Part 3, he returns to the question of what school is for. He describes successful reform as a collaboration between top-down designers and policy-makers and bottom-up teachers ("street-level bureaucrats"). He describes a successful model for reform that created "work circles" of researchers and teachers (at Northwestern University, led by Brian Reiser) to achieve the goals of the researchers' curriculum but by adapting it with the help of the teachers.

Cuban is not necessarily against teaching computing (even explicitly coding) in schools. He's saying that it doesn't make sense to impose it as a mandate from industry. More importantly, he's offering a path forward: mutual adaptation of curricular goals, between designers and teachers.

Mutual adaptation can benefit teachers and students. But this is only one small study of four teachers wrestling with teaching a science unit. It is nonetheless suggestive of what can occur.

Will similar efforts as these "work circles" involve teachers early on and make the process of mutual adaptation work to benefit both teachers and their students?  I have yet to read of such initiatives as districts and states mandate computer science courses and require young children to learn to code. Repeating the errors of the past and letting mutual adaptation roll out thoughtlessly has been the pattern thus far. The "New Vocationalism," displaying a narrowed purpose for tax-supported public schools, marches on unimpeded.


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