A New Liberal Art

In the Computer Science K-12 session at the PNAIS TechShare, we had a good discussion of the evolution of technology in schools. First we had computer teachers and labs, teaching keyboarding and applications, mostly in isolation of core subjects. Now we have integrators, integrating technology into core subjects.

The session made the argument that we are doing students a disservice if we only focus on technology integration, which is primarily in service to existing subjects. The problem is that often the integration is automation instead of innovative, and the entire subject of how computers truly work is overlooked– we create better consumers of technology who are more than ready to use Word, PowerPoint, iMovie, PodCasts and a range of browsers, but not innovators with technology.

What’s missing is basically a new liberal art– that of algorithms, symbolic reasoning, logic and programming experience. Math departments will acknowledge the importance of these “ways of thinking,” but normally these experiences are not part of their curriculum. With this experience, students can see and use computers in much more relaxed and sophisticated ways.

I’d like to think I’m example of this– in HS, I had some BASIC programming courses, ASCII graphics, etc. I thought they were valueless. In grad school, as I used computers more with students, I found that I was much more comfortable with problem-solving, and learning basic tags in HTML was no big deal. Suddenly, I was moving into innovative areas, and one core reason was that I was building on premises learned in the “worthless” programming classes I had years before. They were the seed.

For my own children, I hope that they can be innovators in their chosen fields in the future. They may not choose computers as a form of innovation, but I want to be sure they know they are capable of doing so and make an educated choice.

Should all children be offered the same opportunity? Additionally, if we as a society are going to really discuss the new “breakthroughs” in bio-engineering, genetics, nanotech, and a host of other culture and world-changing technologies, shouldn’t we all have some idea of the algorithms and “ways of thinking” that are at the heart of these advances?

I borrowed heavily for this session from the Association of Computing Machinery‘s report titled “K-12 2003: Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science.” It provides grade by grade learning objectives for computer science and the associated “ways of thinking.” The thought-provoking report is available for download here.

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