Computer Science as Vocational Training

Larry Cuban has written a three-part series about how teaching CS is the new vocational training (one, two, three).  His argument comes from a place of watching a range of top-down mandates (think No Child Left Behind) create crappy outcomes for kids. I get that. Many districts and schools shove various reforms down teachers’ throats, without buy-in, without conversation.  And maybe there are places out there that are doing that with Computer Science.  But that’s not been my experience.  I may teach in an independent school where teachers have a lot of freedom to develop curriculum but through my various CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association) connections, I know a lot of public school CS teachers.  And many of them are fighting to get their schools or districts to accept CS–often as just an elective much less as a requirement.

And I understand Cuban’s queasiness about industry seemingly dictating what to teach.  I read the Times article, too. Idaho, what are you thinking?  But Computer Science, the field, not just coding, underlies so much of how our world runs.  To discount its importance in public school, to denigrate it as merely vocational, seems to me to miss the point.

Part of the issue here is the coding (or programming) is the easiest way to explain what Computer Science is to most people.  Programming is also a good tool to use to understand a range of concepts related to Computer Science.  And there are programmers out there who may have learned the concepts of CS through their many programming classes, but now never use them nor need to use them.  Just as there are people doing math in their jobs who have forgotten their mathematical proofs.  But we would never call math simply vocational, because it could lead to other, bigger, things.  So can CS, so I don’t understand why we continue to think of it as limiting.

I would also contend that even if one wants to think of CS as primarily vocational, the careers CS supports are not just software engineering careers. Cuban cites, for example, business services, as a bigger growth area than technology careers.  Business services involves a lot of CS.  Ad targeting, shipping logistics, sales analyses–all part of business services–all need computing.

I would argue, too, that increasing underrepresented groups in Computer Science depends on introducing CS at an early age in public schools.  Black, hispanic, latina/o, and female students often arrive at college to find that their white and Asian (mostly male) counterparts have had much more exposure to CS (either through school or extracurriculars) and feel discouraged and unable to catch up. They need a foundation under them that will give them confidence to continue or even try the field at this advanced level.

Students get exposed to Biology in elementary school and just as few careers in biology appear on the BLS “most growth” career list (nurses and medical assistants) as for CS (software engineers and systems analysts). Oh sure, you can argue we need to know about our bodies.  Well, we need to know about the machines we use everyday and hold in our hands and that are running our refrigerators and light bulbs.  How is okay not to understand that stuff?  If, as Cuban argues, part of schooling is about creating informed citizens, then learning CS fits right in with that goal.

It’s important to know that Facebook and Google use algorithms to present information and those algorithms can be exploited.  It’s important to understand what Net Neutrality is and why that changes the Internet as we know it.  It’s important to understand that hacking takes place at the intersection of technology and a keen understanding of human vulnerability.  It’s important to know that some things really do not compute, but we can get close with a few tweaks (i.e. we still sometimes need human intervention and ingenuity).  And Computer Science, even just coding, can help one develop the habit of breaking down a problem into smaller parts.  Most problems worth solving are not small. And there are many more things that Computer Science teaches us that help us be better citizens.  And that’s why students should learn Computer Science.

Reading Interlude: Summer Life

So my next book is taking me a bit longer.  It’s really good, though, so just hang on.  Also, I have been back at work and traveling for things where there hasn’t been time for reading.  I’ve read a little every day or so, but it hasn’t been enough to get through the book.  I’ll get there!

Work has been both slower and busier.  In the summer, our hours are 9-3, which is nice, but it also goes by in a blink.  There aren’t pressing deadlines (yet), so I don’t feel the need to come in early or stay late.  By August, that will change, I’m sure.  Mostly, I’m still in the process of hiring for a handful of positions.  This happens every year for a variety of reasons, but this year has been particularly busy on the hiring front.  Hiring takes time.  There’s reading resumes, scheduling phone interviews (often with several other people), doing the phone interviews, and then, scheduling face-to-face, and then doing the face-to-face.  And finally, there’s making the decision, which can be quick or take a while, depending on our pool.  Other projects have taken a back seat, as hiring is one of the most important things we do.

Summer is going by very fast! I can’t believe it’s mid-July already.  A month from now, we’ll be headed to California to drop off Geeky Girl. I’ve booked an Airbnb and flights for our trip.  Everyone keeps asking me if I’m ready.  I’m ready.  I don’t get too sentimental about these things.  I’ll miss Geeky Girl, but she’ll be in touch.  Technology has changed the going off to college dynamic.  As I was planning the trip, I had planned to arrive the day before she needs to be there.  Mr. Geeky suggested going a day earlier than that so that we could all be together for a day.  I argued that we’d have plenty of time together and that Geeky Girl probably didn’t want us to be there any longer than necessary. So we asked her, and guess who was right.  Yep, me.  She’s ready, and that makes me ready.

Yesterday became family cleaning day, weirdly, which made me quite happy.  I went to work for a half day, came home, ate lunch and started tackling some projects around the house.  I’ve been cleaning out a “junk room” and I’ve been purging clothes (and getting Mr. Geeky to do so as well!).  As I started on my projects, Mr. Geeky randomly joined in, and then Geeky Boy decided it was time to tackle his room–he’s been talking about it forever.  Geeky Girl was out, but she’d already started on her room earlier this week.  And then, the maid showed up (yes, I finally hired cleaning help).  So while we were reorganizing upstairs, she tackled the downstairs.  It was great! And yes, that makes me sound a little nerdy.

Other summer goings on include a family reunion on Mr. Geeky’s side of the family, which involved staying at an old train station that was very cool. On the way we listened to Sh*t Town, the podcast from the makers of Serial.  Well worth listening to.  We also listened to some shorter ones: Reveal, Freakonomics, Invisibilia.  Thank goodness for podcasts.

This weekend, we’re headed out camping in the Niagara Falls area.  I’m looking forward to being away from civilization (sort of; it is car camping).  We camped in May in a cabin and that was fun, but this will be our first trip this summer.  We usually manage two, but I don’t think that’s going to happen this year.

All that’s to say that summer has been busy in a good way.  I’m not yet looking forward to the school year, but I will be soon.

Summer Reading: Theft by Finding

Book three is on the lighter side, David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding.  This is a collection of diary entries from 1977-2002.  It reads differently from his other work in some ways, but as a long-time fan, I could see where the ideas for much of his work came from, and by the end, could hear his distinctive voice.

The book begins in media res, so to speak, unlike a memoir, which might cover childhood, etc.  Instead, we’re thrown into a time when David is hitchhiking and unless you do the math, you’re not sure how old he is.  The early entries are filled with interesting observations of people and places, but also tales of his own harassment by others, his drinking, doing drugs and being broke frequently.  I was glad I knew how things turned out for him because if I didn’t, I’d have been worried.

Though Sedaris has always downplayed his ambitions, you can see glimpses of it even in what looks like pretty desperate moments.  He knows how much he needs to save to get to New York.  There are brief mentions of writing he’s working on.  You can tell he wants to get somewhere, and that’s why the story doesn’t end in tragedy.

As always, there are some really funny moments where I found myself laughing out loud.  His thoughts are so weird and yet, somehow, not that different from our own weird thoughts. I found myself thinking simultaneously, wow, that’s odd and oh, yeah, that’s exactly how I’d feel.

I always find myself thinking after reading books like this, that detail how people live their lives, that I should do more.  I think I should travel more, write more, go out more, etc.  If a memoir/diary has ended up in print, generally the person’s life isn’t boring–or at least the slices we’re shown aren’t boring–and so then I think my own is boring by comparison.  Of course, I’m writing this from the porch of a beach house, so my life isn’t that bad.

Summer reading: Everybody Lies

I heard about Everybody Lies from listening to the Freakonomics podcast where Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was interviewed about the book.  I absolutely love data.  I’m not necessarily good at evaluating it as I don’t have the same toolkit as many modern data scientists, but I do often turn to data to answer questions I have in my life.  This book didn’t disappoint in answering some really interesting questions–about racism, sexism, poverty, sex, and more.

The main points of the book, I’d say, is that our intuition about things is often wrong and that we have enough data at our fingertips and the tools to dig into (in the form of computing power) to answer some really big and important questions that might make life better for lots of people.

Stephens-Davidowitz is also a really good writer, so while the book is about datasets and regression analyses, it’s not at all dry.  And the insights the book reveals about human nature are also compelling.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • While we talk all the time about implicit bias when it comes to race, search data reveals that racism is not as implicit as we think it is.  It’s really explicit. People just hide it well.  They’re not unaware that they’re racist, as implicit bias would have us believe.  They just don’t share their racism with others.  But they share it with Google.
  • Parents display a lot of bias against their daughters. They assume she’s not smart, that looks are more important, and that ugliness is a very undesirable characteristic to have in daughters but not necessarily sons.  (I found this nugget particularly interesting given my interest in girls education).
  • The Internet is not as segregated as one might think.  Most of us bump into people whose opinions are very different from our own very regularly.
  • People say they’re going to do one thing — like watch a documentary and not the chick flick — but they do something else entirely.  Which is why Netflix and Amazon and other Internet sellers pay more attention to what you actually do (watch the chick flick) and not what you are projecting you’ll do (because you added that documentary to your queue).
  • Sometimes data doesn’t give you the whole picture, so you need human intervention. Test scores, for example, don’t tell you everything you might need to know about how effective a teacher is in creating student success. Test scores, student surveys, and teacher observations (the last two qualitative data from humans) taken all together give you a really solid picture.
  • Also, the size of a horse’s left ventricle is a big indicator of whether that horse will win a lot of races.

And those are just a few of the cool things I learned.  But the other cool thing about the book is that it’s also a story of data itself, of how much we have (even us regular people), of what kinds of things scientists are investigating and discovering from all this data, and the untapped potential that’s there.  I actually think I’ll be applying some of what I learned from this book pretty immediately.  And that’s cool.

Summer reading: Pitch Perfect

I finished book two of my summer reading project.  Pitch Perfect was about how to speak more effectively, in many different situations, from formal presentations to conversations at cocktail parties.  A couple of years ago, I read The Well-Spoken Woman, in preparation for a TED-style talk I had to give.  I think both books are helpful.  Communication is one of the most important things we do, and we are constantly sending messages with what we say and how we say it.  It’s an area I’m working on all the time.

The message from the book that I found most helpful is that you should always be prepared, no matter how often you do public speaking or how confident you feel.  Speaking well under any circumstances takes preparation and practice.  That’s comforting to think that everyone needs to prepare.  So I don’t feel stupid for going over things in my head before I say them or thinking through what I might say in a meeting, even if I’m not the one running the meeting.

The book is broken down into seven basic principles, which I’m going to paraphrase for my own sake: Get to the point, tell stories, keep it short, slow down, convey confidence, be curious, change/control the conversation.  Many of these you’ve likely heard before, but McGowan’s specific stories and examples drive these points home, giving you some very specific places to start.

I’m looking forward to putting some his tips into practice, both for myself and for my students.


Feedback via observation

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about classroom observations.  One of my roles is to oversee the evaluation process for faculty and classroom observations are a part of that.  I’ve felt ambivalent about our observations.  Sometimes they work well, sometimes not.  Typically, teacher and observer arrange a time to observe a particular class.  The observer writes up the observation and then the teacher and observer have a conversation about what went well, what didn’t with the idea that the teacher improves in areas that she feels she needs to.

Most of the time, that’s precisely what happens, and sometimes the teacher invites the observer back in to see how things are better or the observer sets up a revisit and there’s further conversation and things are good.  But that’s best case scenario.  Often there’s not a revisit for another year by which time whatever was discussed before has been forgotten.  This is especially true when the teachers are already pretty good.

I’ve been in conversation over the past year, and especially the last few months with our division directors and department chairs (who do most of the actual visits) about shifting the focus of our observation process from something we do as part of the evaluation process to something we do to improve teaching.  In order for that to happen, we need two things.  One, we need more frequent observations.  Once a year is not enough.  And two, we need them to not be planned.  Not everyone plans the. perfect. lesson. for observation day, but many do, and then you may or may not be getting a clear picture of what’s happening regularly in the classroom.

We’re still working out what this will look like for us.  There are a number of models out there, but we want to find the one that works for us.  Interestingly, as happens when you’ve learned a new word or something new, suddenly that word or concept is everywhere.  This morning Matt Reed writes about observations at the college level, highlighting an article by a former colleague of mine.  And last week, on Connected Principals, Sam LeDeaux writes about successful completing a challenge to visit 500 classrooms during the school year.

All mention the trickiness of separating the feedback from observations, which can be very valuable, from evaluations.  I think that’s easier at the higher ed level than at the secondary level.  We can’t employ our students to observe our classes as Cook-Sather, in the article linked above suggests.  Seniors may be ready for it, but I don’t think most faculty would be open to having a 14 year old provide feedback.  I could be wrong about that. But it seems like a real challenge.

Another route to go would be peer, not supervisor, observations. We want to implement peer observations and many faculty already do this informally.  In my mind, I’m thinking requiring a couple of peer observations that are shared only between the teacher and observer would be valuable.  The only requirement is that they get done, and we just have to trust that the feedback is productive.  The problem there is time.  Unlike professors, our teachers’ time is much more compressed.  They’re in class, generally, most of the day, and when they’re not, they’re grading, in meetings, working with students, or prepping for class.   It’s why observations tend to fall to administrators.  While they’re busy, they’re not tied to a class schedule, so can more easily get into classrooms.

There are other ways to separate, potentially.  One thought we have is to try to observe each teacher at least 10 times.  We could say that only 5 of those count–maybe two from early in the year and three from later (when presumably if improvement is needed, that improvement has happened).  The basic idea is to get faculty to trust that yes, observations are connected to the evaluation process.  They are, after all, evidence for how well a teacher is doing their job.  It can’t all be self reporting or a single data point.  But they need to trust that our main goal is not to find ways to ding them, but to help them grow, to celebrate their hard work.

I recognize that I’m a glutton for feedback–positive or negative–and not everyone else enjoys feedback the way I do.  And they don’t trust that the feedback is not just in the school’s best interests, but theirs as well.

Managing Humans

Cover of "Managing Humans: Biting and Hum...
Cover via Amazon

First book of the summer down.  I started with Managing Humans by Michael Lopp.  It promised to be funny and yet meaningful, and connected two of my favorite areas of study together, geekery/software and management/leadership.  It did prove to be an interesting read, although I started to skip a chapter here and there toward the end that were more specific to software engineering contexts than anything else.  But most of the book is applicable no matter what your industry.

The basic premise is for managers to not think of their employees (or themselves) as cogs in a machine, but to understand our own humanity, and how we tick so that we can all do our jobs better (and feel happy!).  Lopp, in fact, begins the book by saying that a manager’s most important job is to understand the needs of the people that work for him/her and to meet those needs. It’s harder than writing software.

There were lots of good tidbits in here, but one of my favorites was the Rands Test.  It’s a series of questions to determine the health of your team (or whole company).  The questions include things like “Can you say ‘no’ to your boss?” and “Do you have time to be strategic?” Or my favorite “Are you actively killing the Grapevine?”  As Lopp puts it, “In the absence of information, people make shit up. Worse, if they at all feel threatened, they make shit up that amplifies their worst fears.”  This is why, he explains, those who fear losing their jobs come up with conspiracy theories that confirm that fear.  Often leaving you the manager to try to explain that no, you’re not going to lose your job, and that theory is quite a doozy.

Lopp also explained the conflict between the Old Guard and the New Guard in a couple of different places, which I found interesting and enlightening.  And while Lopp is talking about the Old Guard being the company founders and the New Guard being those who come along after, every place I’ve ever worked has this dynamic.  Those who’ve been around the longest lord it over those who have been around for less time.  The New Guard often wants to clear processes in place while the Old Guard doesn’t see the need to.  Lopp explains that the Old Guard essentially embodies the culture of the company, but doesn’t articulate it effectively to the New Guard.  Instead, they just argue with each other.  The Old Guard needs the New Guard because there’s no growth without them.  It’s an interesting dynamic, and made sense to me in a variety of contexts.

Finally, toward the end of the book, he discusses how to leave and what to do about employees who leave.  Some of this I’ve always known.  When an employee gives notice, they’ve often been thinking about leaving for a while.  It didn’t start in the two weeks before.  It might have been a few months before.  The idea of leaving often begins with a small thing that bothers them, something said in a meeting that went against their values or what they believed to be company values, a lack of follow up somewhere, a desire for growth that isn’t cultivated.  Whatever it is, managers must try to prevent them.  It is far less costly to work to keep someone happy and productive than it is to hire bring another person up to speed.  I say this out loud pretty often.

So this book didn’t knock my socks of, but there were some good tidbits.  I would recommend it to anyone working in the tech industry, for sure.  A lot of the details are directly applicable there.  I would also recommend it to anyone who is not a manager, but is frustrated by their management.  It’s a straightforward account of how management typically thinks, and the many things they’re juggling.  So if you want that insight, and to maybe have a better relationship with your boss, pick this book up.

I need time to think

Thinking is one of the things I neglect most often.  I don’t mean the kind of thinking one does in the moment to solve a problem at hand.  I mean the kind of quiet contemplation that leads you down paths you didn’t know were there. In most jobs, there’s just not time to think, unless you make that time.  One thing that’s nice about summer when one works in education is that, in theory, you have time to think.  But you still have to make time.

I said to a colleague today that I thought summer was supposed to be less busy. I’ve spent the last few days tying up loose ends and plowing through to-do lists. It doesn’t feel less busy.

But I spent some time in conversation, reflecting on the past year and really thinking about what went well, what didn’t and why. I’ll admit the caffeine hadn’t fully soaked in yet for that conversation, but I thought about parts of it throughout the day and am still thinking about it.  And that’s the kind of thinking I need to do.  It’s “chess thinking” and “daydreaming” together.  Chess thinking because I’m taking a step back, assessing, and looking at next moves from a broader perspective.  And it’s daydreaming because I can dream a little, ask myself a few “What if” questions and see if any of them play out.

Everyone, really, should take time to think more deeply, whether it’s about their work or their personal lives.  Too often, we just plow through the to-do list without thinking about why we’re doing those things in the first place or what we might be doing instead.  Summer might grant me more time to do that, but I need to seize on it before it passes.

About graduation

One of my favorite pictures of Geeky Girl (right) from graduation week.

So it’s true.  Geeky Girl graduated.  In theory, we’re empty nesters, though Geeky Boy boomeranged back home, so . . . not.

Because I work at the school that Geeky Girl graduated from, I was part of the graduation ceremony.  We all wear our robes, process in.  It’s a really nice ceremony.  When diplomas are handed out, faculty, staff, and trustees who have daughters in the graduating class are invited to the stage, and get to hug their daughters after they receive their diploma.  It’s very cool.  A fellow teacher and I sat together.  And we didn’t cry.  Because we were worried about doing it wrong.  Crying happened the day before and will happen later.

There was lots of hugging after as well. I know so many of the girls not just as students, but as friends of Geeky Girl.  I hugged the parents and the girls.  Colleagues hugged me and congratulated me.  Lots of hugging.  Which reminded me of how awesome the community is.  We had all been in this together–parents, students, colleagues–and here we were together at the end.

And this plays out every year, not just at the main graduation for seniors, but at 8th grade moving up, and 5th grade moving up.  Across the school at the end of the year, we all stand back and feel a sense of pride.  Yep, we say, that kid there, and that girl there, they grew up a lot.  They aren’t shy anymore.  They are great at math now.  They are a school leader.  They’ve become a great runner.  And that girl there, she faced down challenges most can’t imagine, and we were there to help.  At every ceremony, that’s what I feel.  It’s what teachers around me feel.  That they had some hand in getting every kid on that stage to this point, directly or indirectly.

I said to my colleagues gathered before graduation, that I had cried the day before, during an interview, as another colleague talked about how wonderful the students we had in our charge were.  It wasn’t just about my own daughter.  It was about all of them, about missing them, yes, but also about the ones still there, and the work still ahead, and how wonderful it is to get to be part of that work.  The tears weren’t sadness so much as an overwhelming sense of joy, an overwhelming sense of how lucky I’ve been to be part of something this special.

Summer Goals

Today is the first day of summer for us.  Thursday, we graduated the class of 2017 including my daughter (more on that in another post).  And Friday, we had a day of professional development.  I came in this morning to a quiet building, and a pile of papers on my desk as the last couple of weeks have involved throwing things on my desk and running to the next meeting or event.  Today it’s time to regroup and think through what I want to get done this summer.

Someone asked me a while back what I do in the summer.  Every teacher and professor hates this question because the implication is that we don’t work.  I’m on the clock unlike teachers and professors, but it’s still a mystery, I think, as to what needs to get done over the summer so that the school year is off to a good start in the fall.

I would group my goals in three categories: professional strategic goals (things that move forward ideas for larger goals), professional tactical goals (just stuff that has to get done and for which there’s no time when school is in session), and personal goals.  My professional goals are in flux and somewhat complex at the moment.  Here I’ll just mention what I’m up to personally.

My biggest goal that overlaps personal and professional is to read a book a week.  I’ve already got a list of 8-10 books.  Most of these are non-fiction, related to leadership and/or education.  I am hoping to blog these as I finish.  Both Mr. Geeky and I hope to finish up some house projects.  I might have a yard sale soon and we have some small and big repairs to do.  And now that Geeky Girl will be off to college, Mr. Geeky and I have some thinking to do about next steps for us.

First on my list at work is simply to get things organized and set up some systems that can carry into the fall.  This means going through files (both physical and digital) and bringing order to the chaos.  We’ll see how that goes.