Seven Fallacies of Teaching Programming in K-12

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[See Harry's related articles: Is Building Apps for Everyone?, Need More Software Engineers? Teach Thinking Skills Better, and  ‘Computer Science’ Contains Little or No Science. -Editor]

Many educators seem to be promoting the benefits and even the necessities of teaching computer science courses before high school graduation. I have not seen any of these people suggest which courses to eliminate to make room for this new course. Despite this, many suggest that computer science (mostly translates to computer programming) be a required subject.

I have seen some say that writing software should begin in kindergarten. Others decry its absence from middle schools. Finally, quite a few lobby for adding it to high school curricula. As you might expect, the origin of each is from practitioners in each. Exposure to the basic concepts of computers, what you might call the “nature of computing,” is a good idea, but the rising din of voices telling us to add computer programming classes throughout our public education system should be tempered by reality.

Much of the pressure comes from just a few arguments and assumptions. Most of these are fallacies. I list some below and explain them.

1. There is a huge job shortage and high demand for computer programmers.

This may be the most recurrent theme for those promoting computer programming in schools. There are two problems with this argument. Large businesses, the ones making the most noise, are inflating their numbers to further this bit of misinformation. Also, the numbers do not indicate the level of programming skill required for these jobs.

The reason for the inflation is simple: H1-B visas. By importing computer programmers from other countries, these huge companies can keep costs down in two ways. They pay those H1-B programmers very low wages. You’ll find the workers sharing small two-bedroom houses with as many as ten people in them. Secondly, low wages for the immigrants help to keep wages of our citizens low as well.  Continue reading

Free Reading and eReaders Can Raise Achievement

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

In Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, Answer Sheet, guest writer Joanne Yatvin, in “Why Kids Should Choose Their Own Books to Read in School” (8 Sep. 2014), makes an impassioned defense of reading for pleasure. Yatvin is “a one time Principal of the Year in Wisconsin and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English.” In today’s test-driven school climate, free reading has been replaced with reading that focuses on developing test-taking skills. Yatvin says, “Consumed by the urgency to raise students’ reading scores, policy makers and school officials have forgotten that children learn to read by reading.” She goes on to talk about balanced literacy and the benefits of independent reading.

Reading such as that needed for academic work and test taking definitely has a place in schools. Students develop analytical skills by reading for details. However, reading for pleasure and being able to choose your own reading materials also has a place in the classroom. Pleasure reading, also called extensive reading, promotes learner autonomy; improves general language competence, not just reading skills; helps students develop general knowledge; promotes vocabulary growth; helps improve writing; and motivates students to read more.

These claims are supported by research in literacy and in second language acquisition. One of the strongest proponents of free voluntary reading is Dr. Stephen Krashen who sees the importance of light reading as a bridge to more challenging reading. He also contends that not only does reading improve reading skills, it is also necessary for developing good writing skills.  Continue reading

Study Shows College Education Often Worthless

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

According to a New York Times article (“The Economic Price of Colleges’ Failures,” 2 Sep. 2014), our colleges and universities are doing a terrible job of educating our youth. The conclusions are academic dynamite.

The article, by Kevin Carey, depends on two books by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa: Academically Adrift (Jan. 2011) and Aspiring Adults Adrift (Sep. 2014). According to Carey, Arum and Roksa lean heavily on a test of critical thinking and other skills known as the “Collegiate Learning Assessment” (CLA). For this reason, conclusions depend on the value of this particular test instrument, which some have called into question.

Even if the CLA is flawed, it cannot be totally inaccurate, and the findings should indicate a general direction. According to the article, students who graduated from college “improved less than half of one standard deviation” in the test.

All of that time and all of that money resulted in little benefit to the students. Interestingly, the students themselves did not see it that way. They thought they received a good education. The problem, as the second book pointed out, is that the job market does not agree with their self-assessment. According to Carey, “Because they didn’t acquire vital critical thinking skills, they’re less likely to get a job and more likely to lose the jobs they get than students who received a good education.”

Reading between the lines, some colleges still provide a good education, but a great number do not. Note the emphasis on critical thinking skills that stand in strong contrast to the memory skills that so many courses support. The CLA claims to test critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and communications.  Continue reading

The XPRIZE Innovation Competitions

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The XPRIZE Foundation is a nonprofit with the purpose of accelerating innovation to solve the world’s most difficult problems. Energy, ocean health, transportation, and space are just a few of the areas that the XPRIZE competitions intend to affect.

If you teach science, you can watch for announcements of new XPRIZEs and use the information to spark the interest of your students in various areas of science and engineering. Have them research the ideas and come up with their own plans for meeting the challenges.

Recent announcements include the Google Lunar XPRIZE, the Tricorder XPRIZE, and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE. A quick Internet search will provide you with the details for each, including team selection for those competitions that have progressed to that stage. Millions of dollars are at stake. The Lunar prize has total awards of $30 million.

The Ocean Health XPRIZE will create pH sensor technology to measure ocean acidification across thousands of miles of ocean. You can introduce a great deal of chemical and biological science by investigating this challenge just as though your class were competing.

The Tricorder challenge seeks to make a health sensor like those in the well known Star Trek television series of the 1960s. Ten teams have been selected and are taking ten different approaches to the problem. Just having your classes evaluate each team’s ideas would be a great project. Which will win?

Of interest to those who are not science teachers is the learning category. No prizes have been officially announced yet. Unofficially, the first learning prizes will focus on literacy and will require low-cost and effectiveness to win.

Universal education made possible by technological innovation is a recurrent theme of the Educational Technology and Change Journal. Which areas of technology are already well developed, and which are far behind and must be boosted? The XPRIZE Foundation has a great number of expert advisers to help make those decisions. Will they make the right ones?

I will be following developments closely.

Reading, Vocabulary, Glogster, Funding, ESL Teachers, VoiceThread

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Cutting to the Common Core: The Positive Side of the Digital Divide by J. Zorfass and T. Gray in Language Magazine: The authors make the case for using digital texts to support the reading process for all learners.

Computer games give boost to English. The University of Gothenburg in Science Daily Success in the world of computer games and a good English vocabulary go hand in hand. A recent study has shown that players who are good at computer games increase their English vocabulary. The study also showed a difference between the genders. Boys spend about twice as much time a week playing computer games as girls. However, girls spend about twice as much time a week on Facebook and other language-related activities.

Tools for achieving oral fluency by Marsha Appling-Nunez in Language Magazine: The author makes suggestions for helping English language learners with their speaking and presentation skills. Glogster is a graphical blog that students can use when doing oral books reports, or other presentations. She also recommends PechaKucha Prezi, which is a method of presenting information using pictures only which requires the speaker to focus on good pronunciation, filler reduction, and vocabulary.

For Public Schools, the Long and Bumpy Road to Going Digital by Kathy Baron in Mindshift: Equipment, software licensing, training. Funding – or lack of it – is the number one issue facing school districts as they convert to the digital learning world.

Preparing Teacher Candidates to Work with English Language Learners in an Online Course Environment by Stephanie Dewing in TEIS News: The author reports on a study she did on the efficacy of an online course for ESL teachers. She found minimal evidence of transformative learning experiences. She proposes several changes in course design to try to produce a context more conducive for transformational learning.

Using Web 2.0 Tools, Such as Voicethread™, to Enhance ELL Instructor and Student Learning by Kelly Torres In TEIS News: Torres advocates using tools such as VoiceThread™, a multimedia tool that can provide a slide show with pictures, documents, and videos to engage students in online course materials by allowing them to see and hear their peers.

Real Aliens: What Will They Look Like?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

We live in a very large universe. By all accounts, it’s over 14 billion light-years to the edge from here. That’s nearly 10,000 billion billion miles. Our galaxy contains billions of stars. Our universe contains billions of galaxies. Somewhere out in those vast spaces, there must be, or have been, or will be another advanced civilization.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has captured a new, infrared view of the choppy star-making cloud called M17, also known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.

Unfortunately for those yearning to communicate with aliens and fortunately for those who fear alien contact, we are very unlikely — in the extreme — ever to communicate with an alien civilization. Our only real hope lies in violating Einstein’s laws of relativity, and so far they’re as solid as granite.

The vastness of space that makes the existence of aliens, at some time, likely also means that they will be too far away for any meaningful communication. If any are in our galactic neighborhood, they may have broadcast pictures of themselves just as we are doing every day with television, and we may intercept them if we can tease them out of the background noise of quasars, exploding stars, and so on.

Even an image of an intelligent, technologically advanced alien would add enormously to our knowledge of science. Speculation about what an alien would look like may seem like a waste of time, but it can help us if we ever do see one to recognize it.

The topic of what an alien, one with technology, with whom we could, in theory, someday communicate, will look like, act like, and so on has been in science fiction books and movies for many decades. Hollywood tends to reach for the extreme and depict aliens as very frightening. The movie, Alien, is a good example of that trend. Going back very far, there’s It Came from Outer Space.

The science suggests otherwise. Not that real aliens wouldn’t be, well, alien. The likelihood of them passing for one of us is rather remote. If you are teaching science, this concept can begin an excellent and engaging project investigating the possible parameters of alien beings capable of broadcasting images of the themselves. Before heading into the appearance of aliens, consider two separate issues that bear on this topic.  Continue reading

Dinosaurs Among Us?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

You may have noticed one of the many articles such as this one that cast doubt on the asteroid (or comet) strike that annihilated the dinosaurs. Oh, the asteroid did the job, they say, but it had some help.

Careful examination of North American fossil records strongly suggests that the dinosaur population was under stress from lower than usual herbivore diversity. What say?! There just weren’t as many plant-eating dinosaurs as usual, which means that dinner for the large meat-eaters was a bit harder to come by.

The Earth was undergoing extreme changes 66 million years ago when the great impact took place. Massive volcanic eruptions in what is now India were the result of a collision of the Indian and Asian continental plates. Climate was undergoing change. And dinosaur herbivore diversity was down.

The above was really no big deal. Dinosaurs had been around for well over 100 million years and had survived many environmental challenges. This was just another that would kill off lots of individuals and perhaps a few species. As a whole, the dinosaurs would come roaring back soon enough, however.  Continue reading

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