What does equity-focused teaching mean in computer science education?

Today, I discuss the second research seminar in our series of six free online research seminars focused on diversity and inclusion in computing education, where we host researchers from the UK and USA together with the Royal Academy of Engineering. By diversity, we mean any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another. This might be, for example, age, gender, socio-economic status, disability, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or sexuality. The aim of inclusion is to embrace all people irrespective of difference. 

In this seminar, we were delighted to hear from Prof Tia Madkins (University of Texas at Austin), Dr Nicol R. Howard (University of Redlands), and Shomari Jones (Bellevue School District) (find their bios here), who talked to us about culturally responsive pedagogy and equity-focused teaching in K-12 Computer Science.

Equity-focused computer science teaching

Tia began the seminar with an audience-engaging task: she asked all participants to share their own definition of equity in the seminar chat. Amongst their many suggestions were “giving everybody the same opportunity”, “equal opportunity to access high-quality education”, and “everyone has access to the same resources”. I found Shomari’s own definition of equity very powerful: 

“Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement of all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions or systems, as well as the distribution of resources. Tackling equity requires an understanding of the root cause of outcome disparity within our society.”

Shomari Jones

This definition is drawn directly from the young people Shomari works with, and it goes beyond access and opportunity to the notion of increasing justice and fairness and addressing the causes of outcome disparity. Justice was a theme throughout the seminar, with all speakers referring to the way that their work looks at equity in computer science education through a justice-oriented lens.

Removing deficit thinking

Using a justice-oriented approach means that learners should be encouraged to use their computer science knowledge to make a difference in areas that are important to them. It means that just having access to a computer science education is not sufficient for equity.

Tia Madkins presents a slide: "A justice-oriented approach to computer science teaching empowers students to use CS knowledge for transformation, moves beyond access and achievement frames, and is an asset- or strengths-based approach centering students and families"

Tia spoke about the need to reject “deficit thinking” (i.e. focusing on what learners lack) and instead focus on learners’ strengths or assets and how they bring these to the school classroom. For researchers and teachers to do this, we need to be aware of our own mindset and perspective, to think about what we value about ethnic and racial identities, and to be willing to reflect and take feedback.

Activities to support computer science teaching

Nicol talked about some of the ways of designing computing lessons to be equity-focused. She highlighted the benefits of pair programming and other peer pedagogies, where students teach and learn from each other through feedback and sharing ideas/completed work. She suggested using a variety of different programs and environments, to ensure a range of different pathways to understanding. Teachers and schools can aim to base teaching around tools that are open and accessible and, where possible, available in many languages. If the software environment and tasks are accessible, they open the doors of opportunity to enable students to move on to more advanced materials. To demonstrate to learners that computer science is applicable across domains, the topic can also be introduced in the context of mathematics and other subjects.

Nicol Howard presents a slide: "Considerations for equity-focused computer science teaching include your beliefs (and your students' beliefs) and how they impact CS classrooms; tiered activities and pair programming; self-expressions versus CS preparation; equity-focused lens"

Learners can benefit from learning computer science regardless of whether they want to become a computer scientist. Computing offers them skills that they can use for self-expression or to be creative in other areas of their life. They can use their knowledge for a specific purpose and to become more autonomous, particularly if their teacher does not have any deficit thinking. In addition, culturally relevant teaching in the classroom demonstrates a teacher’s deliberate and explicit acknowledgment that they value all students in their classroom and expect students to excel.

Engaging family and community

Shomari talked about the importance of working with parents and families of ethnically diverse students in order to hear their voices and learn from their experiences.

Shomari Jones presents a slide: “Parents without backgrounds and insights into the changing landscape of technology struggle to negotiate what roles they can play, such as how to work together in computing activities or how to find learning opportunities for their children.”

He described how the absence of a background in technology of parents and carers can drastically impact the experiences of young people.

“Parents without backgrounds and insights into the changing landscape of technology struggle to negotiate what roles they can play, such as how to work together in computing activities or how to find learning opportunities for their children.”

Betsy DiSalvo, Cecili Reid, and Parisa Khanipour Roshan. 2014

Shomari drew on an example from the Pacific Northwest in the US, a region with many successful technology companies. In this location, young people from wealthy white and Asian communities can engage fully in informal learning of computer science and can have aspirations to enter technology-related fields, whereas amongst the Black and Latino communities, there are significant barriers to any form of engagement with technology. This already existent inequity has been enhanced by the coronavirus pandemic: once so much of education moved online, it became widely apparent that many families had never owned, or even used, a computer. Shomari highlighted the importance of working with pre-service teachers to support them in understanding the necessity of family and community engagement.

Building classroom communities

Building a classroom community starts by fostering and maintaining relationships with students, families, and their communities. Our speakers emphasised how important it is to understand the lives of learners and their situations. Through this understanding, learning experiences can be designed that connect with the learners’ lived experiences and cultural practices. In addition, by tapping into what matters most to learners, teachers can inspire them to be change agents in their communities. Tia gave the example of learning to code or learning to build an app, which provides learners with practical tools they can use for projects they care about, and with skills to create artefacts that challenge and document injustices they see happening in their communities.

Find out more

If you want to learn more about this topic, a great place to start is the recent paper Tia and Nicol have co-authored that lays out more detail on the work described in the seminar: Engaging Equity Pedagogies in Computer Science Learning Environments, by Tia C. Madkins, Nicol R. Howard and Natalie Freed, 2020.

You can access the presentation slides via our seminars page.

Join our next free seminar

In our next seminar on Tuesday 2 March at 17:00–18:30 BST / 12:00–13:30 EDT / 9:00–10:30 PDT / 18:00–19:30 CEST, we’ll welcome Jakita O. Thomas (Auburn University), who is going to talk to us about Designing STEM Learning Environments to Support Computational Algorithmic Thinking and Black Girls: A Possibility Model for Changing Hegemonic Narratives and Disrupting STEM Neoliberal Projects. To join this free online seminar, simply sign up by following the link at the button.

Once you’ve signed up, we’ll email you the seminar meeting link and instructions for joining. If you attended Peter’s and Billy’s seminar, the link remains the same.

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