Beginning’s End – Everyone Should Learn Computer Science (Yes, Everyone)

A few days ago my mom sent me an article from the Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s local paper. The article (here it is in full) states that Computer Science will be added to the SOL [Standards of Learning], Virginia’s standardized testing program. They claim that this will make students more prepared to enter the job market, but from the wording of the article (and without doing further research into the change),  I am somewhat dubious. In particular, the fact that “The new standards do not add additional requirements to the curriculum or replace any subjects” makes me doubt that the new material will be sufficient to accomplish much of anything. That doesn’t really worry me, though. Standardized testing is enough of a complex and touchy topic without talking about what subjects deserve to be tested.

The part that really worries and upsets me, however, is a direct quote from Virginia’s governor. At a ceremony announcing the change, Governor McAuliffe said that, “We will be sending a clear message…to all the businesses around the globe that we’re very serious about this, computer science, and what we need to do to build those skill sets of the future…” On the surface, McAuliffe shows a refreshing practicality for a government official – the economy seems to be moving towards tech, so why not give our students a head start? The problem is that he is pushing for computer science because those skills will be valuable in the job market. It’s not just McAuliffe making this small but fatal mistake of motivation – even President Obama’s pushes for coding and computer science always have an employability and national status underpinning to them.

This heavily implies that the only reason we value computer science so heavily right now is that the economy demands more coders. Were the economy to shift back away from programming, it means we would drop computer science from the national curriculum like leftover food left out all night. It restricts computer science to a skill, coding, useful only for the function it provides. Contrast this with the way (and the reason that) we teach history. Every high school student learns at least two, usually three or four years of history. Yet we do not demand that more of those students become historians or enter other related disciplines. Rather, we require our students to work though multiple years of history because we as a society believe that they become better people by that work. That the true value of an education in history is not the direct skills or knowledge that it grants you, but the increased ability to understand and interact with life as it continues to flow as a continuation of that same history. No matter the fluctuations of the economy, learning history will always be valuable towards our current understanding of an educated person.

Coding is the vital skill at the center of computer science, but computer science has so much more to offer, such that the difference between someone who simply knows how to code and someone with a full computer science education is akin to the difference between a historian and someone who has read some history textbooks. Perhaps it is possible that they know the same facts, at least on the surface. The way that they would go about solving problems, however, is entirely different.

The true value of computer science is the resilience and humility it requires. Never have I been told that I’m wrong so often and so quickly as when I am coding. Nearly every time you run a program you are in the process of writing, it will end in angry red text spit back at you through the console. You don’t get to argue your point, as in English or History. You don’t even get to argue over which interpretation of objective truth is correct, as in Math or Chem. If the computer says you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Every single time. Here’s a conversation I’ve had more times than I can count with students who come into my office hours:

Them: It’s giving me a null pointer exception!

Me: Ok. So at some point you are trying to call a method or reference a field on an object that isn’t actually there. It’s like trying to shuffle the deck that’s inside of an empty box.

Them: But that’s not possible. None of my references are null.

Me: Well, you’re wrong. It must be possible, because it’s currently happening.

Repeat the above and modify slightly for: concurrent modification exception, class cast exception, arithmetic exception, stack overflow error, etc etc etc…

While the failures are delivered in a safe and private environment (i.e. your computer), this is nonetheless a really tough pill for some introductory computer science students to swallow. It’s hard to learn that something you were so sure of is actually incorrect, especially in such a blunt and unforgiving manner. It’s one of the reasons that computer science has a problem with retention, especially among women and certain minorities. When you get told that you’re wrong so often, it’s only natural to wonder if you aren’t cut out for the subject. What’s wrong, however, is thinking that everyone else is getting it right on the first try while you’re up at three AM debugging the same stupid error. Everyone in a class (literally, everyone) hits roughly the same number of snags in completing a given project. This should be intuitive – everyone received the same project to begin with, and everyone has roughly the same knowledge base going into it. Of course everyone will get tripped up in essentially the same spots along the way.

The difference between those who struggle through computer science and those who seem like wizards, then, is how long each of those errors take to fix. The better students don’t avoid failure, they get better at failing. They learn to have no problem admitting that something is wrong, because that is the first absolutely necessary step towards fixing it. They learn that one failure or even a multitude of failures does not reflect on them negatively, neither as a coder nor as a person, as long as they acknowledge that something is wrong and retain the desire to improve. They learn that it is not the multitude of your failures, but the magnitude of your successes, that truly matter. Computer science forces you to fail so often that you become immune to the mental damage it would cause. Rather than dwelling on your failure by getting angry or giving up, it forces you to move past it by searching for understanding, because that is the only way you will ever succeed.

Being a computer scientist, therefore, is much more than knowing how to code. It’s the long nights of futile search for the single remaining bug, and wanting to throw your computer out the window. It’s the sleep-deprived haze under which you finally stumble upon and correct the unbelievably stupid mistake you made three months ago. It’s the utter elation you get when the damn thing finally runs. Finally, it’s the warm glow you feel when a friend complains about an error subtly similar to yours, which you find and fix in five minutes instead of three weeks. It is all this and more, because in that moment your friend is not silently judging you, that it took three weeks to find this silly, simple bug. They know all too well what that frustrating search feels like, and you, you wonderful human being, were able to save them that effort. In that moment, you are not defined by your weeks of inadequacy, but by your perseverance, your empathy, and your humility.

That is a lesson everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or profession, needs to learn. It’s nice that the economy is tilting towards coding right now, and that computer science is in the public spotlight. Even if that were not the case, I truly believe that we all would be more resilient, more humble, more empathetic people if we all spent a few years learning computer science.

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One thought on “Beginning’s End – Everyone Should Learn Computer Science (Yes, Everyone)

  1. Lots of good stuff in this post but let me add a few thoughts.

    The reason you see a lot about coding is because, at the end of the day, politicians care about jobs. No one’s getting re-elected because they taught their kids to better be able to think but plenty of politicians get elected based on the belief that they have or will create jobs. Politicians also need to work within election cycles so they need programs created and implemented NOW.

    In terms of the values of struggling in a safe environment, while any decent teacher knows that it’s beneficial to create an environment where students aren’t afraid to stretch themselves and possibly fail (in a safe environment) our education system – as driven by politicians, big money “philanthropists” and “reformers” have created just the opposite environment where thinking is taboo and the fear of failure is instilled in our youth.

    This is complicated by the fact that most of the people driving the K12 CS Ed movement have either never taught, never done CS or haven’t done either and want to be able to show that “everyone can be a computer scientist.”

    So, what are we getting? Canned curricula with scripted lessons rolled out en masse and taught by non-cs teachers. These classes provide an easy entry to coding where everyone succeeds but no one is paying attention to really preparing kids for what comes next. I suspect as these new CS experiences roll out, lots of people will show off pretty projects and claim success but since the kids won’t be prepared for the less forgiving nature of college CS, they’ll drop like flies later on. Of course, the politicians will blame the colleges and not the lack of preparation

    As a final thought, I agree with the idea of placing kids in an environment where they can be challenged and aren’t afraid to fail but CS provides much more than that — it’s fundamentally a way of thinking and problem solving. A CS person looks at the world in a certain way just as a historian looks at the world in a different way. Same for a physicist, poet, etc. For this reason alone, all are worth studying.

    Liked by 1 person

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