Let's teach programming as a tool for analyzing data to transform the world

Data-scientist Kevin H Wilson argues that computers are tools for manipulating data -- from companies' sales data to the input from games controllers -- but we teach computer programming as either a way to make cool stuff (like games) or as a gateway to "rigorous implementation details of complicated language," while we should be focusing on fusing computer and math curriciula to produce a new generation of people who understand how to use computers to plumb numbers to find deep, nuanced truths we can act upon.

Wilson argues that we have structural bias towards teaching programming in a way that doesn't serve students or society well; for one, computer programming used to be much harder than it is today, making it more specialized; for another evaluating programming skill (as separate from the ability to do data science) is much easier to quantify, and thus grade.

Having recognized these and other structural impediments, Wilson proposes a concrete set of recommendations to break through them -- specific reform to the Common Core that will give data-science capabilities to students graduating into many different disciplines, from health to logistics to community organizing to teaching to politics.

More exciting even that this prescription is a section in which he imagines what these intellectually equipped students could do:

Imagine a world where students build hardware and place it around their community to measure the effects of pollutants or the weather or traffic. Imagine students analyzing which intersections in their town see the most deaths. Imagine students looking at their community’s finances and finding corruption with tools like Benford’s law.

Or for those who do not come up with an original idea, imagine continuing a long running project, like the school newspaper, but instead the school’s annual weather report, analyzing how the data has changed over time.

All of these projects require a broad range of skills which high schoolers should be proficient in. They require long to medium term planning, they require a reasonable amount of statistical knowledge, they require the ability to manipulate data, they require an understanding of historical trends, and they require the ability to write a piece of persuasive writing that distills and interprets large numbers of facts.

Moreover, such projects have the potential to impact their communities in profound ways. Places like the coal towns of Appalachia are desperately attempting to make their towns more amenable to investment, both in terms of dollars from outside capitalists and in terms of years of life from their progeny. From time to time I have the opportunity to ask kids in Eastern Kentucky whether they planned to stay in their hometowns after their high school graduation, and I have yet to receive a single “yes.”[10] Towns who rally around training their students to change their own thinking, I believe, will receive huge dividends.

Thoughts on the future of math education [Kevin H. Wilson/Mathbabe]

(Image: Globaloria students working, Globaloria Game Design, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. In other words, "maybe instead of teaching programming for programming's sake, we teach programming for the sake of all the things that we actually use programming for in the real world."

    A little sad that this hasn't really come up before, but better late than never.

    Really though, we need to eventually take it further and figure out how to integrate programming into other curricula in little ways. Writing, speaking, coding, research... these are all cross-disciplinary tools that improve through use. If we want to elevate programming to a sort of computational literacy, we need to figure out what tasks in other subjects lend themselves to programmatic solutions.

    As as example of what I mean: history classes usually require you to write papers, even though the subject of history is not writing. One isn't graded on her writing skills per se, but the instructors can hope a student writes well enough to state her position clearly so the instructor can grade their comprehension of history. Most of a student's education in writing comes from the experience of such "incidental" practice.

  2. Agreed, and I liked that Kevin Wilson emphasized the importance of giving opportunities to teachers for more training and for more active engagement with learning and publicizing outcomes.

  3. pfh says:

    Everyone needs the Hadleyverse in R. dplyr and ggplot2 for all.

    Note this is quite far from what we normally think of as programming. It's more about working with sets of objects in tables. Fortunately this is also closer to how people naturally think than traditional programming is.

Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

1 more reply