At a recent NYC Mayor’s Office event on tech, innovation, leadership, and diversity, a student audience member shared that she was the only girl in her school to take computer programming classes. A panelist made a commonly-heard suggestion....
Make computer programming a requirement.
The idea is that if opting out is not an option, then we will have more diversity AND students will learn a subject that everyone should know these days. Finis! Job done.
Of course artists might make the same case for visual literacy; musicians could make that case for learning to read music, we could make auto mechanics and entrepreneurship mandatory, and on and on and on and on.
Educator, mathematician, and computer scientist Seymour Papert reminds us that we’re only able to teach in schools about one-billionth of one percent of all there is to know, yet we argue endlessly over what that should be.
Creating new class requirements is the easy way out. It doesn’t look at why a more diverse population isn’t attracted to the class in the first place. It doesn’t put any responsibility on the teachers and curriculum designers to look at what they’re offering and change it so that it is indeed more appealing to a diverse audience.
Another problem is that requirements can backfire. Rather than help students find an undiscovered passion, they can turn a student off from a subject forever. When we require all kids to take the same one-size-fits-all classes, we are not looking at our audience.
Learning should be by choice, not force.
Sure, some people believe we must “require” this and “require” that, or our kids won’t be ready for college and career. However, we’ve been doing that for years and you know what? We have a tremendous dropout rate across our nation. And, it's not really better for the students who stay. Many of them find school boring, disconnected from their real lives, and not relevant to what they need for success.
It’s no wonder that only about 40% of high school students said they were “engaged” in school according to the Gallup survey last year.
When we look at research on how people learn we know, for example, that boys and girls learn differently, yet in most schools, subjects like math, science, and history do not adapt to the way girls learn. Similarly, subjects like language arts often are not geared toward the way boys learn best. Across the subjects we often disregard materials that are appealing to a diverse audience.
This would cease to be a problem if classes had to be so attractive that students chose to take them. If that was how we created schools we’d have to spend time listening to our clients (the students) and their families and develop learning that really mattered to them.
We could give children a customized, rather than standardized, education that was meaningful and relevant to their lives. We would act on what we discovered about how and what students want to learn and designed experiences that would not succeed unless they were the courses that appealed to students.
We may also be forced to face the reality that Diana Laufenberg points out to us in her TED Talk on learning from mistakes. She explains that learning is leaving the building. We no longer need to go to a place to get information and knowledge. Yet as Will Richardson points out, “our nostalgia for the traditional narrative of what schools should look and feel like, and our lack of practice and experience in learning in a globally connected world prevents us from even recognizing the huge shift that modern technologies are bringing to the whole idea of an education.”
So yes, we can require all we want. If we do, we will get a diverse population of students forced through a curriculum of someone else’s choice. However, if we want diversity among a variety of fields of study and career paths, then we must inspire students with rich opportunities that appeal to who they are and how they learn.