Ever since Jeannette Wing’s seminal article (2006) on the growing importance of thinking computationally, there has been a significant push to infuse Computational Thinking (CT) into K-12 education. While the majority of those efforts have focused on helping students develop this emergent 21st century skill, our team has been exploring how to help educators apply CT toward a key challenge: designing equitable, student-centered learning experiences at the classroom, school, and district levels. In this blog, we will describe how our project CADRE (Catalyst for Actively Designing and Researching Equity) and its components are innovatively moving the K-12 equity needle by empowering in-service educators to use CT in a new way to address an age-old problem. This was part of a research portfolio to create a computer science learning ecosystem focused on supporting Black middle and high school girls to engage in, persevere, and learn computer science. As part of the learning ecosystem, CADRE developed professional learning communities to support teachers and other school staff to apply CT for equitable instructional practices.
What is Computational Thinking (CT) and How Can It Be Used for Equity?
In the literature, Computational Thinking is characterized as a problem-solving approach that combines critical, mathematical, and algorithmic thinking and applies strategies and techniques that are foundational to Computer Science to derive innovative solutions (Shute et al., 2017; Voskoglou & Buckley, 2012). Our research is driven by the idea that the CT techniques and strategies software developers use to build powerful, cutting-edge systems can be adapted by educators to enact equity in the educational system (Yadav et al., 2017). This is in part because, as we propose, the policies and practices that educators use to shape students’ learning experiences are – at their foundations – algorithms: a set of steps that must be followed in a prescribed order and under specific conditions to achieve an expected output (effective educator practices) that leads to outcomes (improved student learning). From this point of view, the parts of these algorithms (policies, procedures, and practices) that serve as barriers to equity are considered bugs and the process of designing equitable learning experiences equates to debugging existing algorithms or actively designing new algorithms to be barrier-free.
In our work, we focus on two foundational Computer Science concepts that educators can use to discover and ultimately eliminate barriers to equity. The first, derived from the field of Human-Computer Interaction, is called participatory design (Muller & Kuhn, 1993) and is based on the idea that – for a system to have optimal utility and applicability – end-users, their voices, and their perspectives must be integral to system design and development for optimal usability. For educators, the end-users are students, and the goal is to understand a student’s whole learning experiences, not just a single accountability metric.
The second, derived from Software Engineering, enables the development of tractable solutions to complex problems. Called system abstraction or system modeling, the idea is to reduce intricate, multi-faceted systems down to their most salient features to, as the saying goes, eat the elephant one bite at a time. In the Input-Process-Output (IPO) approach, the idea is to model a system by focusing on and fleshing out three key aspects during solution development:
- the data – or input – needed to solve the problem,
- the algorithm – or process – necessary to produce a solution, and
- the desired result – or output.
For educators, the IPO approach is used to model the educational system, and they must identify the applicable inputs (or resources) they can use to make change and develop an algorithm that produces equity-positive practices and policies. Effective and equitable IPOs are a sharp contrast to deficit thinking because they illuminate how instructors can change their instructional behaviors in ways that will help students actualize their full academic and social potential.
What is an Equity Cycle?
An equity cycle integrates the CT concepts of participatory design and system abstraction/modeling into a process specifically designed to help educators identify barriers to equity and eliminate them within their sphere of influence. Educators begin the equity cycle with an aspect of participatory design by conducting empathy interviews (Nelsestuen & Smith, 2020). These interviews foster direct engagement with students and allow educators to learn where barriers to equity exist in their classrooms, schools, or districts candidly from students’ perspectives. Educators asked students who were highly engaged and highly disengaged in school these open-ended questions, “Tell me about the time you loved coming to school,” and “Tell me about the time you hated coming to school.” These simple questions allowed educators to identify structural, instructional, and curricular barriers. Next, educators use an abstraction process to ideate and model ways to eliminate these barriers. Applying the IPO approach means working backwards to first think about educators’ instructional practices as the desired output. What changes and improvements do educators need to make to better support their students? Then, it is thinking through the inputs or resources available or needed. Given the inputs and desired outputs specified, educators then redesign their instructional practices for equity, the process, across structural, instructional, and curricular aspects of schooling. Throughout the IPO, educators collect data to assess whether their inputs and process matched their expected outputs to hold themselves accountable for enacting equity.
What Is CADRE?
Recognizing the importance of not only getting these ideas out into the field but also evaluating their efficacy, our interdisciplinary team of social and computer scientists developed CADRE, a professional development (PD) experience for in-service K-12 educators. The overarching goals of CADRE were to help educators:
- (a) establish a working knowledge of CT,
- (b) learn about equity cycles and apply them in their classrooms, schools, or districts, and
- (c) have the space and support – from both experts and peers – to implement equity-focused, CT-based solutions.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF award #1837344 and #2031358), we implemented CADRE as a Researcher-Practitioner Partnership (RPP) with almost 50 educators who served over 55,000 middle and high school students.
What Were the Findings of the CADRE Study?
Throughout CADRE, feedback was gathered from educators as part of the work for each equity cycle (e.g., exit tickets, pulse checks, and formative feedback) and final one-on-one interviews. Data were digitized, transcribed, coded, and analyzed to identify common themes yielding the following findings:
Equity cycles required educators to directly engage with students by conducting empathy interviews during the process of identifying barriers to equity. This not only allowed educators to learn more about what students are experiencing, it also allowed them to better connect with their students:
- 97% of educators indicated that they understood the lived experiences of students better as a result of participating in CADRE.
- 87% of educators stated that they established trusting relationships with students as a result of CADRE.
The IPO approach provided educators with new perspectives and approaches:
- 95% of educators reported more metacognition and self-reflection of their own teaching and educational practices. Educators stated that they appreciated a more “scientific model” that considered their “inputs and outputs” that lead to student outcomes.
- 92% of educators felt more comfortable ideating and testing solutions (debugging) in their classrooms as needed.
- 89% of educators indicated that they developed a growth mindset towards their own teaching and had a better understanding of how to adapt practices and policies to ensure more equitable student learning opportunities.
Through CADRE, educators have enacted equitable instructional practices – their outputs – such as redesigning late homework policies, revising grading policies for the whole math department, and redoing unit lesson plans to better engage students. One educator, after going through one equity cycle, noted, “I had become a structural barrier for my students and my families!” Through the participatory design process, the educator realized that she had become a bottleneck “where parents and students were waiting on me to pass them on to the next person to get the counseling services they needed.” Through the IPO process, the educator created a new process, an infographic for parents and students to know who to contact for specific services, eliminating the bottleneck.
In this project, we used CT as a foundational base to help educators think critically and computationally about achieving equity and – in the process – developed a solid launchpad for educators to develop new perspectives and innovative, student-centered approaches. This work provides further evidence that CT is not only an effective way to design software, but also a powerful, systematic way to attack large, complex problems. It also established that CADRE has the ability to provide educators with the knowledge, support, and confidence necessary to both innovate and have an impact using CT. As we scale the project and implement CADRE with more educators from a variety of educational contexts, we expect to refine the process and hopefully in the long run, lay the groundwork for more students to have greater access to the equity-focused learning experiences that will help them to realize their full potential.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Joshua Ellis, 2023 ARISE Blog Series editor, for his time and effort in helping us to improve this article. CADRE was supported with funding from the National Science Foundation (DRL #1837344 and CNS #2031358). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the NSF. Read Dr. Ellis’ ARISE blog, Technology in Education: Science, Society, and Students.