Six months into a research-practice partnership to design computer science (CS) curricular pathways and a CS teacher preparation partnership with a local school district, I reflect on our successes and challenges so far and theorize how my changing understanding of the practical and theoretical issues affects my own positionality within the project. Both project goals depend on building a broadly-shared local vision of how and why CS will become part of the school. I am the project's primary catalyst, but I am potentially also an obstacle to its success; my status and expertise could interfere with recognition of emergent local understandings of what CS might be for the community, and my privilege could silence important voices or issues which are the history and context for this design process. Therefore my own positionality plays a key role in the project's success. I rely on conjecture mapping (Sandoval, 2014) to map the initial and revised hypotheses underlying the project.
Design-based implementation research. The process of designing new programs within a school at the same time as a teacher residency partnership is guided by Penuel’s (2019) call for infrastructuring, “activities that aim to redesign components, relations, and routines of schools and districts that influence what takes place in classrooms” (p. 659). Infrastructuring is particularly relevant for CS education because computing technologies are now vital, though often unrecognized infrastructure underlying many aspects of our lives. Increasingly-urgent calls to consider social and political impacts of computing (e.g., Vakil, 2018) underscore the need for community-based decision-making around CS education.
Equity through participatory design. Both project goals require a participatory design process if they are to produce equitable outcomes. Adding CS (and particularly requiring CS) means something else will not be offered, and may redistribute learning opportunities amongst different parts of the school community. Therefore, there is a political aspect to offering CS in a school and successfully doing so requires persuading enough stakeholders holding enough power that it is a good idea (Goode & Margolis, 2011; Proctor, Bigman, and Blikstein, 2019). The term equity implies partial ownership: having a stake and having a say.
Community-based teacher preparation programs, guided by community stakeholders and in which preservice teachers are encouraged to see themselves as embedded within communities, can be particularly effective in supporting educational equity. In community-based teacher preparation, students are understood to be multi-faceted and their learning is contextualized by the intellectual and cultural resources present in students’ other worlds. “Grounded in the equalization of power structures that traditionally privilege the expertise of the university and the knowledge of the school over the wisdom of the community, this approach positions community members as experts and colleagues in the preparation of future teachers” (Clark, Zygmunt, Tancock, & Cipollone, 2021, p. 5).
Supporting empowered stakeholder participation. However, substantial outreach and education needs to be done to create the conditions for meaningful community participation in a design process, especially when so many power hierarchies already exist between the stakeholders in a public school, and when knowledge about what CS is and why it might matter is so unevenly distributed. There are many examples of processes in which community participation was only superficial or in which a community’s vision for change has been subverted through institutional domestication (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). This project’s strategies for theorizing and enacting the community design processes draw heavily on decades of experience in equitable community-based processes in the field of urban planning. Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen participation is a taxonomy of the extent to which participants in participatory design have real power, ranging from nonparticipation (e.g. manipulation) to tokenism (e.g. placation; consultation) to degrees of power (e.g. direct control; delegation; partnership). This project frames equity in terms of participant power to be heard, to have needs met, to build situated understandings of what CS and why it matters, and to design educational infrastructure to broaden participation in CS according to these understandings.
This NSF-funded research-practice partnership addresses two long-standing challenges in scaling up access to high-quality secondary computer science (CS): the lack of high school CS course offerings and the lack of qualified CS teachers. This project explores the hypothesis that there are benefits to designing solutions for both problems at the same time, based on the key insight that both problems depend on building a broadly-shared vision of how and why computer science will become part of the school.
This project is set in a small Western New York city whose proud industrial past has been somewhat eclipsed by factory shutdowns and a collapse of the middle-class in the last thirty years. The project's design starts with free extracurricular CS courses for high school students, and later hiring some students to help teach CS courses to parents, teachers, and community members. Building on participants' emerging understandings of the nature of CS, a committee composed of school leaders, teachers, parents, students, university partners, and community members considers possible models for adding CS course offerings and for partnering with the university on a CS teacher preparation program, based in a locally-situated understanding of CS.
The first six months
Persistent stereotypes. Recruitment for the extracurricular course has been difficult. I visited four different classrooms to pitch the course, we held several lunchtime sessions, students helped design posters we put up around the school, the course was announced in the Principal's weekly email newsletter to parents, and I recruited directly via several community members who belong to marginalized groups. However, students appeared to interpret this CS learning opportunity within the existing cultural logics of the school. When I asked students whether they were considering joining, many expressed little interest in CS or said it did not feel like it was their kind of thing.
Frayed trust between stakeholders. The project site, an economically-divested rust-belt city, has longstanding inequities organized around race and gender. The city’s Black community in particular has long been marginalized; several racialized incidents sparked a wave of activism leading to election of the only Black school board member. However, no equity-focused proposal will gain broad support without also creating opportunities for the economically-marginalized white families who make up the majority of the population. A community input survey conducted last year as part of the search for a new superintendent highlighted transparency, communication, bullying, and discipline as top community priorities for the district.
Key relationships Strong relationships I have built with the school principal and the director of the STEM hub have been crucial in the progress we have achieved so far, and also in creating space to explore workarounds to challenges. For example, following the real but limited success of the extracurricular CS program, we pivoted to focus on middle-school CS and workshops for teachers, while planning for broader recruitment in the next cycle. Thinking and talking about CS within the context of these relationships has helped humanize and personalize abstract logistical and epistemological questions.
Deferral to expertise. My priority in the project has been to cultivate locally-situated understandings of CS amongst stakeholders which could be the basis for informed and agentic participation in designing CS course offerings and a teacher preparation partnership. However, most stakeholders I have worked closely with so far (admin, teachers, students) have expressed a preference to defer to my expertise. Potential motivations include wanting to make the wisest choices, strengthening relationships with UB, efficiency, and avoiding bringing up difficult issues. This feels like an ironic twist on familiar RPP power dynamics, in which the interests of university-based researchers are often privileged over practitioner and community interests.
Importance of locally-situated computational literacies. As I become more aware of the difficulty of both implementing the proposed programs and of contributing toproductive engagement with longstanding inequities within the community, I have occasionally questioned the project's premise--the extent to which it is possible to design effective structures for CS education and CS teacher preparation through participatory community processes, and ultimately how relevant CS really is to existing inequities.
However, the first six months of the project have already provided evidence which validates the importance of developing locally-situated computational literacies (Kafai & Proctor, 2021) which include understandings of CS as well distributed computational practices oriented toward social change. For example, we had a discussion in the extracurricular course about the futures students imagined for themselves. All but one student said they planned to move away after finishing high school or college, mostly because they felt the city was boring or lacked job opportunities. When I pointed out how distressing it might be for community leaders to contemplate most of the younger generation moving away, one student was visibly moved and replied, "Oh, I never thought about that before." Conversations about the future of individuals or of the community constantly engage the cultural/historical significance of the city's more prosperous past (at least for the white population) as a hub of industry and invention.
I used conjecture mapping (Sandoval, 2014) to articulate my hypotheses about how the project might work. Design conjectures express hypothesized effects which might follow from the enactment of designed interventions; theoretical conjectures express hypothesized outcomes which might follow from those effects. Figure 2 shows the conjecture map from the initial grant proposal. Revising the conjecture map helped me reflect on how my learning has reconfigured these conjectures. The revised conjecture map is shown in Figure 3.
Two elements have been added to the project's design. First, teacher co-design and workshops on interdisciplinary CS will support teachers in learning about and integrating CS ideas and practices (operationalized as computational thinking (CT)) into their classrooms. These will be important in building support for CS within the district; teachers will also likely play an important role in the cultural definition of CS within the schools. Building teacher interest now will also be essential for recruiting teachers who may be interested in enrolling in the first cohort of UB's CS certification program for in-service teachers, and then helping to lanuch the teacher preparation partnership.
Brokered expertise refers to several strategies I plan to employ as a way of making my expertise and the networks to which I have access available as resources to community stakeholders, while still working to decenter myself in the process. These strategies include emphasizing that there are no universal answers to our questions, preferring local formulations of meanings and values over abstractions from the literature, and positioning precedents from other contexts as examples we can analyze together rather than as evidence supporting my proposals.
I have also added teacher interest in interdisciplinary CS as an important mediating process. This interest will be observable in concrete actions, such as integration of CS into their teaching, utilizing the district's existing STEM hub and coaches, advocacy for interdisciplinary CS, and becoming involved in UB's CS teacher preparation programs or the local chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Assocation.
As the founding director of the University at Buffalo’s CS teacher preparation program and a white male computer scientist with degrees from Stanford and work experience in Silicon Valley, it would be easy for me to occupy a position of privileged authority. The central challenge of this project is to decenter such authority while building community capacity. This is complicated by local intersectional politics. The K12 CS education community’s long-overdue emphasis on equity has tended to emphasize race and gender.
As my relationships with district leaders and faculty strengthen, I need to ensure that I manage my insider/outsider status carefully. Forming real relationships with collaborators has been important in helping me understand the complex, multi-faceted nature of issues and has provided necessary access. However, I also have relationships with external critics of the administration and others in conflicted positions. Maintaining some distance and outsider status will help me maintain relationships with stakeholders whose interests and perspectives are not aligned, will help me avoid "institutional domestication" (Tyack & Cuban, 1995) so that I am able to raise difficult issues, and will ultimately allow me to conduct research and publish findings broadly without betraying social or ethical obligations to my new local colleagues.
Given the importance of strong relationships with specific people in powerful positions within the district and the community, it could be helpful to map out power relationships within the district and the community to understand my own power and how my status and relationships with me are being used in the service of other agendas.
The upcoming grant advisory board meeting, launching the community design committee, and planning for fall iterations of the CS courses will be important contexts in which to enact the revised design of the project. This activity within the district also needs to be coordinated with the launch of UB's CS teacher preparation program.
The challenges and successes of the first six months of this project are not just implementation details; they engage with central epistemological issues in CS, and what CS might mean to specific communities (Proctor, Bigman, and Blikstein, 2019). This project remains committed to the vision of pluralistic computational literacies articulated by Kafai and Proctor (2021):
"Rather than positioning the cultures and political priorities of a school’s community as external to learning or as resources to be appropriated to catalyze learning, a computational literacies approach recognizes a school community as stakeholders in shaping what it means to practice CS at that school. In practice, equitably including stakeholders in defining and designing CS requires sustained outreach but we imagine many articulations of CS flourishing at different schools, each reflecting the voices of its community" (p. 5).
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2219433. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.