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A look back at the 2020 through 2021 academic year.

Since I’ve been musing on the topic of grading, I recall a quote by Asao Inoue on one of the philosophies behind labor-based grading contracts: “It’s better to design grading ecologies that encourage learning, since teachers cannot actually teach anything.” His claim, rooted in the traditions of critical pedagogy, ask us to deeply consider learning as a construct grounded in the connections and relationships we have with the people, ideas, and things that surround us. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens in context and constant dialogue with our lived experiences. At a physiological level, learning is driven by our responses to experiences and our attempts to explain phenomena. It’s from this physiological basis that online learning poses new challenges for enabling the rich connections and relationships necessary for learning. Certainly, there are ways to make things work, but further research is needed to really design technologies that offer better affordances for connective and relational learning. Online learning tools for critical pedagogies are still stuck in the waiting room.

But I also read in this quote more questions about the subtext of our learning environments. Teachers don’t teach anything; instead, they create contexts for learning. Often, these contexts are not the primary subject of our teaching, but rather encoded in the structures of our courses, the way we organize lessons, the work we ask students to do, and the reasons why we engage in this learning. A teacher standing at the front of the room assumes power over students. Refusal to involve students’ full capacities for learning (such as cognitive, emotional, and social capacities) assumes that some capacities for learning are much more valuable than others. A narrow set of reasons for learning leads us to define success along a few (or even a single) dimension, and then work to achieve social validation in those limited dimensions. Deterred the opportunity to collaborate, commiserate, or even communicate to meet our basic needs for human connection, these often unstated customs, values, and epistemologies inform the dominant culture of the course. “Hell is other people” because we create a culture that gives rise to a defensive climate where the toxic norms we use to judge others are the same norms we use to judge ourselves.

Culturally responsive-sustaining CS pedagogy seeks to address the gap between the traditional subject matter of CS pedagogy and the exclusionary dimensions of dominant culture. Recognizing and dismantling the hegemonic aspects of dominant computing culture embedded in our CS education will require not only acknowledgement of diverse values, but also respect for them as equally valuable ways of knowing CS. It’s not just about learning computer ethics or teaching bias in algorithms, but rather invokes a broadening of what we understand as “CS” work—not merely a practice of mathematical reasoning and robotic programming, but rather one that can draw on all the rich strengths of our collective human experience.

Culturally responsive-sustaining computer science pedagogy ensures that students’ interests, identities, and cultures are embraced and validated, students develop knowledge of computing content and its utility in the world, strong CS identities are developed, and students engage in larger socio-political critiques about technology’s purpose, potential, and impact.

Justice-centered approaches to CS education emphasize injustice and inequity as primary concerns for criticism, and as primary motivators for learning CS. Learning CS not just for high-paying yet “unfeeling” and “oppressive” tech jobs, but rather for creating a more just world for everyone. Justice-centered approaches are not just for our most marginalized students, but for everyone because “no one of us can be free until everybody is free.” But teaching these critical ideas requires a radical departure from most dominant students’ educational expectations. I ask my STEM students to apply all of their full capacities for learning, including the emotional or social capacities often left behind in the waiting room.