A District Learns To 'Debug' Its Curriculum

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Scarsdale, N.Y.--Long considered one of the nation's best public-school systems, this suburban New York district introduced computers into its classrooms long before most school systems. And it is often cited as a model for integrating the new teaching capacity of the computer into the traditional curriculum.

But the model shares a particular characteristic with the technology it is based upon: The system is constantly changing.

After using basic as its advanced programming language in computer-science classes for four years, the district is reconsidering. Its committee on the computer curriculum is developing a course using the more advanced pascal language

Scarsdale officials also are changing their attitudes about logo, the language taught to younger students. logo has worked so well with pupils in the 3rd and 4th grades that the computer committee has decided to delay the transition from logo to basic until at least the 6th grade.

Adjustments in the computer-science curriculum--which was started five years ago with four dusty computer terminals tucked away in an administrative office, but which now includes 102 terminals in the district's four schools--do not stop with the languages used to interact with the electronic machinery.

Commercial Software Shunned

The district has shunned buying commercial educational software--prepackaged commands for the computer that minimize complexities for the student--from the beginning, but officials say they now are looking with interest at some more sophisticated software under development. The district has also stayed away from word processors but is now considering what ends the machines might serve.

Why, if they know so much, are Scarsdale officials constantly changing their plans and courses involving computers?

The answer, they said, is a constant need to revise--or "debug," to use the computer programmer's argot--what has already been built. They said that the field of high technology is changing so rapidly (as are the demands on schools) that no school can put into place a "final'' computer-science curriculum.

"What I'm all of a sudden made aware of," said Scarsdale's assistant superintendent for instruction, Richard Sprague, "is that the whole idea of how you develop a curriculum has to change. We all like to have a better sense of what the end product is going to be, but [high technology is] changing too fast. It's exciting and frustrating at the same time."

The district's constant debugging of course offerings and objectives can be compared to the logo principles that Susan Meurling teaches her 4th-grade classes.

logo requires the user to move a triangle, called a "turtle," to draw geometric shapes on the screen. With the mastery of a few simple commands, the student can draw a triangle or a box and have it stored as part of his program. Eventually, the commands can be combined as complex programs, such as simple cartoon animation.

The process of "adding words to the turtle's vocabulary," Ms. Meurling said, teaches the students to break down problems to their most basic elements--and not to despair when they fail to reach a solution after one or two attempts.

It is an approach that Scarsdale administrators wisely imitated, said Robert P. Taylor, the district's computer consultant and professor of computing in education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Four years ago, Scarsdale's computer-science program consisted of four terminals that, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Sobol and Mr. Taylor recalled in an article, "offered computer games to a handful of computer freaks ... [and] were 'down' as often as they were 'up."'

Today's computer-science program starts in the third grade with at least 10 hours of instruction in logo, a language developed for young children, and ends at the high-school level with two optional, semester-long courses that now attract more than 200 students each semester.

The district's curriculum committee is considering making the comprehensive high-school classes mandatory for graduation and is studying the success of computer programs for children as young as kindergartners.

As they plotted their path to a computer curriculum, district officials have diligently made lists of goals and plans, only to have them regularly scrapped. Those lists have served one important purpose, said Mr. Taylor: "uncovering blatant bumbling."

"That's good," he said. "The process of having the committee was useful, but not because the plan was something that people adhered to religiously. It's better to find out your mistakes before [they cripple the program]."

Since the beginning, Scarsdale has placed its emphasis on teaching students how to program. Except for a few simulation programs and limited use of drill-and-practice software for remedial work, the district has avoided buying software for the computer curriculum.

The reason, said Mr. Sprague, is simple: "There is very little good software on the market. So much of the software is unimaginative. What we need is less emphasis on the workbooks and more on teaching a kid how to program."

But there is another reason: the need to be flexible.

Mr. Taylor contrasted Scarsdale's exper-ience with that of a private school in New York City, which he also advised on the subject of computer use in the classroom. The New York school bought an expensive set of minicomputers for computer-assisted instruction, said Mr. Taylor, only to discover later that computer-assisted instruction did little good and some harm.

"They were using the computers as a sort of punishment there. You did something wrong and you got sent to the computer room for drill and practice," said Mr. Taylor.

When he arrived as a consultant, "they practically had to get rid of the headmaster" before any changes could be made, Mr. Taylor said. Even then, improvements were impeded by the school's early purchase of a complete set of hardware, he added.

Administrators Cautious

Scarsdale administrators, by contrast, were cautious from the beginning in buying equipment.

"We decided not to rush out and buy one [make of] hardware," said Mr. Taylor. "We bought three [makes], and during the first year people learned a lot and decided they weren't going to get a lot out of Machine X. The second year's acquisition of hardware was revised in an unforeseen way."

Perhaps the toughest problem--and one with which administrators said they are still struggling--was the training of teachers. Before the school system launched the computer curriculum, many teachers were unfamiliar with even basic concepts of computer science. They were apprehensive about dealing with a subject in which many students had a more extensive background.

The district and Teachers College collaborated in offering computer courses to interested staff members. The district since has held many smaller workshops and allowed teachers time off to study computer science. More than half of the district's 300 staff members have taken part in at least one training program, said Mr. Taylor.

For some teachers, said Mr. Sprague and Mr. Taylor, the training has not been adequate to dispel their fear of computers.

"It's very anxiety-producing for a lot of staff members," said Mr. Sprague. "Teachers often believe that we have to be the experts, and it's very hard for a teacher to be placed in a position where he doesn't know how to solve a problem."

Added Mr. Taylor: "We're not going to be able to achieve what I call 'computeracy' [computer literacy] and be done with it. That's reawakening people to what education really is--you realize that you're never finished."

The answer, said Dorothy Bajek, administrative assistant to the superintendent, is in having teachers redefine their attitudes. "The idea of a teacher standing in the front of the room can't be used anymore,'' she said. "The teacher has to think of himself more as a facilitator than as someone who knows all the answers."

Computers in schools are such a new phenomenon, added Ms. Bajek, that there is little concrete evidence that the computer curriculum is succeeding. But she and other school officials said they see evidence daily that children in the district are doing well.

Computer-science contests attract a great deal of interest in the schools, and more students are talking about working with computers as a career. And computers are increasingly used in other classes--one student's program, for instance, simulates principles of physics, and a social-studies class uses a program that simulates an election with students as candidates.

More impressive, said Ms. Bajek, is a scene she witnessed in the junior high school's computer room. Ms. Bajek said she was surprised to see one girl using a drill-and-practice program to study troublesome Spanish verbs.

Ms. Bajek later learned that the program was written by a classmate.

Seventh graders, above, play an "explorers" game in social-studies class. Below, teachers learn logo from a Teachers College instructor.

Vol. 02, Issue 14

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories