Posts Tagged Program by Design

Teach Real Algebra Instead of Wasting Time with Fun Apps

Published by — “The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

Emmanuel Schanzer majored in Computer-Science at Cornell University.  With such a high-value degree, he knew he could sail into a lucrative, snazzy job.  But he was keenly aware that he was a C.S. hotshot (my word) because he’d entered college with good math skills already under his belt.  No one codes who doesn’t understand algebra — you know, the hard stuff that looks like a Slavic language with some numbers thrown in.  To get a lot more kids, especially ill-prepared urban kids, into the bright future that comes with computer science, someone had to build up their math first.

So later on, Schanzer would create Bootstrap’s curriculum.  Because — buyer beware! — most of the apps and programs that currently promise to teach kids algebra are fun, but a total waste of time.

“When you hear, ‘This is so amazing!  These apps teach kids to program!’  That’s snake oil.  Every minute your students spend on empty engagement while they’re failing algebra, you’re assuring that they’re not going to college.  Studies show that the grade kids get in Algebra I is the most significant grade to predict future income.”

A Man With a Math Mission

In college Schanzer searched for a way to improve math instruction through real programming, and found Program by Design (PxB, about which I’ve been writing for the last 2 weeks).  While excellent, it’s pitched too high, assuming strong math skills that challenged urban students haven’t yet acquired.  He vowed to redesign it one day — after cashing in on his computer-science degree.

But his years working in the tech sector were no match for his passion.  Plan “B,” then.  With an education degree in hand, he started teaching his beloved algebra in urban schools.  But the programming tools available to his students were maddeningly off the mark.  “First, none of the popular K-12 computer languages/teaching tools had anything to do with math, which seemed insane to me.  They had things called “functions” and “variables,” but they didn’t behave at all like the functions and variables students see in their math classes.  How’s that supposed to help them?  Students were expected to entertain themselves by playing with the tools, but it wasn’t clear what they were supposed to learn.”

“The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

“The goal is to help kids get the computer to do something, because there is an intangible value in being in control.  It’s engaging, no question.  So in the last 5 years, all the sexy languages are drag-and-drop programs, like Scratch and Alice.  I have enormous respect for these tools, as long as they’re a first step towards PythonJava.  But by themselves, they are a terrific answer to just one question:  How do we make it seem easy to code?”

Those programs have built-in blocks of code, represented by icons that kids can manipulate.  But kids don’t interact with the code itself, never mind write it or program.

“Typing code is hard.  If you forget a semicolon, the program doesn’t work.  So the supposition has been that if they play with a tool, it will help them later.  But that’s not programming and it’s not algebra.  Classroom time is valuable.  If you’re spending 50 hours in the course of a year “coding” in block language, you’re stealing time from real learning.  Students get an “A” in high school and then go to college and find programming is something else entirely, and get totally turned off.”

Bootstrap Is Born

Like a good Millennial, Schanzer founded a start-up to solve the problem.  Bootstrap’s programming language behaves like the algebra students learn in class, reinforcing honest-to-God algebraic concepts.  Yes, Bootstrap teaches kids the basics of game building, but only by teaching the math that supports the code.

The materials are free and online, though professional development is available.  Every lesson is cross-walked with the Common Core, assuring teachers that their efforts will result in real learning.  A growing library provides homework assignments and warm-up activities.  Teachers can use each lesson’s script until they’re familiar with the program.  And a pre and post-test measures the learning.

“Teachers know if it’s not real math.  You have to do things the way teachers do it in a classroom.  Bootstrap enforces mathematical behavior — same vocabulary, steps, style as a math book.  This is a math class.”  The fun video on Bootstrap’s homepage shows kids loving the approach.

As luck would have it, Schanzer found himself Boston’s subway one morning and noticed a guy, a German, working with Program by Design.  Lo!, the man was none other than Matthias Felliesen, creator of PxD.  With that chance meeting, Schnazer secured allies in his efforts to get math to urban kids.  Bootstrap started to take off.

And if a Bootstrap student starts to soar, a teacher can point the budding computer-scientist to PxD for more challenge, and a pipeline to college.

Schanzer is fulfilling his college-born dream to propel bunches of kids into bright futures at places like Cornell.  Absolutely, engagement is important.  But the key all along has been to shore up math itself.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street

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Computer Science is Critical Thinking on Steroids

Published by — The “modeling” required by computer science is a widely transferable skill.

Kathi Fisler has been teaching Computer Science at Worcester Polytechnical Institute for 13 years, a veritable aeon in this young field. “The world wide web came out when I started graduate school in 1991. There were no phones, and what laptops there were, especially in schools, were “paperweights.” Who knew what to do with them?

All told, the field of Computer Science (C.S.) is only 60 years old. Math, Literacy, Science and History have been developing for millennia. And back in the 1990s, only people going into the field studied computing. But then the electronics market exploded as devices got smaller, faster, better, and ubiquitous.

She muses, “Now it’s a totally different world. But while the C.S. community is trying to get a handle on what broad education might prepare students for the digital world, there’s no single definition of what Computer Science even is. With so many interpretations, some colleges say no, we won’t give you credit for taking the computer-science AP course. So how do you make a standard test so colleges know what to expect, without common expectations?”

Well, first and most importantly, understand the giant distinction between coding and programming. Media efforts are trying to attract kids, especially girls, to coding. But coding is to programming what spelling and grammar are to writing — structurally essential, but not the point. They’re tools to make it work. A whole lot of thinking and designing needs to take place first.

Fisler and her colleagues call the design work “modeling.”

In the 1990s Fisler’s husband, also a computer scientist, was a grad student at Rice University, working with Matthias Felliesen’s team just as they began to invent what became Program by Design (PxD, discussed in last week’s column). PxD was an effort to undo the damage done by well-meaning high schools that taught students to code, in whatever computer language, as if learning grammar and spelling would somehow add up to real writing in the end. It was, if you will, bass ackwards.

Since Fisler was literally married to the work, the all-male team asked her to join them. They wanted a maximally diverse group of computer scientists, students, and K-12 teachers to develop an online, free high-school and early-college curriculum. PxD delays the specific issues of coding to the latter stages of learning. Instead, it starts with helping students think through solving problems with data, in computer-science terms.

For the record, the leaders of that original team have stayed with PxD, far flung though they all are; Felleisen is now at Northeastern University.

Let’s say you’re going to write a program.

Fisler says, “The first question is: What is this rich set of data I’m trying to process? What PxD does is expose students to increasingly rich kinds of data and let the programs proceed from there. Let’s start with simple data, like a shopping list.”

Okay, so what do you want to do with the data? Or as Fisler would say, “How do you want to organize the data narrative?” A super-simple program might sort the list alphabetically. A database might know where each item is, to the program uses the list to map an efficient route through the grocery store. Perhaps you’re sophisticated and want to track your lists, so your program asks if you meant to pick up coffee, since it wasn’t on your list.

The PxD curriculum keeps upping the complexity of the data sets, moving on, say, to family trees. Adding a person to a party list is easier than adding a person to a family tree, because family members come with other connections. What the data means to you and what you want to do with it informs the model you develop.

Implementation is next. How am I going to get this done? Once you figure that out, you have your model, a plan that includes the purpose, the data and the strategy for accomplishing the purpose.

With the model in hand, it’s finally time to concentrate on the code — the grammar, syntax, spelling — that will make the program itself work.

Fisler makes an analogy to my writing. First, I outline extensively so I’m clear what point I’m trying to make, what evidence I’m using, and how I will structure the argument. This “modeling” is the hardest and most time-consuming part. When I’m ready to code, I do it in English, in a sloppy but concrete first draft. Lastly, I polish, call it “debug,” so my little verbal machine works, which is to say, does what I want it to.

In ed-speak, this is critical thinking on steroids.

Because modeling has also been around for millennia. Computer science gives a name to the time-honored sequence of thinking, designing and writing, independent of any specific computer language. It’s the “broad education (that) might prepare students for the digital world” — the ultimate transferable skill. And the skills involved in modeling are much more useful, intriguing and fun, for all academic disciplines, than learning strict compliance with the rules. For that reason, along with so many others, students as young a 6th grade should be learning computer science, using Fisler and PxD’s approach.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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In US Schools, ‘Incorrect Answers are Un-American’

PPublished by — Methods are about HOW to solve problems, not solving problems themselves.

Back in the 1990s, circumstances so maddened Dr. Matthias Felleisen, he felt forced to create Program by Design (PxD) to bring life back to computer science and algebra, both. Since then, thousands of students have used it to learn the elements of programming, with or without a teacher. Even I could understand its free, online textbook. The PxD target audience were first-year college students, but Felleisen’s team wanted it to be accessible to clever 10-year-olds. The NSF and other major funders continue to be impressed.

The final straw for Felleisen’s frustration was his children’s 10th-grade babysitter, when he was a young computer-science professor at Rice University. The girl was floundering miserably in math, as so many students do. He offered to help and found her gratefully receptive to his methods.

Felleisen is German by birth, so his own training was quite different than what’s available here. In the U.S., “Teachers hand students the functions, but students do not know where they came from or what they are, really. Algebra problems are terribly boring because teachers just use numbers. Algebra can manipulate pictures, or even words. I have nothing against numbers, but I asked if I could help (the sitter) make functions of her own that could that make a movie or a game.”

Animation helps beginning students see how math makes a computer DO something.

“Of course it worked with her, so I knew then that I could and should change algebra.”

“Multiple choice is about right answers.”

Felleisen’s much bigger issue were his frustrating college students. It seemed they’d been taught to drive straight to right answers with virtually no attention to the methods by which answers emerge. No real-world context engaged students in why the problems were intriguing — contexts like animation, Census data, aerospace calculations or video games. What really excites him are the methods or processes that help students work through problems. He gets impassioned, even a bit snarky about American teaching methods, using the word “boring” a lot.

“I grew up in Germany where I was taught by ex-engineers. They were excited because they had no limits on their imaginations. My textbooks were one-tenth the size of American textbooks. They just had the methods for how to solve problems. My math teachers put the subject in context.”

American textbooks, on the other hand, “are huge, filled with big color pictures of all kinds of objects that may convey the idea of a function (a manual meat grinder), or an alternative view of functions (an image of a graph and a rule with arrows in between). They might describe several uses of functions (economics, biology, or programming), often with one-page stories on a person. None of this reaches the kids. In particular, it fails to bring across why a functions are needed and how they are created systematically. Instead, they have pages of practice problems. My training had no multiple-choice. It was always about the method and not the right answer.”

Felleisen gives his students zeros if they get the correct answer, but don’t show work that lets him see their methods and thinking. They get full credit, though, “if your answer is wrong, but your methods are right and you made a small mistake. Yes of course I had math drill, but only early on, when I was very young. From then on it was all about the methods, for algebra, geometry…”

The drive to get the right answer seems to have wiped out most students’ sense of the possibilities and power of both math and the computer.

“A computer is a dumb piece of engineering.”

After the baby-sitter experience, Felleisen gathered a team to develop a curriculum that turned the computer into the learner. “The student, then, is the teacher who tells the computer what to do. The creative person is the student.”

In his own class, his first lesson teaches students how to get a computer to move a cat across a screen. The cat is on the left, positioned in relation to the “x” and “y” axis.

He says, “You construct a function from the little ingredients. When you understand the relationships in your function, the numbers are just incidental. Mathematicians know this. Functions are just little machines. They’re often written as tables where the function of time is to place the cat image at X distance from the right. Every time I make this picture I change the Time and the coordinates. Yes, these are numbers, but pictures are involved.”

Methods are about HOW to solve problems, not solving problems themselves.

So the driving question ought to be: what problem do you want to solve? What real-world context is engaging? When right answers become too important, math is all plug-n-play with functions and not creative acts of imagination.

Worse still, the bee-line drive to right answers cripples the American student’s imagination and appetite for solving problems in all sorts of ways. And that, in turn, produces way too many wrong answers on the all-important tests. Ironic, no?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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