1:1 – Observations on Computer Science Education and by a first-time volunteer/teacher

TL;DR, Summary, Breakdown

  • I found one on ones to be essential in leadership.
  • I reflect on how important they are in teaching computer science in high school in their ability to connect teacher and student and uncovering unseen

I have really loved my 1:1 time with students this year.[1] I’ve had the luxury of spending anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, engaging students in “Introduction to Python” through Carnegie Mellon’s CS Academy CS1 [2]. Selfishly, I love the 1:1 time because I almost always end up seeing sparks of insight in a young person’s eyes when connections are made and problems are solved. I feel… joy, glory, maybe even euphoria. I don’t know if this is oxytocin or dopamine or something else, but I know it’s good.

One of those magical sparks of insight came in helping student, R. R. was making a minesweeper app for an unstructured, creative task. As I engaged, R’s vision for the game required creating an 8×8 grid with mines and empty spaces and covering it all with grass. I could see a pattern in R’s code, repetition (iteration). R. couldn’t see it at first. As I walked R through a series of questions about what each line of code was doing, in English, we started to get to a story of how minesweeper was supposed to work. Eventually, we teased out the pattern and R. was able to rewrite the code. R boiled 30 lines down to three lines. There were two nested for loops wrapping creation of a rectangle — a distilled pattern. When R realized what they had done, a shocked look appeared on their face. R’s eyes went wide. R’s lips parted slightly. Amazement. For me: joy and amazement.

And then an hour later, a thought creeped in. Why hadn’t R. been able to see the pattern? Hadn’t we just spent two weeks on “nested for loops?” Hadn’t we spent two weeks on “for loops,” before that? R. always did a good number of practice exercises. One thing that has always struck me about working with R, they are creative and motivated. If R was having trouble, were there other students having trouble?

I brought up my concern with the teacher I support and the other tutors. We talked through watching student progress more carefully. We talked through other interventions, like slowing down and spending more 1:1 time. The problem is, there is only one teacher and 3 tutors in the class and the tutors aren’t able to show up every day. If we have 25 students and 2.5 adults in the class a day, over the course of an hour, that means we each get 6 minutes with each student, not counting switching time. Is it enough time to tell the student what to do? Sure. Is it enough time to teach the student to recognize the pattern — to see it for themselves?

Each day since sitting with R., I have sat with another student. Each one is the same lesson. Student’s V, M, E, I, and N were all able to perform the given exercises. They were all able to bring in their interests, like Minesweeper or video games like Among Us into their creative task. However, when I talked them through their creative tasks, a pattern emerged:

  • No mastery of loops.
  • No mastery of functions.
  • No mastery of debugging.
  • Cursory mastery of if statements.

These were our best students; the ones who did the exercises; the ones who showed enthusiasm.

As I reflect, I ask, are my standards high?


Are my standards too high?

No. They can’t be. —Based on 6 minutes per class, they might be, but getting 20-60 minutes with a student would be a gamechanger.

I take this as my failure and also as a challenge for the coming school year. I hope to have some of the same students again in AP-CSP. I will help them truly master these concepts, not simply because it’s cool or practical, but because I think it could give them a greater insight into themselves.

As I think about ways to solve this, student/peer interaction and flipped classrooms are moving to front of mind. Any thoughts?


[1] As a software leader/manager, I have extensive time with 1 on 1s and have found them to be an essential way to build trust.

[2] Thanks to the fantastic people at Carnegie Mellon (my alma mater) who make CS Academy available for free!

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