The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.
All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready. But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.
Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.
Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.
Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.
STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.
No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.
HERE’S A DEPRESSING number for you: 12. Just 12 percent of engineers in the United States are women. In computing it’s a bit better, where women make up 26 percent of the workforce—but that number has actually fallen from 35 percent in 1990.
The United States has a serious problem with getting women into STEM jobs and keeping them there. Silicon Valley and other employers bear the most responsibility for that: Discrimination, both overt and subtle, works to keep women out of the workforce. But this society of ours also perpetuates gender stereotypes, which parents pass on to their kids. Like the one that says boys enjoy building things more than girls.
There’s no single solution to such a daunting problem, but here’s an unlikely one: robots. Not robots enforcing diversity in the workplace, not robots doing all the work and obviating the concept of gender entirely, but robots getting more girls interested in STEM. Specifically, robot kits for kids—simple yet powerful toys for teaching youngsters how to engineer and code.
Plenty of toys are targeted at getting kids interested in science and engineering, and many these days are gender specific. Roominate, for instance, is a building kit tailored for girls, while the Boolean Box teaches girls to code. “Sometimes there’s this idea that girls need special Legos, or it needs to be pink and purple for girls to get into it, and sometimes that rubs me the wrong way,” says Amanda Sullivan, who works in human development at Tufts University. “If the pink and purple colored tools is what’s going to engage that girl, then that’s great. But I think in general it would be great if there were more tools and books and things that were out there for all children.”
So Sullivan decided to test the effects of a specifically non-gendered robotics kit called Kibo. Kids program the rolling robot by stringing together blocks that denote specific commands. It isn’t marketed specifically to boys or girls using stereotypical markings of maleness or femaleness. It’s a blank slate.
Before playing with Kibo, boys were significantly more likelyto say they’d enjoy being an engineer than the girls did. But after, boys had about the same opinion, while girls were now equally as likely to express an engineering interest as the boys. (In a control group that did not play with Kibo, girls’ opinions did not significantly change.) “I think that robots in general are novel to young children, both boys and girls,” Sullivan says. “So aside from engaging girls specifically, I think robotics kits like Kibo bring an air of excitement and something new to the classroom that gets kids psyched and excited about learning.”
There’s a problem, though. While Sullivan’s research shows that a gender-neutral robotics kit can get girls interested in engineering, that doesn’t mean it will sell. “If you look at sales data, it clearly shows that they’re not being used by girls,” says Sharmi Albrechtsen, CEO and co-founder of SmartGurlz, which makes a programmable doll on a self-balancing scooter. “Even the ones that are considered gender-neutral, if you look at the sales data it clearly shows a bias, and it’s towards boys. That’s the reality of the situation.” Gender sells—at least when it’s the parents doing the buying.
Regardless, companies are designing a new generation of toys in deliberate ways. Take Wonder Workshop and its non-gendered robots Dash and Cue. As they were prototyping, they’d test their designs with boys and girls. “One of the things we heard a lot from girls was this isn’t quite their toy,” says Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop. “This is probably what their brother would play with.”
Why? Because they thought it looked like a car or truck. So the team covered up the wheels. “And all of a sudden girls wanted to play with it,” Gupta says. “Our takeaway from that in a big way was that every child brings their preconceived notions to play. So when they see something they map it back to something they’ve already seen.” Though not always. “What we do find actually, funnily enough,” says Albrechtsen of the SmartGurlz scooter doll, “is that a lot of boys actually end up edging in and wanting to play. So we have a lot of brothers who are also playing with the product.”
Whatever gets a child interested, it’s on parents and educators to make sure the spark stays alive. And maybe it’s the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly awesome, and increasingly inexpensive robots that can begin to transform the way America gets girls into science and tech. Short of becoming self aware and taking over the world, the machines certainly couldn’t hurt.
A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.
These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.
Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.
The 650-student school offers grades 3 through 8 only and pairs grades together, following research that shows that mixing age groups accelerates learning. For more than a decade, Birmingham Covington’s students have ranked at or above the 95th percentile in overall performance for all Michigan elementary and middle schools.
By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.
“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. “All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes.”
Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.
In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.
“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.
Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.
“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.
Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.
The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.
“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”
Increasing Independence for Older Learners
George Lucas Educational Foundation
As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.
In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?
In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.
This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.
“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. “Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”
“Everything that is old is new again!” Daniel Rabuzzi exclaims, his eyes light up with excitement that seems to match the glowing, handcrafted flower pinned on his vest. He’s talking about the next wave of the Maker Movement, big news buzzing amongst makers in the inner circle.
Rabuzzi is the executive director of Mouse, a national nonprofit that encourages students to create with technology. The organization, now celebrating 20 years in operation, is part of the worldwide Maker Movement, encouraging students to get creative (and messy) when using technology to build things. Rabuzzi calls his work at Mouse “shop and home economics for the 21st century,” and his students “digital blacksmiths.”
Rabuzzi, like many experts within the Maker Movement, believes the heavy emphasis on standardized testing in schools, which has pushed the arts, shop and home economics into the shadows, is what spurred outside groups like Mouse to begin hosting alternative makerspaces for students. Throughout the years, Rabuzzi has seen the movement evolve. Most recently, he’s seen technology become more directly integrated with making, along with an uptick of women in leadership.
“It can’t just be the boys tinkering in the basement anymore,” says Rabuzzi, pointing to women in maker leadership, like littleBits founder Ayah Bdeir, who encouraged more young girls to enter the space.
Now Rabuzzi, along with makers, investors, and journalists, are buzzing about what they describe as the next wave of making: the Maker economy, which many believe will transform manufacturing the United States by integrating with the Internet of Things (IOT), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).
“There is all this talk about bringing back manufacturing to America, and I feel like this is going to come back on a local level,” says Juan Garzon, former Mouse student, who started his hardware company. He believes that personalized goods designed and manufactured by Makers through mediums like 3D printing will drive the return of domestic manufacturing.
“The future of manufacturing is not a big plant, but someone designing what they want and developing custom made things. It sounds so sci-fi, but it is within my lifetime,” continues Garzon.
News reports from Chicago Inno show that custom manufacturing designed by makers might be an active part of the domestic economy sooner than Garzon realizes. Inno reports that several Maker-entrepreneur spaces are popping up in the city with hopes to develop places where creators can build scalable products to be manufactured, creating new businesses.
For many, talk of 3D printing and merging Making with AI are bleeding edge topics, far away from today’s realities. But for technologists supporting Mouse, this the world they want to prepare students to be a part of.
Mouse students at the 20th-anniversary party are already getting started. At the event, some students proudly showed off projects they designed in 3D spaces that can be viewed and altered in virtual reality. Many of the projects students worked on required a mixture of creativity, technical skills and awareness of the societal needs. Displays showcasing green energy projects along with digitalized wearable technology for persons with disabilities were all throughout the room. Still, Rabuzzi imagines more.
He hopes that through making, students can test the limits of new technologies and do good for the society. “How do we use Alexa and Siri in the Maker Movement?” Rabuzzi wonders aloud. He describes his idea of using AI to support students in designing, prototyping and creating new learning pathways in future, but admits that he doesn’t have the funding or technology for such ambitious projects now. He hopes that some of Mouse’s corporate funding partners are interested in supporting the endeavors.
“We are preparing today’s young people for a cyber future,” he explains. “In the old days if you had a clever idea you had to go into a big company to get it done. Now you can make it yourself.”
The logical response seems to be to educate people differently, so they’re prepared to work alongside the robots or do the jobs that machines can’t. But how to do that, and whether training can outpace automation, are open questions.
Pew Research Center and Elon University surveyed 1,408 people who work in technology and education to find out if they think new schooling will emerge in the next decade to successfully train workers for the future. Two-thirds said yes; the rest said no. Following are questions about what’s next for workers, and answers based on the survey responses.
How do we educate people for an automated world?
People still need to learn skills, the respondents said, but they will do that continuously over their careers. In school, the most important thing they can learn is how to learn.
At universities, “people learn how to approach new things, ask questions and find answers, deal with new situations,” wrote Uta Russmann, a professor of communications at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. “All this is needed to adjust to ongoing changes in work life. Special skills for a particular job will be learned on the job.”
Schools will also need to teach traits that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. The problem, many respondents said, is that these are not necessarily easy to teach.
“Many of the ‘skills’ that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold,” wrote Stowe Boyd, managing director of Another Voice, which provides research on the new economy.
Can we change education fast enough to outpace the machines?
About two-thirds of the respondents thought it could be done in the next decade; the rest thought that education reform takes too much time, money and political will, and that automation is moving too quickly.
“I have complete faith in the ability to identify job gaps and develop educational tools to address those gaps,” wrote Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data and Society, a research institute. “I have zero confidence in us having the political will to address the socioeconomic factors that are underpinning skill training.”
Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner, wrote, “Barring a neuroscience advance that enables us to embed knowledge and skills directly into brain tissue and muscle formation, there will be no quantum leap in our ability to ‘up-skill’ people.”
Will college degrees still be important?
College is more valuable than ever, research shows. The jobs that are still relatively safe from automation require higher education, as well as interpersonal skills fostered by living with other students.
“Human bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence,” said Frank Elavsky, data and policy analyst at Acumen, a policy research firm.
But many survey respondents said a degree was not enough — or not always the best choice, especially given its price tag. Many of them expect more emphasis on certificates or badges, earned from online courses or workshops, even for college graduates.
One potential future, said David Karger, a professor of computer science at M.I.T., would be for faculty at top universities to teach online and for mid-tier universities to “consist entirely of a cadre of teaching assistants who provide support for the students.”
Employers will also place more value on on-the-job learning, many respondents said, such as apprenticeships or on-demand trainings at workplaces. Portfolios of work are becoming more important than résumés.
“Résumés simply are too two-dimensional to properly communicate someone’s skill set,” wrote Meryl Krieger, a career specialist at Indiana University. “Three-dimensional materials — in essence, job reels that demonstrate expertise — will be the ultimate demonstration of an individual worker’s skills.”
What can workers do now to prepare?
Consider it part of your job description to keep learning, many respondents said — learn new skills on the job, take classes, teach yourself new things.
Focus on learning how to do tasks that still need humans, said Judith Donath of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society: teaching and caregiving; building and repairing; and researching and evaluating.
The problem is that not everyone is cut out for independent learning, which takes a lot of drive and discipline. People who are suited for it tend to come from privileged backgrounds, with a good education and supportive parents, said Beth Corzo-Duchardt, a media historian at Muhlenberg College. “The fact that a high degree of self-direction may be required in the new work force means that existing structures of inequality will be replicated in the future,” she said.
Even if we do all these things, will there be enough jobs?
Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said he was optimistic about the future of work as long as people learned technological skills: “People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central.”
But the third of respondents who were pessimistic about the future of education reform said it won’t matter if there are no jobs to train for.
“The ‘jobs of the future’ are likely to be performed by robots,” said Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at Mimecast, an email company. “The question isn’t how to train people for nonexistent jobs. It’s how to share the wealth in a world where we don’t need most people to work.”
In “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” the course he helped conceive for nonmajors at the University of California, Berkeley, Daniel Garcia explains an all-important concept in computer science — abstraction — in terms of milkshakes.
“There is a reason when you go to the ‘Joy of Cooking’ and you want to make a strawberry milkshake, you don’t look under ‘strawberry milkshake,’ ” he said. Rather, there is a recipe for milkshakes that instructs you to add ice cream, milk and fruit of your choice. While earlier cookbooks may have had separate recipes for strawberry milkshakes, raspberry milkshakes and boysenberry milkshakes, eventually, he imagines, someone said, “Why don’t we collapse that into one milkshake recipe?”
“The idea of abstraction,” he said, “is to hide the details.” It requires recognizing patterns and distilling complexity into a precise, clear summary. It’s like the countdown to a space launch that runs through a checklist — life support, fuel, payload — in which each check represents perhaps 100 checks that have been performed.
Concealing layers of information makes it possible to get at the intersections of things, improving aspects of a complicated system without understanding and grappling with each part. Abstraction allows advances without redesigning from scratch.
It is a cool and useful idea that, along with other cool and useful computer science ideas, has people itching to know more. It’s obvious that computers have become indispensable problem-solving partners, not to mention personal companions. But it’s suddenly not enough to be a fluent user of software interfaces. Understanding what lies behind the computer’s seeming magic now seems crucial. In particular, “computational thinking” is captivating educators, from kindergarten teachers to college professors, offering a new language and orientation to tackle problems in other areas of life.
This promise — as well as a job market hungry for coding — has fed enrollments in classes like the one at Berkeley, taken by 500 students a year. Since 2011, the number of computer science majors has more than doubled, according to the Computing Research Association. At Stanford, Princeton and Tufts, computer science is now the most popular major. More striking, though, is the appeal among nonmajors. Between 2005 and 2015, enrollment of nonmajors in introductory, mid- and upper-level computer science courses grew by 177 percent, 251 percent and 143 percent, respectively.
In the fall, the College Board introduced a new Advanced Placement course, Computer Science Principles, focused not on learning to code but on using code to solve problems. And WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, is using National Science Foundation money to help develop a program for 3- to 5-year-olds in which four cartoon monkeys get into scrapes and then “get out of the messes by applying computational thinking,” said Marisa Wolsky, executive producer of children’s media. “We see it as a groundbreaking curriculum that is not being done yet.”
Computational thinking is not new. Seymour Papert, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and an M.I.T. professor, used the term in 1980 to envision how children could use computers to learn. But Jeannette M. Wing, in charge of basic research at Microsoft and former professor at Carnegie Mellon, gets credit for making it fashionable. In 2006, on the heels of the dot-com bust and plunging computer science enrollments, Dr. Wing wrote a trade journal piece, “Computational Thinking.” It was intended as a salve for a struggling field.
“Things were so bad that some universities were thinking of closing down computer science departments,” she recalled. Some now consider her article a manifesto for embracing a computing mind-set.
Like any big idea, there is disagreement about computational thinking — its broad usefulness as well as what fits in the circle. Skills typically include recognizing patterns and sequences, creating algorithms, devising tests for finding and fixing errors, reducing the general to the precise and expanding the precise to the general.
It requires reframing research, said Shriram Krishnamurthi, a computer science professor at Brown, so that “instead of formulating a question to a human being, I formulate a question to a data set.” For example, instead of asking if the media is biased toward liberals, pose the question as: Are liberals identified as liberal in major newspapers more often or less often than conservatives are identified as conservative?
Dr. Krishnamurthi helped create “Introduction to Computation for the Humanities and Social Sciences” more than a decade ago because he wanted students “early in their undergrad careers to learn a new mode of thinking that they could take back to their discipline.” Capped at 20 students, the course now has a waitlist of more than 100.
Just as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is drafted to explain politics and business, Dr. Wing argued for broad use of computer ideas. And not just for work. Applying computational thinking, “we can improve the efficiencies of our daily lives,” she said in an interview, “and make ourselves a little less stressed out.”
Computing practices like reformulating tough problems into ones we know how to solve, seeing trade-offs between time and space, and pipelining (allowing the next action in line to begin before the first completes the sequence) have many applications, she said.
Consider the buffet line. “When you go to a lunch buffet, you see the forks and knives are the first station,” she said. “I find that very annoying. They should be last. You shouldn’t have to balance your plate while you have your fork and knife.” Dr. Wing, who equates a child filling her backpack to caching (how computers retrieve and store information needed later), sees the buffet’s inefficiency as a failure to apply logical thinking and sequencing.
Computational thinking, she said, can aid a basic task like planning a trip — breaking it into booking flights, hotels, car rental — or be used “for something as complicated as health care or policy decision-making.” Identifying subproblems and describing their relationship to the larger problem allows for targeted work. “Once you have well-defined interfaces,” she said, “you can ignore the complexity of the rest of the problem.”
Can computational thinking make us better at work and life? Dr. Krishnamurthi is sometimes seduced. “Before I go grocery shopping, I sort my list by aisles in the store,” he said. Sharing the list on the app Trello, his family can “bucket sort” items by aisle (pasta and oils, canned goods, then baking and spices), optimizing their path through Whole Foods. It limits backtracking and reduces spontaneous, “i.e., junk,” purchases, he said.
Despite his chosen field, Dr. Krishnamurthi worries about the current cultural tendency to view computer science knowledge as supreme, better than that gained in other fields. Right now, he said, “we are just overly intoxicated with computer science.”
It is certainly worth wondering if some applications of computational thinking are trivial, unnecessary or a Stepford Wife-like abdication of devilishly random judgment.
Alexander Torres, a senior majoring in English at Stanford, has noted how the campus’s proximity to Google has lured all but the rare student to computer science courses. He’s a holdout. But “I don’t see myself as having skills missing,” he said. In earning his degree he has practiced critical thinking, problem solving, analysis and making logical arguments. “When you are analyzing a Dickinson or Whitman or Melville, you have to unpack that language and synthesize it back.”
There is no reliable research showing that computing makes one more creative or more able to problem-solve. It won’t make you better at something unless that something is explicitly taught, said Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech who studies computing in education. “You can’t prove a negative,” he said, but in decades of research no one has found that skills automatically transfer.
Still, he added, for the same reasons people should understand biology, chemistry or physics, “it makes a lot of sense to understand computing in our lives.” Increasing numbers of people must program in their jobs, even if it’s just Microsoft Excel. “Solving problems with computers happens to all of us every day,” he said. How to make the skills available broadly is “an interesting challenge.”
“It’s like being a diplomat and learning Spanish; I feel like it’s essential,” said Greer Brigham, a Brown freshman who plans to major in political science. He’s taking the course designed by Dr. Krishnamurthi, which this term is being taught by a graduate student in robotics named Stephen Brawner.
On a March morning at the Brown computer science center, Mr. Brawner projected a student’s homework assignment on the screen. Did anyone notice a problem? Nary a humanities hand was raised. Finally, a young woman suggested “centimeters” and “kilograms” could be abbreviated. Fine, but not enough.
Mr. Brawner broke the silence and pointed out long lines of code reaching the far side of the screen. With a practiced flurry, he inserted backslashes and hit “return” repeatedly, which drew the symbols into a neat block. It may all be directions to a machine, but computer scientists care a great deal about visual elegance. As Mr. Brawner cut out repeated instructions, he shared that “whenever we define a constant, we want that at the top of our code.” He then explained the new assignment: write a program to play “rock, paper, scissors” against a computer.
Mili Mitra, a junior majoring in public policy and economics who sat with a MacBook on her lap, would not have considered this class a year ago. But seeing group research projects always being handed off to someone with computing knowledge, she decided that she “didn’t want to keep passing them along.” She has learned to write basic code and fetch data sets through the internet to analyze things she’s interested in, such as how geographic proximity shapes voting patterns in the United Nations General Assembly.
Despite finding interactions with a computer much like “explaining things to a toddler,” Ms. Mitra credits the class for instilling the habit of “going step by step and building a solution.” She admits to being an impatient learner: “I jump ahead. In C.S. you don’t have a choice. If you miss a step, you mess up everything.”
Just as children are drilled on the scientific method — turn observations into a hypothesis, design a control group, do an experiment to test your theory — the basics of working with computers is being cast as a teachable blueprint. One thing making this possible is that communicating with computers has become easier.
“Block” programming languages like Scratch, released by the M.I.T. Media Lab a decade ago, hide text strings that look like computer keys run amok. That makes coding look less scary. Instead of keyboard letters and symbols, you might select from a menu and drag a color-coded block that says “say ( ) for ( ) secs” or “play note ( ) for ( ) beats.” The colors and shapes correspond to categories like “sound” or “motion”; the blocks can be fit together like stacked puzzle pieces to order instructions. Students use this to, say, design a game.
One need not be a digital Dr. Doolittle, fluent in hard-core programming languages like Java or Python, to code. Block languages cut out the need to memorize commands, which vary depending on the computer language, because the block “is read just the way you think about it,” Dr. Garcia said. Students in his Berkeley course use the block language Snap! for assignments — he doesn’t teach Python until the last two weeks, and then just so they can take higher-level courses. “We tell them, ‘You already know how to program,’ ” he said, because the steps are the same.
Computer Science A, which teaches Java, is the fastest-growing Advanced Placement course. (The number of students taking the exam in 2016 rose 18 percent over 2015 and nearly tripled in a decade.) But professors complained that “Java was not the right way” to attract a diverse group of students, said Trevor Packer, head of the A.P. program, so a new course was developed.
The course, Computer Science Principles, is modeled on college versions for nonmajors. It lets teachers pick any coding language and has a gentler vibe. There is an exam, but students also submit projects “more similar to a studio art portfolio,” Mr. Packer said. The course covers working with data and understanding the internet and cyber security, and it teaches “transferable skills,” he said, like formulating precise questions. That’s a departure from what the College Board found in many high schools: “They were learning how to keyboard, how to use Microsoft applications.” The goal is that the new course will be offered in every high school in the country.
President Obama’s “Computer Science for All” initiative, officially launched last year, resulted in educators, lawmakers and computer science advocates spreading the gospel of coding. It also nudged more states to count computer science toward high school graduation requirements. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia now do, up from 12 in 2013, according to Code.org. It’s what Dr. Wing had hoped for when she advocated in her 2006 article that, along with reading, writing and arithmetic “we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.”
In an airy kindergarten classroom at Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, in the Tufts University Department of Child Study and Human Development, children program with actual blocks. Marina Umaschi Bers, a child development and computer science professor, created wooden blocks that bear bar codes with instructions such as “forward,” “spin” and “shake” that are used to program robots — small, wheeled carts with built-in scanners — by sequencing the blocks, then scanning them. Each “program” starts with a green “begin” block and finishes with a red “end.”
Coding for the youngest students has become the trendy pedagogy, with plentiful toys and apps like Dr. Bers’s blocks. Dr. Bers, who with M.I.T. collaborators developed the block language ScratchJr, is evangelical about coding. Learning the language of machines, she said, is as basic as writing is to being proficient in a foreign language. “You are able to write a love poem, you are able to write a birthday card, you are able to use language in many expressive ways,” she said. “You are not just reading; you are producing.”
Peer-reviewed studies by Dr. Bers show that after programming the robots, youngsters are better at sequencing picture stories. Anecdotally, she said, when they ask children to list steps for brushing teeth, they get just a few, “but after being exposed to this work, they’ll have 15 or 20 steps.”
Dr. Bers embeds computing in activities familiar to young children like inventing stories, doing dances and making art. At the Tufts school on a recent morning, children puzzled over a question: How does a robot celebrate spring?
“He’s going to dance, and then he will pretend that he is wet,” offered Hallel Cohen-Goldberg, a kindergartner with a mane of curls.
Solina Gonzalez, coloring a brown, blue and red circle with markers, peered soberly through pink-framed glasses: “He just does a lollipop dance.” Solina’s partner, Oisin Stephens, fretted about the root beer lollipop drawing she had taped to a block. “The robot won’t be able to read this,” he said. (It’s an invalid input.)
As they lurched around the carpet on their knees, the children executed computer science concepts like breaking instructions into sequenced commands, testing and debugging. One team used “repeat” and “stop repeat” blocks, forming a programming “loop,” a sequence of instructions that is continually repeated until a certain condition is reached.
When a child asks you a question like this, you have a few options. You can shut her down with a “Just because.” You can explain: “Red is for stop and green is for go.” Or, you can turn the question back to her and help her figure out the answer with plenty of encouragement.
No parent, teacher or caregiver has the time or patience to respond perfectly to all of the many, many, many opportunities like these that come along. But a new book, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, is designed to get us thinking about the magnitude of these moments.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the book’s co-author, compares the challenge to climate change.
“What we do with little kids today will matter in 20 years,” she says. “If you don’t get it right, you will have an unlivable environment. That’s the crisis I see.”
Hirsh-Pasek, a professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a distinguished developmental psychologist with decades of experience, as is her co-author, Roberta Golinkoff at the University of Delaware. And with this book, the two are putting forward a new framework, based on the science of learning and development, to help parents think about cultivating the skills people really need to succeed.
What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.
What led you to write this book now?
Golinkoff: We live in a crazy time, and parents are very worried about their children’s futures. They’re getting all kinds of messages about children having to score at the top level on some test. The irony is, kids could score at the top and still not succeed at finding great employment or becoming a great person.
Hirsh-Pasek: If Rip Van Winkle came back, there’s only one institution he would recognize: “Oh! That’s a school. Kids are still sitting in rows, still listening to the font of wisdom at the front of the classroom.”
We’re training kids to do what computers do, which is spit back facts. And computers are always going to be better than human beings at that. But what they’re not going to be better at is being social, navigating relationships, being citizens in a community. So we need to change the whole definition of what success in school, and out of school, means.
You present something you call the 21st-century report card. And it contains six C’s, which I’ve seen versions of elsewhere: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. But what’s new is the way you relate these skills to each other, and also, you’ve described what they look like at four levels of development.
Hirsh-Pasek: The first, basic, most core is collaboration. Collaboration is everything from getting along with others to controlling your impulses so you can get along and not kick someone else off the swing. It’s building a community and experiencing diversity and culture. Everything we do, in the classroom or at home, has to be built on that foundation.
Communication comes next, because you can’t communicate if you have no one to communicate with. This includes speaking, writing, reading and that all-but-lost art of listening.
Content is built on communication. You can’t learn anything if you haven’t learned how to understand language, or to read.
Critical thinking relies on content, because you can’t navigate masses of information if you have nothing to navigate to.
Creative innovation requires knowing something. You can’t just be a monkey throwing paint on a canvas. It’s the 10,000-hour rule: You need to know something well enough to make something new.
And finally, confidence: You have to have the confidence to take safe risks.
Golinkoff: There isn’t an entrepreneur or a scientific pioneer who hasn’t had failures. And if we don’t rear children who are comfortable taking risks, we won’t have successes.
OK, and for each of your six C’s, you also go into what they look like at four levels of development. Can you give us the deep dive on one of these?
Golinkoff: So, critical thinking. First you have to have content, right?
Most people at their desks at work have papers, books, magazines all over the place. Information is doubling every 2 1/2 years. We have to figure out how to select and synthesize the information we need.
So, at Level 1, we call it “seeing is believing.” If someone tells you alligators live in sewers in New York City, you buy it.
At Level 2, you see that truths differ; there are multiple points of view.
You learn Columbus discovered America, then you learn that there are alternative narratives — the Native Americans already lived here. This is kind of when critical thinking starts.
At the third level, we have opinions. All of us have used the phrase “they say.” That will get you into trouble because it shows little respect for science or evidence.
At Level 4, we talk about evidence, mastery, the intricacies of doubt.
E.O. Wilson, one of my heroes, the biologist, says we’re drowning in information and starved for wisdom. When we’re getting to be more at Level 4, we’ll see the gaps and the holes in a line of reasoning. Critical thinking is what leads to the next breakthroughs in any area.
In addition to breaking down the six C’s and four levels within each of them, you also cover the opportunities for parents, teachers and grandparents to cultivate those skills. Talk about that.
Golinkoff: So, if you’re going to have a kid who engages in critical thinking, you’re not going to shut them down when they ask a question. You’re not going to settle for “because.” You’re going to encourage them to ask more. And you want them to understand how other people think.
If you see a homeless person in the street: What do you think that person is thinking? How do you think they feel about not having a home?
Get someone else’s point of view activated to help them recognize that things are not always what they appear. That’s going to help them understand critical thinking.
OK, so that helps me understand how these skills are all interrelated. Perspective-taking, which I think of as a component of empathy, you’re saying is also foundational for critical thinking.
Hirsh-Pasek: Yes, theory of mind is important to be able to do critical thinking.
A big part of what you’re doing with this book is to try to get parents to supplement what’s going on in school. Talk a little more about that.
Hirsh-Pasek: One of the biggest concepts is breadth. Learning isn’t just K-12. It starts prenatally. If you get a bead on what your children are and aren’t being exposed to at school, that will suggest the kinds of experiences you want your children to have outside of school.
And you want people to look at where they themselves fall in the four levels within the 6 C’s, right? It’s not just for kids.
Hirsh-Pasek: Yes. I can say as a mom, well, let’s think about it — who am I as a collaborator? Am I an on-my-own kind of girl [Level 1] or a side-by-side [Level 2]?
When I was rushing my kids to get dressed and out the door, I was an on my own. I wish I weren’t!
It’s not a big deal to let my kid try to pick out his wardrobe. Who cares if it’s stripes and plaids? Let’s see that back-and-forth collaboration is built into our routines.
And then, how much communication is built in? Did we tell a joint story or did I just read the book and get it over with? It’s a really good idea to evaluate ourselves according to the grid. We can ask where we want to grow as parents.
Then we can ask, with the same grid: What do I want for my child? Where is my child now, and how can I build an environment in my house that will enable the child to grow up with these different skills?
Wow. OK. So this is really reinforcing the idea of learning as a social, relationship-oriented process. It’s not just a grid for sorting and measuring our kids; it’s about how we are relating to our kids.
Golinkoff: The other thing I think is crucial to notice is that we’re talking about doing things in the moment with your child. Notice we’re talking about buying nothing, signing up for no classes, and no tablets. Not that we’re Luddites, but we’re talking about how the crucible of social interaction between child and parent really helps set up the child for the development of these skills.