About Michelle Friend

Michelle Friend is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. A former middle school computer science teacher, her research focuses on equity in computer science and on integrating computing across the curriculum. Michelle was a founding member of the CSTA board.

What is easy?

I have been thinking about the phrase “it’s easy,” and how hurtful that phrase can be. Just because something is easy for one person doesn’t mean it is easy for everyone. And conversely, just because something seems like it will be hard doesn’t mean it will be hard.

Maybe you think someone doesn’t have a lot on their plate compared to you. But maybe their plate is smaller than yours and doesn’t have a lot of room to begin with. Or maybe their plate is paper, and their flimsy paper plate can’t hold as much as your sturdy ceramic plate can.

Secret Kindness Agents

Sometimes “it’s easy” is deployed in a very personal way – something I think is easy but someone else might not find easy. For example, I think functions are fairly straightforward – easy, even – but for many students they are one of the most challenging parts of programming. Even when I am frustrated as a teacher, telling my students that it is easy doesn’t help them understand, it only makes them feel worse about how challenging they find it.

When I taught middle school, a teacher down the hall had a big sign in her class that said, “YET.” Her philosophy was that when students did not succeed, it was because they had not yet mastered the material. What a forgiving and empowering view of learning: it isn’t that students are deficient, it’s that they aren’t strong yet. Yet is a very growth mindset point of view.

On the flip side, “it’s difficult” can be just as arbitrary. One teacher I know believes that nothing is truly difficult (even functions!), that if students are struggling, it means we aren’t teaching it very well.

One example of something that seems hard is recursion. We have a shared belief that recursion is hard. It means that students come to believe that recursion is hard. Yet at its most basic, the idea that a function can call itself isn’t that hard. And especially for problems that are recursive in nature – the Fibonacci sequence for example – the recursive solution is obvious, and is what students will natively come up with if asked to figure it out.

Thinking things are hard or easy can be a barrier for students – scaring them or preventing them from accessing things we perceive to be too hard, or making them feel bad for not grasping things that are “easy.” Hopefully we can all achieve the goal of making learning accessible – not too hard and not too easy.

Michelle Friend
At-Large Representative

Still Failing at Fairness

Equity – or the lack thereof – is a challenging thing to talk about. For people who recognize it’s a problem, it isn’t necessary to reiterate, because they’re already aware of the problem. People who don’t think it’s a problem tend to zone out – “this again?” – or be unconvinced.

Issues around gender inequity in schools first came to public attention in the mid 1990’s, when Myra and David Sadker published Failing at Fairness, which showed that girls were being subtly discriminated against in schools, even by well-intentioned teachers. Initially there was a lot of fanfare, and I remember teachers really thinking about trying to have more equitable classrooms. One of the major points of notice was inequitable participation in class discussions – the Sadkers really demonstrated that boys got called on more and got more teacher interaction than girls did. This is still happening, even after decades of teachers trying to be more equitable.

One interesting finding has to do with the perception of who talks more. A friend of mine kept track of who talked, during a discussion between her high school students. At the end of the discussion, she asked students who had talked the most, and everyone (boys and girls) agreed that it had been one girl. It turns out that nope, several boys had participated more, but no one perceived them as speaking as much as they had. This is backed up by research – people overestimate how much women speak and underestimate how much men speak in public.

A recent study looked at the interaction of gender and race in student participation in middle school classes. The headline “How White Boys Become Geniuses” is a hint to the findings. It stuck out to me because the findings are so similar to our perceptions of computer scientists. Sure, we all agree that girls can do it, but all our cultural references of geniuses are men, usually white men. From the article: “This research has broader relevance for explaining men’s dominance in fields that place a premium on what is perceived as “raw intelligence.” And it provides insight into how they gain entrance into the C-Suite. As one teacher said, “Jacob’s a full-package kid. He’s super nice, he’s brilliant and he’s a well-rounded kid. He likes sports and all this stuff . . . He’s going to be the next Elon Musk or something,” implying that Jacob, a white boy, is destined to become a CEO.”

It seems to me that it is even more crucial to overcome this tendency in computer science than it is in disciplines with less of an ingrained stereotype about who is a genius. The question is how? Twenty years of little progress suggests it is hard, but one way is to start by counting – count who you call on, count who calls out and how you handle it, count the number of complements you give students. In Better, Atul Gawande suggests that a fast and easy way towards improvement is just to start counting things you think need improvement, and go from there. What can you count?

Michelle Friend
At-Large Representative