TITLE: Let's Kill and Dick and Jane AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 08, 2007 3:40 PM DESC: ----- BODY: No, I've not become homicidal. That is the title of a recent book about the Open Court Publishing Company, which according to its subtitle "fought the culture of American education" by trying to change how our schools teach reading and mathematics. Blouke Carus, the creator of Open Court's reading program, sought to achieve an enviable goal -- engagement with and success in the world of great ideas for all students -- in a way that was beholden to neither the traditionalist "back to basics" agenda nor the progressivist "child-centered" agenda. Since then, the reading series has been sold to McGraw-Hill. Thanks to the creator of the TeachScheme! project, Matthias Felleisen, I can add this book to my list of millions. He calls Let's Kill and Dick and Jane "TeachScheme! writ large". Certainly there are differences between the K-8 education culture and the university computer science culture, but they share enough commonalities to make reform efforts similarly difficult to execute. As I have noted before, universities and their faculty are a remarkably conservative lot. TeachScheme! is a principled, comprehensive redefinition of introductory programming education. In arguing for his formulation, Felleisen goes so far as to explain why Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs -- touted by many, including me, as the best CS book ever written -- is not suitable for CS 1. (As much as I like SICP, Matthias is right.) But TeachScheme! has not succeeded in the grand way its implementors might have hoped, for many of the reasons that Open Court's efforts have come up short of its founders' goals. Some of the reasons are cultural, some are historical, and some are probably strategic. The story of Open Court is of immediate interest to me for our state's interest in changing K-12 math and science education in a fundamental way, a reform effort that my university has a leading role in, and which my department and I have a direct interest in. We believe in the need for more and better computer scientists and software developers, but university CS enrollments remain sluggish. Students who are turned off to science, math, and intellectual ideas in grade school aren't likely to select CS as a major in college... Besides, like Carus, I have a great interest in raising the level of science and math understanding across the whole population. This book taught me a lot about what I had understood only incompletely as an observer of our education system. And I appreciated that it avoided the typical -- and wrong -- conservative/liberal dichotomy between the traditional and progressive approaches. America's education culture is a beast all its own, essentially anti-intellectual and exhibiting an inertia borne out of expectations, habit, and a lack of will and time to change. Changing the system will take a much more sophisticated and patient approach than most people usually contemplate. Though I have never developed a complete curriculum for CS 1 as Felleisen has, I have long aspired to teaching intro CS in more holistic way, integrating the learning of essential tools with higher-level design skills, built on the concept of a pattern language. So Open Court's goals, methods, and results all intrigue me. Here are some of the ideas that caught my attention as I read the story of Open Court: Let's Kill Dick and Jane is a slim volume, a mere 155 pages, and easy to read. It's not perfect, neither in its writing nor in its analysis, but it tells an important story well. I recommend it to anyone with aspirations of changing how we teach computer science to students in the university or high school. I also recommend it to anyone who is at all interested in the quality of our educational system. In a democracy such as the U.S., that should be everyone. -----