A quick response to Michael Pershan’s response to Henri Picciotto

Michael Pershan and Henri Picciotto have been having an interesting exchange on Twitter about teaching computer programming to kids.

Here’s one bit from Henri:

and one from Michael:

But, don’t just restrict yourself to these two pieces. Even with the obvious limitations of Twitter, the entire discussion between them is really interesting.

One passage in particular in the Michael Pershan’s piece linked above caught my eye:

If we mandate schools to democratize access to privileged knowledge, we will finally eliminate schooling inequities, right? It feels silly to even point this out, but that is obviously impossible. There is an unending race between privilege and access in our schools. If you require school to teach every kid coding, privileged kids will create a Super Coding elective and slap that on their transcripts. You can’t stop privileged kids from having access to privileged knowledge. (They decide what counts as privileged knowledge.)

The example I’d like to counter with comes from Quanta magazine’s profile of Maryam Mirzakhani:

Marayma Mirzakhani: A tenacious explorer of abstract surfaces

Eager to discover what they were capable of in similar competitions, Mirzakhani and Beheshti went to the principal of their school and demanded that she arrange for math problem-solving classes like the ones being taught at the comparable high school for boys. “The principal of the school was a very strong character,” Mirzakhani recalled. “If we really wanted something, she would make it happen.” The principal was undeterred by the fact that Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team had never fielded a girl, Mirzakhani said. “Her mindset was very positive and upbeat — that ‘you can do it, even though you’ll be the first one,’ ” Mirzakhani said. “I think that has influenced my life quite a lot.”

I guess what my too-long-for-a-tweet thought was something like this – you just never know how kids are going to react to a class (or anything, I suppose). But, if the door isn’t open, they can’t walk through it.

One thought on “A quick response to Michael Pershan’s response to Henri Picciotto

  1. It’s a bit flattering that you’ve taken up this argument and responded. Despite my loud mouth, I see myself as sort of clueless, and it’s pretty lovely that someone as devoted to math as yourself wants to offer a response at all.

    If I’m understanding you correctly, the argument seems to be that we just don’t know what amazing stuff will come out of teaching more people to code.

    And, of course, that’s true. I could quibble, and the quibble I’d start with is that if we don’t know what surprises kids will come up with when we teach them anything, then why teach them programming as opposed to math olympiad or physics or political theory or music or manipulating rational expressions?

    But, more to the point, I’m struggling to see how this responds to anything I said in my piece. I argued that you can’t reduce inequality by democratizing access to privileged knowledge or careers, because the act of democraticizing necessarily reduces the privilege and prestige of the career.

    And you’re saying, well, you never know what amazing stuff will happen when you give people access to something they’ve never had before.

    Maybe we’re talking past each other because you’re talking about the opportunities afforded to individuals, and I’m talking about the inequalities facing groups. On an individual level, sure, I agree that you never know what kids will do with their school experiences. On the aggregate, though, I think we can be pretty sure you can’t democratize access to privileged knowledge without severely straining the meaning of those words.

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