Computing for all: Designing a culturally relevant curriculum

By Hayley Leonard, Diana Kirby and Sue Sentance. Posted

The three main focus areas of the guidelines are like a tree

Originally published in Hello World Issue 17: Health and well-being, October 2021. All information true at the time of original publishing.

Researchers at the Raspberry Pi Foundation present guidelines they have developed to support computing teachers in delivering a culturally relevant curriculum

Computing is often seen as a neutral subject in which there are clear rules and programs to follow, with the person behind the code having little influence. However, the person’s cultural identity, which is made up of a number of factors such as their age, gender, where they live, their family income, and their religious beliefs, all affect the way they think about and understand the world. This has an impact on decisions they make during the design and development of computing systems. Having limited diversity among computer scientists can lead to bias when making these decisions, towards what is valued or understood by the dominant groups in society.

Term Definition
Culture A person’s knowledge, beliefs, and understanding of the world. It is affected by multiple personal characteristics, as well as social and economic factors.
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Culturally relevant pedagogy A framework for teaching that emphasises the importance of incorporating and valuing all learners’ knowledge, ways of learning and heritage, and promotes critical consciousness in teachers and learners.
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Culturally responsive teaching A range of teaching practices that draw on learners’ personal experiences and cultural identities to make learning more relevant to them, and support the development of critical consciousness.

Making computing culturally relevant means that learners with a range of cultural identities will be able to identify with the examples chosen to illustrate different concepts, engage effectively with the teaching methods used, and feel empowered to use computing to address problems that are meaningful to them and their communities. This may help a more diverse group of learners feel that they belong in computing and choose to continue with it academically and professionally.

In the USA, different frameworks have already been developed to demonstrate how education can be made more equitable and relevant for diverse learners. The first, Ladson-Billings’ culturally relevant pedagogy, emphasises the importance of incorporating and valuing all learners’ knowledge, ways of learning, and heritage. The second, Gay’s culturally responsive teaching, builds on the previous framework to identify a range of teaching practices that can be implemented in the classroom, including drawing on learners’ personal experiences and cultural identities, and encouraging them to choose projects that are meaningful to them. 

At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we have drawn on these frameworks to develop a set of guidelines for UK-based computing teachers, to support the integration of more culturally relevant and responsive approaches into their practice. This article discusses how these guidelines were created, how they can be used, and how teachers can develop their knowledge further.

Developing the guidelines

In 2021, we were awarded an ACM SIGCSE Special Project Grant for a project called ‘Developing criteria for K-12 learning resources in computer science that challenge stereotypes and promote diversity’. Our overarching aim for this project, as with all our work at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, was to broaden participation in computing and address the needs of diverse learners.

We started by recruiting a working group of teachers and researchers to work with us to develop the guidelines. We invited four advisors to take part, one from the USA, two from the UK, and one from Canada (see ‘Our advisors’ box) and we put out an open call for UK teachers to apply to join the working group. After assessing all the applications, we selected seven teachers to join the group.

The group then worked together over the course of three months to develop the guidelines. The work involved two meetings and an ongoing process of discussion and collaboration as we gradually iterated the guidelines from an initial set of draft criteria into the final product.

Sharing ideas about the content of teaching materials during one workshop

At the first meeting, we ran a series of whiteboard activities and both small-group and whole-group discussions. It quickly became clear that the focus of our initial draft criteria was too narrowly focused on learning materials, with the teachers in the group in particular identifying the need for a broader perspective on curriculum and pedagogy.

The guidelines were therefore split into three main focus areas, which we likened to the structure of a tree: the curriculum forms the roots of the approach, and the branches represent a number of different teaching approaches you can take to deliver the curriculum. The leaves represent the learning materials you use in your computing lessons. Beginning with the curriculum and working your way up will give you the strongest basis from which to implement culturally relevant pedagogy in your classroom.

There are key elements within each of these three focus areas. Within the curriculum, it is important to think about the contexts in which computing concepts are taught, and how connections are made with issues that are meaningful to your learners. Advisor Lynda Chinaka sums this up thus: “Children need to be presented with curricula topics that stimulate their interest, reflect their life experiences and their heritage. Presenting them with role models of different ethnicities and backgrounds who have advanced work in computing, such as Joy Buolamwini, who is a computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, is equally important if children are to be given the message that this field is potentially open to them.”

Equitable teaching approaches such as open-ended, inquiry-led activities and discussion-based collaborative tasks are key to providing opportunities for all learners to express their ideas and their identities through computing. Finally, inclusive representations of a range of cultures, and the accessibility of the learning materials, are of great importance to ensure that all learners feel that computing is relevant to them.

Teachers’ perspectives

Joe Arday and Alain Ndabala were two of the teachers who ran activities with some of their learners aged 13–14 and 16–18. They both originally worked in the tech sector and have been teaching computing for ten years. We asked them about their experience of being part of the project and how they plan to use the guidelines in their own practice.

Joe Arday

Joe:

“I have been able to reflect on how to further improve my teaching practice and pedagogy to ensure that the curriculum taught is culturally diverse and caters for all learners that I teach. I plan to review the computing curriculum taught in my computing department and sit down with my colleagues to work on how we can implement the guidelines in our units of work for Key Stages 3 to 5. I am also planning to deliver CPD sessions to colleagues inside and outside my school. The guidelines will also help my department to work towards one of my school’s aims to encourage an [anti-racism] community and curriculum in my school.”

Alain Ndabala

Alain:

“Our classrooms are a microcosm of the local population; it is therefore important for teachers to learn about culturally relevant pedagogy because it enables them to adopt a responsive pedagogy that expands the knowledge of young people that single-perspective computing lessons have not been able to. I have developed an awareness of the academic value of a culturally relevant computing curriculum and learned that computer science education needs to be inclusive, using imagery and metaphors from different cultures. I will use the guidelines to review and enrich our computer science curriculum and include role models from different cultures and topics relevant to young people in Britain today.”

Learners’ perspectives

As part of the project, we asked the teachers in the working group to consult with their learners to understand their perspectives on computing and look at how schools can engage more diverse groups of students in computing qualifications. The responses to the questions below came from Joe and Alain’s students. 

Q. How did learners feel about computing?

While many of the learners thought that computing was relevant for everyone because of its importance to society and a range of different jobs, several commented that they weren’t interested in it or that it would not be relevant to their future careers. The main reasons that learners reported they were put off computing were due to “complex” or “boring” lessons of coding, with a focus on theory rather than practical outcomes. Many reported being inspired by tasks such as producing their own games.

This feedback fits really well with the guidelines we have developed, especially thinking about using a range of teaching methods and highlighting connections between computing and the real world. Allowing learners some choice in projects gives them ownership of their work and gives them a purpose for coding, which they may otherwise see as meaningless or too complex or boring.

Q. What do learners think teachers and schools should do to engage more diverse groups in computing?

Learners had some really great ideas for ways to attract more diverse students to computing. As well as making tasks fun, and engaging learners from a young age, some learners identified the importance of making links with a range of different individual interests, and ensuring everyone knows the benefits, impacts, and job options for computing. One student shared, “I think the exam board and schools need to take into consideration more of the students’ reasons for why they would enjoy computing and technology in general. Making the curriculum more personal to students might encourage some interest in the subject.” 

Another key point that learners highlighted was the importance of organising activities with role models in computing, to inspire people from different groups: “I think we should hold workshops that will bring in people from those industries that are from the communities that are lacking in those industries. This will be mainly for people from different ethnic backgrounds to talk about the lack of diversity in certain industries/courses in school.”

This feedback again sits well with the guidelines we have developed, identifying a need for inclusive representations, and for a range of different contexts and connections to be employed when delivering the computing curriculum.

What’s next?

You can download our guidelines on culturally relevant pedagogy for computing teachers now and begin to explore the resources provided in them (helloworld.cc/crpguidelines). They include links to different curricula, and we have highlighted units and lessons in the Teach Computing Curriculum that promote key aspects of the approach. There are also links to academic papers and books, as well as videos and courses that can be used for professional development.

While this is the end of the current project, we’re excited about developing it further and plan to work with more computing teachers and their learners to incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy into computing lessons. Watch this space to hear about future projects and opportunities to get involved!

We would like to thank our working group of teachers and academics, as well as the learners who contributed their time and ideas to this project: Joseph Arday, Lynda Chinaka, Mike Deutsch, Yota Dimitriadi, Amir Fakhoury, Dr Samuel George, Joanna Goode, Alain Ndabala, Vanessa Olsen-Dry, Rohini Shah, and Neelu Vasishth. 


Our advisors

Lynda Chinaka is a senior lecturer in computing in education at the University of Roehampton, UK. A key goal of hers is to ensure that there is equity and creativity in the computing taught in schools.

Joanna Goode is the Sommerville Knight Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, USA. Her research focuses on equity, inclusion, and anti-racism in computer science education.

Mike Deutsch is director of learning services at the Canadian education charity Kids Code Jeunesse, and a master’s student at McGill University. His work focuses on pedagogy in computing education.

Yota Dimitriadi is an associate professor of technology-enhanced learning and computing education at the University of Reading, UK. She has been awarded the National Teaching Fellowship Award by Advance HE in recognition of her work in inclusion and diversity.


Authors

Hayley Leonard, Diana Kirby and Sue Sentance

The authors are all affiliated with the Raspberry Pi Computing Education Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Hayley is a research scientist focusing on diversity and inclusion in computing. Diana is the research team programme coordinator. Sue is the director of the research centre and chief learning officer at the Raspberry Pi Foundation. 


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