Empathy in Computer Science Education

Empathy has become a larger part of the teaching and learning experience at our schools. It’s even got the focus of by Harvard Graduate School of Education and MIT Press. As students learn to see things from the perspectives of their peers, teachers, and people around the world – their gain a strong understanding of the world around them as well as how to treat others.

In the coding classes I’ve taught, I often catch students humanizing the computer they’re using and saying things like “it doesn’t understand” ,  “I don’t know why it’s mad at me” , and “it doesn’t like my code!”. We encourage this behavior as it helps students to use empathy to gain a better understanding of why their code might not be working. By saying the computer doesn’t understand, they’re on the right path to diagnosing their problem. Their next question should be what doesn’t it understand followed by how can I change that to make sense to my computer?

While computers might not be people, we can still practice empathy in working with them. If a document isn’t opening – it could be our fault for trying to open it with the wrong program. If our code isn’t running, it’s not because our computer is stupid but because we just might’ve misspelled something. Some of our students will go as far scanning the code they’ve written letter by letter to see where they might have slipped up in order to better understand how the computer might process their code.

Luckily, students get error responses when they make mistakes. This provides a hint or a lead to figure out how to go about resolving the issue to get our program up and running. When students start out, they’ll often skip the error response all together and jump straight to raising their hand and shouting “it’s not working!”. But, as they get a couple projects under their belt, the error response becomes their best friend and often, they’ll push me away before I get a chance to help at all.

It’s exciting to see students mature in their learning and figure out new ways to approach problems through learning to code. Not only do they get to practice empathy when they programming their projects, they also get to practice when teaching other students. It’s exciting to see two students troubleshooting code together and have one stand up and shout “Wait! I’ve seen this before, I think I know what to do.” – they can use their past experiences to help their peers work through a problem that they might be encountering for the first time. They know exactly why their friend might be confused and can explain how they mastered the concept or idea. These kinds of discussions and peer support lead to deeper learning and are a major reason that we believe programming should be done in collaborative environments where students can work together and help each other.

A game designed and programmed by a student at SVMS

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