Support student engagement, agency, and identity
A conversation with Jean Ryoo (June 4, 2021)
By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman (Decade Ahead Project)
“We come to this work with a lens that is broader than computer science,” says Jean Ryoo, as she tells us enthusiastically about her group’s research on student learning. “Engagement doesn’t happen in any learning unless there’s a connection to student identity and the things youth care about,” Jean continues. The deepest engagement comes when “connections are made, whether that’s literacy studies or mathematics education or science.” Explaining further how youth care about the world around them, she tells us that “we see greatest retention of skills and content knowledge when there’s a recognition that they can use this knowledge beyond the classroom.” Connecting learning to student identity and empowerment is not just a way to get students to pay attention in class, it is fundamentally “the grounding for whether or not the education sticks.”
Jean Ryoo is an educational researcher based at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), focussed on issues of equity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and Computer Science (CS). She previously pursued visual and environmental studies, taught English in La Réunion, the French Island east of Madagascar, and earned a master’s degree and teaching credential in Hawaii before completing her doctorate in education at UCLA. Her current research aims to understand what students are learning in introductory CS high school courses — from youth perspectives — and explore how their experiences with computing impact their engagement, agency, and identity. Believing that teaching is an act of social change, Jean uses research-practice partnerships to elevate the voices of historically underrepresented students, including Latinx students in Los Angeles and African-American students in Mississippi in current projects..
Expanding on her pandemic year, Jean relates her experience with a conference that was scheduled to open on March 13th 2020. “I was meeting with a group of students who were going to speak on a panel at the SIGCSE conference,” she says, referring to the leading academic conference on computer science education. “We decided on the 12th that we didn’t feel safe bringing the kids on the planes where they might bring Covid back to their families, so we decided to make a video” she recalls, speaking in a light-hearted way about the painful realities that followed. Now aware of the year that lay ahead, she says, “That event signified what the rest of the year became: using technology to communicate and doing things on the fly.”
Far beyond simply moving school online, “this past year has highlighted and amplified the inequalities that exist. More people are paying attention and ready to mobilize,“ Jean continues, underscoring the point: “When we think about education and the lack of access that … youth of color or low income communities or young women have had to education, it’s because of institutional racism and sexism and able-ism and class oppression.” Because of the effects of the pandemic, Dr. Ryoo says that more teachers are now thinking about what it means to be culturally responsive, a term popularized by Gloria-Ladson Billings, president of the National Academy of Education. As Jean explains this to us, cultural relevance involves “providing students with the tools to make change in their communities from their unique perspectives,” which connects back to the importance of identity and empowerment in learning. To do this effectively, she says, you “need to really know the youth and their communities.”
We ask why her work on educational equity centers on computer science. “What makes computer science specifically unique is the fact that CS is a form of power in today’s world,” Jean answers. “We use technology for everything in our everyday lives.” When access to courses, stereotypes about what type of students can excel in CS, classroom pedagogy, and larger educational policies leave some students behind, they have less power over their lives, she explains. “If you don’t understand how computing works and how technology is impacting our social lives, the ethical issues of computing, the social responsibility of computer scientists and the roles that they play in shaping our world, whether that’s our elections, or what we buy at the supermarket; If you don’t understand those things, then your life is not under your own control.” Put another way, students become interested in CS because they recognize the ways that technology shapes their lives. As they learn to create and use technology, they find this empowering, which is rewarding and it helps make the learning stick.
Looking toward the future, Jean is optimistic about the power and influence of young people. In giving students the tools they need to create change in their communities, she says, “We need to support youth; we can’t just step out of the way entirely” As we grapple with social inequity highlighted by the pandemic, Jean hopes that in the coming year, “teachers will receive support … to be able to talk about issues of race and equity openly in the classroom and not feel afraid of …creat[ing] space for debate.” Quoting Gloria Ladson-Billings, Jean emphatically reminds us that teachers can help deserving students most if they “understand that we’re operating in a fundamentally inequitable system….that the teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions to change the inequity.”