ECS Teacher Practices Research

ECS Teacher Practices Research Findings - in Brief


What Does Exploring Computer Science (ECS) Teaching Pedagogy Look Like in the Classroom?

For the past several years we have conducted intensive mixed-methods research to understand which teaching practices exist in ECS classrooms. We are looking for practices that prior educational research has identified as being equitable and effective for rigorous and active learning for all students (Darling-Hammond, 2008; National Research Council, 2000). In 2011-12, we conducted 219 weekly observations in nine Los Angeles Unified School District ECS classrooms. Through this ethnographic field research, along with several years of pre- and post-student surveys, teacher surveys, and student/teacher interviews as data sources, we have identified three strands of computer science pedagogy critical for supporting broadening participation in computing. The three strands are:

  • Computer Science Content
  • Inquiry Practices
  • Equity Practices

It is important to note that these strands are interwoven and inseparable, and that no strand can exist alone. The actual classroom integration of these disciplinary practices relies on the pedagogical braiding of content, inquiry, and equity-based teaching practices.

This online report offers a brief summary of key findings from our research. A fuller description of these findings—including observation vignettes, survey, and interview quotes—will appear in future publications that are currently in progress. When these articles are finalized for publication, they will appear on our Research & Publications page.


Click on the questions to read the findings.

What computer science content is being taught in ECS classrooms?

  • While more traditional computer science curricula commonly focus on programming and the computer as a tool, ECS classrooms focus on the underlying problem solving and critical thinking necessary to explore computer science.
  • Teachers who closely followed the ECS curriculum scaffold learning of standard computer science topics through a spiraling format in which the first two units introduce topics, the following two units reinforce topics, and the final units allow students to apply concepts.
  • Specific “Computational Practices” taught in ECS classrooms include:
    • Analyzing the effects of developments in computing
    • Designing and implementing creative solutions and artifacts
    • Applying abstractions and models
    • Analyzing students’ own computational work and the work of others
    • Communicating computational thought processes, procedures, and results to others
    • Collaborating with peers on computing activities

What does inquiry-based teaching look like in ECS classrooms?

  • Teachers focus on the problem-solving process instead of only emphasizing the “right” answer, recognizing that there can be multiple solutions to a problem.
  • Teachers support inquiry-based learning with starting questions and prompts that facilitate cognitively demanding thinking and exploration.
  • Teachers engage students with hands-on activities allowing students to apply and test what they know and are exploring.
  • Teachers support exploration, autonomy, risk-taking, and creativity by resisting “giving” students immediate solutions and encouraging students to make projects uniquely their own.
  • Teachers encourage collaboration through peer-to-peer learning, small group work, and in-depth whole class discussions.
  • Teachers connect computer science concepts to students’ prior knowledge and concerns.
  • Teachers employ journal writing as a tool for metacognitive reflection.
  • Teachers use guided inquiry: carefully designing, facilitating, and assessing learning opportunities so that students engage in active learning.

What does equity-based teaching look like in ECS classrooms?

  • Teachers use culturally-responsive teaching that makes computer science learning relevant to students’ personal experiences and out-of-school knowledge.
  • Teachers incorporate students’ cultures and out-of-school knowledge as assets instead of deficits.
  • Teachers connect classroom learning to the social and political contexts/issues relevant to students and their communities.
  • Teachers develop caring and respectful relationships.
  • Teachers maintain high expectations for all students that counter stereotypes about who should excel in computer science.
  • Teachers create opportunities for students to broaden participation in computing outside of the classroom through internships, access to extra coursework at local community colleges, and summer programs.

What were the most common teacher practices observed in ECS classrooms?

In order to examine how teachers addressed computer science concepts, inquiry, and equity, we began by looking closely at ten teaching practice codes that emerged while analyzing classroom observations and that were also aligned with those practices cited in the curriculum. These included:

  • Connects computer science learning to equity and everyday issues;
  • Encourages collaboration;
  • Uses guided inquiry one-on-one or in small groups;
  • Encourages exploration;
  • Scaffolds learning by making explicit connections between lessons or units;
  • Facilitates guided inquiry during the development of student-driven final projects;
  • Models/Demonstrates specific computing skills or processes;
  • Uses journal writing for metacognitive reflection;
  • Introduces/Explains computer science vocabulary.

The graph below shows the three most common practice codes that emerged in classroom observations.

3 Most Common ECS Teacher Practices

  • The most commonly observed teacher practice was connecting computer science learning to equity issues and everyday life. Six of the nine teachers’ most common teacher practice was making computer science accessible by connecting ECS learning to students’ personal interests, experiences, perspectives, and everyday lives. Also, as part of this teaching strategy, several teachers explicitly discussed equity issues emerging in the classroom and in the field of computer science.
  • The second most common teacher practice that emerged as significant across all nine classrooms was encouraging collaboration. Teachers actively facilitated the ways that students engaged with one another in collaborative activities (e.g., establishing group work norms, eliciting student responses and conversation during whole class discussions, encouraging peer to peer learning, intervening when students are not working together, assigning roles, etc.).
  • The third most common teacher practice was guided inquiry in which teachers engaged closely with one or more students, coaching them and facilitating their problem-solving and learning processes without taking over their project or computers, thereby encouraging student autonomy in learning while supporting the problem-solving process.

What were the least common teacher practices observed in ECS classrooms?

Least Common ECS Teacher Practices

  • The least common teacher practice observed was differentiating instruction for English Language Learners and students with disabilities (e.g., providing translations for English Language Learners, offering visually-impaired students visual supports, etc.). While a couple of teachers excelled at this practice, differentiating instruction was not frequently observed across all classrooms.
  • Similarly uncommon was making explicit connections between ECS lessons and units.
  • Across all nine classrooms discussing journal assignments and facilitating student sharing of journal reflections was less common than other teacher practices.

In what critical ways did teachers’ practices vary across classrooms?

  • Facilitation of higher order thinking.
    Teachers varied in their facilitation of students’ higher order thinking. We coded teachers’ questions following a framework of increasing cognitive complexity using Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives (Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956; Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). The types of questions teachers asked in large-group discussions and one-on-one ranged from “remembering” (yes/no-recall) questions to “evaluating” (more analytical and cognitively challenging) questions.

    • Teachers asked more questions that involved: 1) “understanding”—checking whether or not student(s) understood a specific idea or directive, and 2) “analyzing”—requiring student(s) to distinguish between categories, compare/contrast, break material or concepts into parts, and determine how the parts related to one another and the overall structure/purpose.
    • Teachers asked fewer questions that involved: 1) “applying”—eliciting the application of a new idea to a new situation, and 2) “evaluating”—requiring that students not only apply new ideas to a new situation, but also analyze the situation and make a judgment supporting that analysis.

    Frequency of Types of Teacher Questions

  • Curriculum adaptations.
    Teachers ranged in their use of the ECS curriculum, making “No Impact” adaptations, “Productive” adaptations, and “Fatal” adaptations to lessons. These categories are drawn from Seago’s (2007) characterization of adaptations to professional development materials as described below:

    • “No Impact” adaptations refer to changes made to curricular lessons that did not impact the basic design or values of the curriculum, nor made the best use of them.
    • “Productive” adaptations refer to alterations teachers made for their specific classroom contexts that maintained the design and underlying values of the curriculum while enhancing student learning.
    • “Fatal” adaptations refer to changes made to lessons or unit order that undermined critical components of the curriculum, working against the inquiry, equity, and CS learning objectives of ECS.
  • Use of journals.
    While all classrooms used journals for reflective writing practices, there was variation in the degree to which teachers used journals as foundations for more cognitively demanding discussions.

What did ECS teachers report to be supportive of their inquiry- and equity-based teaching practices?

  • ECS professional teacher learning community developed through face-to-face professional developments and external meetings.
  • Several years of professional development and support.
  • In-classroom coaching, mentoring, and breaking of isolation.
  • Teacher willingness to reflect about their own pedagogy.

Discussion Points & Implications

  • The Important Role of Curriculum.
    In addition to offering learning objectives and lesson plans, the ECS curriculum provides a specific sequencing of activities that help develop and support cultural norms of collaboration, culturally relevant learning, inquiry-based exploration of computer science, and inclusiveness. This groundwork gets set early on during Units 1-2 and is an important foundation upon which teachers can develop their pedagogy and classroom learning norms. Therefore issues of curriculum adaptations (whether “No Impact,” “Productive,” or “Fatal”) are important to address and resolve.
  • The Critical Role of Pedagogy.
    Variation in teacher practice (related to inquiry, equity, and CS content) did not always coincide with depth of teachers’ prior experiences in computer science, computer science content knowledge, teacher certification subject, years teaching ECS, or years teaching in general. Effective inquiry- and equity-based teaching require an understanding of pedagogy, willingness to reflect on teaching practice, and dedication to professional growth.
  • Teacher Growth is a Multi-year Process.
    Teachers want and need sustained support from program professional development leaders, coaches, and their colleagues in order to grow in both pedagogy and content knowledge in ECS. Changing one’s pedagogical approach from more traditional lecture-based methods to one focused on inquiry and equity takes time. A single year or even two of professional development may not be enough to fully support many teachers in their craft or in the creation of their teacher learning communities.
  • Innovation and Sustainability.
    As the flagship partnership that developed the ECS curriculum and professional development model, the Los Angeles story offers an important lesson about innovation, program growth, and implementation. Each year, the curriculum and professional development model benefited from the previous year’s experiences. There was an iterative relationship between development and implementation with communication that was often challenging and not easy between curriculum writers, professional development facilitators, researchers, teachers, and students that took place over time. The continuous refinement of the curriculum and PD model which helps strengthen the LA program and national expansion would not have been possible without multiyear funding from the National Science Foundation, time to work out complex issues, and a dedication to collaboration between university and public school district communities.
  • Broadening Participation in Computer Science.
    Broadening participation in computing must go beyond access and numbers alone. Our research brings up important questions for the CS education community: How do teachers create an inclusive learning environment and what factors engage a diverse body of students with computer science, a subject that has historically attracted only a narrow stratum of students leaving the majority feeling that they don’t belong? What is the role and impact of curriculum, inquiry-, and equity-based teaching practices on broadening participation in computing?



Anderson, L.W. & Krathwohl, D.R. (Eds.). 2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, Pearson Education Group

Bloom, B.S. & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. NY: Longmans, Green.

Darling-Hammond, L . (2008). Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Holme, J., & Nao, K. (2008). Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC.: National Academies Press.

Seago, N. (2007). Fidelity and adaptation of professional development materials: Can they co-exist? NCSM Journal, 9(2), 16-25.


Ryoo, J.J., Margolis, J., Goode, J., Lee, C., Moreno Sandoval, C.D. (2014). ECS Teacher Practices Research Findings—In Brief. Los Angeles, CA: Exploring Computer Science Project, University of California, Los Angeles Center X with University of Oregon, Eugene. Retrieved [DATE], from


We are grateful for the important contributions of Gail Chapman, David Bernier, and Kevin Binning to this research project. We also want to thank John Landa, Solomon Russell, and Suzanne Schaefer for their work with the ECS coaching program. Finally, we want to express great gratitude for all of the ECS teachers and students for their tireless effort, openness to change, hunger to learn, and dedication to broadening participation in computing.

March 4, 2014