What does equity-focused teaching mean in computer science education?

Today, I discuss the second research seminar in our series of six free online research seminars focused on diversity and inclusion in computing education, where we host researchers from the UK and USA together with the Royal Academy of Engineering. By diversity, we mean any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another. This might be, for example, age, gender, socio-economic status, disability, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or sexuality. The aim of inclusion is to embrace all people irrespective of difference. 

In this seminar, we were delighted to hear from Prof Tia Madkins (University of Texas at Austin), Dr Nicol R. Howard (University of Redlands), and Shomari Jones (Bellevue School District) (find their bios here), who talked to us about culturally responsive pedagogy and equity-focused teaching in K-12 Computer Science.

Equity-focused computer science teaching

Tia began the seminar with an audience-engaging task: she asked all participants to share their own definition of equity in the seminar chat. Amongst their many suggestions were “giving everybody the same opportunity”, “equal opportunity to access high-quality education”, and “everyone has access to the same resources”. I found Shomari’s own definition of equity very powerful: 

“Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement of all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions or systems, as well as the distribution of resources. Tackling equity requires an understanding of the root cause of outcome disparity within our society.”

Shomari Jones

This definition is drawn directly from the young people Shomari works with, and it goes beyond access and opportunity to the notion of increasing justice and fairness and addressing the causes of outcome disparity. Justice was a theme throughout the seminar, with all speakers referring to the way that their work looks at equity in computer science education through a justice-oriented lens.

Removing deficit thinking

Using a justice-oriented approach means that learners should be encouraged to use their computer science knowledge to make a difference in areas that are important to them. It means that just having access to a computer science education is not sufficient for equity.

Tia Madkins presents a slide: "A justice-oriented approach to computer science teaching empowers students to use CS knowledge for transformation, moves beyond access and achievement frames, and is an asset- or strengths-based approach centering students and families"

Tia spoke about the need to reject “deficit thinking” (i.e. focusing on what learners lack) and instead focus on learners’ strengths or assets and how they bring these to the school classroom. For researchers and teachers to do this, we need to be aware of our own mindset and perspective, to think about what we value about ethnic and racial identities, and to be willing to reflect and take feedback.

Activities to support computer science teaching

Nicol talked about some of the ways of designing computing lessons to be equity-focused. She highlighted the benefits of pair programming and other peer pedagogies, where students teach and learn from each other through feedback and sharing ideas/completed work. She suggested using a variety of different programs and environments, to ensure a range of different pathways to understanding. Teachers and schools can aim to base teaching around tools that are open and accessible and, where possible, available in many languages. If the software environment and tasks are accessible, they open the doors of opportunity to enable students to move on to more advanced materials. To demonstrate to learners that computer science is applicable across domains, the topic can also be introduced in the context of mathematics and other subjects.

Nicol Howard presents a slide: "Considerations for equity-focused computer science teaching include your beliefs (and your students' beliefs) and how they impact CS classrooms; tiered activities and pair programming; self-expressions versus CS preparation; equity-focused lens"

Learners can benefit from learning computer science regardless of whether they want to become a computer scientist. Computing offers them skills that they can use for self-expression or to be creative in other areas of their life. They can use their knowledge for a specific purpose and to become more autonomous, particularly if their teacher does not have any deficit thinking. In addition, culturally relevant teaching in the classroom demonstrates a teacher’s deliberate and explicit acknowledgment that they value all students in their classroom and expect students to excel.

Engaging family and community

Shomari talked about the importance of working with parents and families of ethnically diverse students in order to hear their voices and learn from their experiences.

Shomari Jones presents a slide: “Parents without backgrounds and insights into the changing landscape of technology struggle to negotiate what roles they can play, such as how to work together in computing activities or how to find learning opportunities for their children.”

He described how the absence of a background in technology of parents and carers can drastically impact the experiences of young people.

“Parents without backgrounds and insights into the changing landscape of technology struggle to negotiate what roles they can play, such as how to work together in computing activities or how to find learning opportunities for their children.”

Betsy DiSalvo, Cecili Reid, and Parisa Khanipour Roshan. 2014

Shomari drew on an example from the Pacific Northwest in the US, a region with many successful technology companies. In this location, young people from wealthy white and Asian communities can engage fully in informal learning of computer science and can have aspirations to enter technology-related fields, whereas amongst the Black and Latino communities, there are significant barriers to any form of engagement with technology. This already existent inequity has been enhanced by the coronavirus pandemic: once so much of education moved online, it became widely apparent that many families had never owned, or even used, a computer. Shomari highlighted the importance of working with pre-service teachers to support them in understanding the necessity of family and community engagement.

Building classroom communities

Building a classroom community starts by fostering and maintaining relationships with students, families, and their communities. Our speakers emphasised how important it is to understand the lives of learners and their situations. Through this understanding, learning experiences can be designed that connect with the learners’ lived experiences and cultural practices. In addition, by tapping into what matters most to learners, teachers can inspire them to be change agents in their communities. Tia gave the example of learning to code or learning to build an app, which provides learners with practical tools they can use for projects they care about, and with skills to create artefacts that challenge and document injustices they see happening in their communities.

Find out more

If you want to learn more about this topic, a great place to start is the recent paper Tia and Nicol have co-authored that lays out more detail on the work described in the seminar: Engaging Equity Pedagogies in Computer Science Learning Environments, by Tia C. Madkins, Nicol R. Howard and Natalie Freed, 2020.

You can access the presentation slides via our seminars page.

Join our next free seminar

In our next seminar on Tuesday 2 March at 17:00–18:30 BST / 12:00–13:30 EDT / 9:00–10:30 PDT / 18:00–19:30 CEST, we’ll welcome Jakita O. Thomas (Auburn University), who is going to talk to us about Designing STEM Learning Environments to Support Computational Algorithmic Thinking and Black Girls: A Possibility Model for Changing Hegemonic Narratives and Disrupting STEM Neoliberal Projects. To join this free online seminar, simply sign up by following the link at the button.

If you’ve already signed up previously, there’s no need to do so again — we’ll make sure you receive access to the online seminar session.



**SMH** This article has to be UK heavy as it does not reflect the issues here in the States, especially here in NYC, New York State. Here the expanse of the Digital Divide is great mostly to socio-economic reasons. Furthering this is the marketing of video game systems and smartphones for personal reasons and not educational reasons eating into the incomes of those should not be having these things; it is that families need to decide between buying a new game for the kids to keep them entertained and quiet vs. buying food for the week and paying certain bills because the market drives them to the wrong decisions.
Since 1980, I have worked hard to even the playing field in my communities and had a hand in opening Computer centers, Community Digital Centers, Expanding Computer User Groups and starting the Computer Literacy Programs our school system uses to this day. There has been some improvements in some areas but it is still lacking in most others. In my opinion there is no excuse for a city like NYC not to have a bleeding edge modernized program like some other places do.
Now during this Pandemic and the use of remote Learning, the school system here is learning how devoid the average low income family has in digital equipment to access the internet, let alone having an internet connection. More than a school year has passed and still many areas have not addressed.

I could continue but I will end it here. This is a subject close to my heart and the basis of my 35+ year Career in Computer Education and Literacy. I will be attending the Seminar.

Sue Sentance

Thanks for your comment Elfen – really interesting to read. The speakers at the seminar were from US (you can watch the seminar on youtube following the link in the post) and did talk about socioeconomic disadvantage, and also the influence of the pandemic, which I didn’t have space to relay in the blog post. I think your experience in NYC is mirrored elsewhere, in that remote learning has been incredibly difficult for many families to access due to lack of technology etc. Thanks so much for engaging with the post and taking time to write a comment.


If you focus on the one sentence where Somari said that the absence of know about technology can drastically affect on the experience of young people, you will find that it’s perfectly true. In the developed countries like USA, UK, France, Australia, and Germany, the educational background of parents is what adds an extra value in their kid that they only need to start with next level. And, Somari also added previously that equity-focused computer science education can develop far more better experience than ever. Here, the idea that Somari has represented isn’t just limited to the teachers or mentors. It’s also not limited to parents. It goes beyond. He taken families into an account. According to him, the families can interact with each other like students are doing in the classroom regarding their finished work or project to share the experience. So, that, both sides gain and give a knowledge (experience here). And, we all know that experience is what only matters here. Indirectly, Somari has mentioned a hybrid way to follow in knowledge sharing. Because, when parents with educational background and no educational background can share a lot of thing where parents with no educational background have to gain more whereas the opposite side has to give more, and also to take more away. Overall, the best ways about knowledge sharing including the possibilities, were discussed. Good work!

Sue Sentance

Thanks for these comments, Hardik. I’m pleased you found the points raised were valuable and accorded with your own experience. I agree that the focus on families and beyond is really important in the way that Shomari highlighted. Thanks so much for engaging with the post and the seminar, and taking time to write a comment.


While computer education is important, vital even, today. I feel the bigger problem is the fact that massive numbers of children in the US, especially from inner city schools, can’t even do the basics such as reading, writing, and simple math. The reasons for this are varied but what bothers me the most is how many parents don’t even seem to care. It’s a disaster in the making.


I have been teaching computing for nearly 60 years, formally (as a professor of Nuclear Medicine Technology, which deeply involves computing) and informally, to colleagues, other members of the medical care team, and the general public. The effects of the pandemic on education in general, and primary education in particular, have brought the malign effects of absent or limited access to technology to the forefront. The ongoing crisis presents an opportunity to address the obvious and absurd inequities in the education system as a whole. As a physician-healer, senior computer person and educator, and as a citizen of the world, I call upon the agencies (govenments, NGOs, and philanthropic institutions, as well as IT-related businesses) to address these inequities with vigorous and immediate actions, including:
1. Providing adequate picocomputer systems to all in need of computing equipment.
2. Providing reasonable-speed internet access to all.
3. Collecting existing free educational content, especially in basic subjects (language skills, arithmetic and basic mathematics, basic science concepts, basic biology, chemistry, physics, human biology) and making it freely available.
4. Designing and constructing educational activities providing education that remedies deficiencies in current education.
5. Identifying master educators among the teaching population, and making their lectures and publications available to all.
6. Identifying existing educational content that has been proven effective (e.g. Rosetta Stone) and subsidizing making it generally available.
I call for nothing less than democritizing excellent education. This must no longer be the province of the wealthy and well-connected, but available to everyone, not just in one country, but all over the world. If we do this, we greatly enhance the likelihood that our civilization will survive and prosper.


Good points. While I’m vehemently opposed to any new government programs I can see how much of what you are proposing is already happing or could be put together at a very reasonable cost. The new Starlink system SpaceX is putting up will be able to provide internet to pretty much everywhere, and much of the free educational materials you discuss are already available. It seems like there is a great opportunity for a non profit organization (to which I’d gladly contribute), to start putting all these pieces together.

Sue Sentance

Hear hear!

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