Sally Fincher on Useless Truths at SIGCSE 2010
Sally Fincher explained to me this morning why design patterns are important. I’ve never quite grokked them previously. Honestly, they felt like a conceit. “I am very expert, and I can write down my knowledge in such an abstract way that it sounds like a scientific principle. Then I can teach these principles to you, and you’ll be expert, too.” The idea of using design patterns in CS1 classes has always seemed ludicrous to me — these students have zero experience, and you want them to understand this highly abstracted knowledge? Today, I see the value.
Sally gave the keynote for SIGCSE 2010 this morning, as the Outstanding Contributions to CS Educaiton awardee. She gave an amazing talk. It was one of those talks that I’ve seen only rarely — that has me thinking about it all day long, and it will take even more reflection to understand the ramifications for my own research. I can already see that I need to re-think some of what I’ve been doing in the new terms I learned today.
She started out trying to explain why we value research, but don’t value teaching. You can have a good teacher and a bad teacher work in the exact same classroom. It looks the same in either case. It requires no specialized facilities. The only people that really care about your teaching are those in your department. In contrast, you care about the results of people in the same research field as you. But really, nobody at SIGCSE is really hurt if I teach badly. The community of practice for teaching is very localized.
Then she introduced Max Boisot and his concept of Information Space (I-Space). Boisot splits up information along two dimensions: From uncodified (craft knowledge, experiential knowledge to codified (which separates representation from experience); and from concrete (tacit, can’t be fully articulated or represented, embodied) to abstract (“minimizes uses of categories”). Teaching (both from the student and teacher’s perspectives) is concrete and uncodified. It’s experiential.
Now, why aren’t education research results reused by others? Because research is inherently abstract and codified. That’s what it’s about. Thus, education research and “best practices” lists become “useless truth.” Sure, it may be true. No, I have no idea how to reuse it, and replication is not guaranteed anyway. “Your codified and abstracted knowledge is too separate from my localized context.”
Then came the figure that really has me thinking (scanned from my notes):
How do we bridge the gap between the symbolic and embodied, the gap of “useless truths”? Through stories. Narrative knowledge helps us to embody symbolic knowledge, and thus, to use it, and perhaps eventually, to codify it. Narrative knowledge can help us move from the embodied to the symbolic.
Sally went on to explain how this explains why students (whose experience is embodied) don’t grok textbooks (which are codified and abstract), and why illustrations, metaphors, explanations, and stories help to bridge that gap. She went on to connect it to her work with Disciplinary Commons, but I was already trying to make sense of these ideas for my work. She had just explained teacher reuse in a way that helps with the work Lijun Ni and I have been doing. I see how the Commons work in a whole new way.
One of her examples was that Design is also a tacit, embodied skill. Patterns and Pattern Languages are ways of capturing and sharing good “expert” design practices. She then did a very nice tour of scanned copies of Alexander’s original design patterns book, to explain how they work. Now, I got it. Design patterns aren’t about telling novices. It’s about experts talking to each other. It’s a way of talking about practice, about connecting from my experience and my abstraction on that experience, to your experience. Ohhhh.
Now I’m thinking about how best to help teachers, about how best to provide teaching materials to CS teachers, and about how best to develop and convey stories that bridge that “useless truths” gap for students. Maybe we’re already doing the right thing for students. Maybe a context is a form of narrative knowledge to bridge that gap. Maybe “media” (for example) has the role of making the abstractions of computing into usable, concrete, embodied knowledge.
SIGCSE has already been worth the price of admission for me. I have a new sense for the value and role of story in computing education.