AERA: A different planet from SIGCSE
I spent the last two days at the 2011 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Compared to SIGCSE, AERA is on a different planet. Mars/Venus doesn’t quite cut it. AERA is huge, about 12,000 attendees. There are always (even at 8:15 am and 9 pm at night) 20-80 parallel sessions. The session topics and even styles of presentation are completely different.
While I was walking down the hall to my first session, I stopped by an ongoing session that was overfull. There were people hanging out at the doorway, and the room was full. That’s usually the sign of an interesting session. I checked the door – it was a session on “Eliminating ‘Whiteness’ from Public Education.” As I walked up, someone from the door yelled out a question. “Maybe it’s because you’re racist?” The speaker replied, “Well, yes, I am, but I’m conscious of it, and I use that in my work.” I continued walking on. Nope, don’t see sessions like that at SIGCSE.
I was presenting the work of Lijun Ni, my PhD student studying how high school computer science teachers come to establish an identity as a “computer science teacher,” and how we can influence that process. Lijun wasn’t able to attend, so I went to my first AERA meeting in probably 10 years. The first paper I presented for her was a chapter of her thesis where she was identifying the kinds of identities that current computer science teachers have and what influenced those identities.
Our session was on socioeconomic factors in STEM teacher professional development. That first word should have warned me what I was in for.
I found the first paper really interesting. They have been studying pre-service teachers. Pre-service teachers come in with 12 years (at least) of experience watching a teacher, which influences their perception of what good teaching is. They asked teachers (both genders, variety of disciplines) to tell a story of a “WRE” (Worth Remembering Event). Jumping to the bottomline, they found that the stories that female math teachers told were much more often than men’s stories about moments of “humiliation” where a teacher publicly insulted their ability to do math. (The stories were absolutely awful, but enlightening.)
The next paper was on how to get student teachers to engage in science activism. The slides included pictures of protests against the World Trade Organization. We were told that the goal of science education is to protect the capitalist state, by developing those who create knowledge capital, and separating the best science students from the rest. By only teaching the best about science, the rest of the students never really learn science and thus remain uninformed and easily manipulated consumers.
The last paper was on teachers shifting from “closed cookbook lab” science classes to “inquiry-based science.” They found correlations with this shift and the amount of talk in the classroom: a decrease in the teacher talking and an increase in the student talking in the classroom. The speaker said that it was “not fair” for the teacher to talk more than the students. I asked a question about that claim. From a Lave & Wenger “community of practice” perspective, the teacher is the model of those at the center of the inquiry-based science community of practice, so shouldn’t the teacher speak more to explain the thinking and perspectives of that community? The speaker told me that I was misinterpreting “community of practice.” The classroom is a community of practice, and the student must be at the center of that community. He then explained that it’s all about power relationships, and the panel (except me) then got into a discussion of Foucalt.
My favorite talk that I attended was Alan Collin’s talk about his new book (with Rich Halverson) on “Rethinking education in the age of technology.” Alan Collins’ work on cognitive apprenticeship was the most significant impact on my dissertation work. (In fact, one of my committee member, Carl Berger, asked me at my proposal, “So, is your dissertation a test of Collins’ model?” I had no idea what it would mean to do that, and flubbed that question.) At first, I was disappointed in his talk: Alan seemed to have drunk the open learning kool-aid. He talked about school as about “coverage” and “just-in-case learning” (e.g., coverage the whole curriculum, and learn things that might be useful in one’s life), while learning with technology is about “knowledge explosion” and “just-in-time.” I got more interested when he did a historical analysis about the shifts from apprenticeship-based learning, to school-based learning, to technology-based learning. Then, he did a strengths/weaknesses analysis of school vs. technology-based learning. What do we lose as we start emphasizing technology? Equality: The rich are buying up all the best technology for learning, and the poor aren’t getting access to the same opportunities. Citizenship and social cohesion: There’s no requirement that everyone learn our cultural values. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s the way he sees it going. He said that the technology has the strength of being much more about engagement and motivation, but we’re at a critical point in making sure that the weaknesses are reduced.
My second talk presentation (Lijun did really well at AERA this year with two publications) was at a unique AERA format: A roundtable. All the speakers and those interested sit (and sometimes stand) around a big table. Each speaker talks about his or her paper for 5 minutes, maybe with handouts or copies of the paper. No Powerpoint. Then we talk, for a 90 minute session. There’s a chair who checks time and makes sure that everybody gets a voice.
My favorite paper in the session looked at correlations between teacher professional development workshops with their student’s achievement in mathematics and reading. There were several significant correlations and differences. The big take-aways were that the most successful workshops (in terms of improving student achievement) were longer (2 or 3 days, instead of 1), had some kind of follow-up, and was on content rather than general pedagogical approaches. The next study is to look at what happened within the workshops, rather than surface-level features. One of the professional developments workshops was particularly critiqued in the session, because it taught teachers who to deal with “multiple intelligences” and “teaching to different learning styles.” The criticism was that there is no empirical support for the notion of multiple intelligences and learning styles (“even Howard Gardner admits this, that it’s a theoretical idea not an empirical one”), so it’s not surprising that it didn’t help.
I spoke about our Disciplinary Commons for Computing Education, particularly the first year where we used action research, and that didn’t work very well. The pushback against my paper came from a Stanford education post-doc. “I know it’s a stereotype, but do you think that maybe action research didn’t work because these were CS people, and CS people don’t like to research or reflect. They just want an answer!” Well! Rather than respond to the stereotype, I pointed out that these were teachers learning to be CS teachers, where all of their certifications were in something other than CS, so it’s hard to argue that they’ve been “ruined” by CS. He nodded agreement, then said, “I do understand. It’s hard to get computer science and technology and applications into K-12, especially since kids already know all of it already before they come to school.” I responded that the confound between applications and computer science was our largest problem with respect to CS in K-12, and that students actually don’t typically know much about computer science, even if they know applications and lots of computational devices. I started wondering about the tensions between education and CS at Stanford.
I think I might be getting too old for AERA. It’s mostly graduate students, and few advisors show up. The topics are a little weird for me. Maybe I’m too conservative in my curmudgeon years.
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