Technology changes what we teach — even in CS
It’s a compelling idea (below) that technology enables a focus on higher-level thinking. For the most part, teaching kids “how to think” (HOTS: Higher Order Thinking Skills) hasn’t worked. But Google (and even more, Wolfram Alpha, which is just an astounding tool) do force us to re-think curriculum. What should we be teaching students when facts (via Google) and even analysis (via WolframAlpha) are so easily accessible? What facts are necessary to be learned, so that students can build abstractions on top of lower-level facts? Can one learn abstractions without knowing the facts? If one can, what abstractions should we be teaching, and how do we get to HOTS?
Technology’s advances create implications for computing education as well. How much should we test students on syntax when tools like Eclipse lead us through immediately correcting syntactic errors? Google lets students find all kinds of code — including the answers to many of our programming assignments. How can we use tools like Google and Eclipse to move our teaching and learning to a higher-level of abstraction?
I would love to study novices learning Mathematica. Mathematica 8 now accepts free-form natural language input (like WolframAlpha) as well as the traditional Mathematica programming language (which is very powerful and usable in multiple paradigms). Now, we can think about starting students specifying computation (is it “programming”?) in natural language, and moving into a traditional programming language, in much the same way that we think about starting with Scratch or Alice today, then moving into languages like Python or Java. What are the advantages (e.g., text->text vs. graphics->text), and what are the disadvantages? What mental models do students develop about computation when moving from natural language specification of computing into Mathematica’s programming language?
Another speaker at Ciudad de las Ideas today, NYU professor of psychology Gary Marcus, argued that schools should focus less on teaching facts—which can be easily ascertained from Google—and more on teaching them how to think. How do our brains mislead us? What biases do we have? As technology has put more information at our fingertips, Marcus believes, we need to change our schools. Benjamin agrees: He hopes that mathematical education will be less about computation—we’ve got calculators for that!—and more conceptual, like “understanding when you need to do integrals, when you need to do a square root.”