Experience drives learning: Implications for CS Ed

August 23, 2012 at 9:02 am 7 comments

I taught educational technology in the Spring, and it gave me a chance to re-read classic texts (I still love Cognitive Apprenticeship) and reflect on some of the key principles of learning sciences.  One of these is that all learning is built on existing knowledge — Piagetian assimilation and accommodation are still the main two learning mechanisms that we know.  That’s why culture matters, and past experience matters.

The piece linked below from NYTimes highlights how different that prior experience can be, even with students attending the same classroom, and how those different experiences lead to different learning outcomes.

I wonder about the implications for CS Ed.  What are the key experiences that lead students to have the prior knowledge to succeed in CS1?  If a student has never built a spreadsheet with formulas, then that student may not have the same understanding of specifying instructions for another agent and for using a formal notation to be interpreted by machine, compared to a student who has.  A student who has never used Photoshop or looked at a color chooser may have a harder time understanding hierarchy of data representations (e.g., red, green, and blue numbers inside a pixel, which is arranged in two dimensions to make up a picture).  Studies in the past have looked at background experiences like how much mathematics a student has had.  With the pervasiveness of computing technology today, we might be able to look at more “near transfer” kinds of activities.

When a new shipment of books arrives, Rhonda Levy, the principal, frets. Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge, and cars are not the only gap at P.S. 142. Many of the children have never been to a zoo or to New Jersey. Some think the emergency room of New York Downtown Hospital is the doctor’s office.

The solution of the education establishment is to push young children to decode and read sooner, but Ms. Levy is taking a different tack. Working with Renée Dinnerstein, an early childhood specialist, she has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons, in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.

via For Poorer Students, an Attempt to Let New Experiences Guide Learning – NYTimes.com.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cecily  |  August 23, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Teaching public school is fascinating in part because the students have such different backgrounds. I had one US student who had only ever done laundry in the bathtub. i had another student who was not going to write his HTML page for me with 5-10 tags because he didn’t think he could pass his UBISCT test that he needed to pass to get his high school diploma. After about a half an hour to an hour of intense emotion and negotiation the SPED director and I convinced said student that he could and needed to do the HTML assignment, but you can be sure that test-taking skills got hit really hard in the curriculum in several of my classes the following year. It was amazing for me to learn how many lower SES students had never been taught how to memorize or study or organize a binder.

    Reply
  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  August 23, 2012 at 10:42 am

    One of my favorite questions to ask AP Calc teachers is how well would their students do if they hadn’t had any math courses before entering AP Calc. All too often that happens with AP CS students – no previous CS courses. Doing more to introduce various concepts in CS earlier would help us a great deal. I am seeing a lot more interest in doing so. At this past summer’s CS & IT conference there was a lot of interest in talking about CS in K-8. We can and should do a lot more with teaching concepts in apps (I’m a big believer that we should do more and earlier with spreadsheets for example) and I believe that would help. I am also seeing more interest in using tools like Kodu, Alice and Scratch with middle school (and some before middle school) students to get them thinking about CS concepts. Also these tools start to show students that they can be in control, be creators, and not just passive consumers.

    Reply
  • [...] of teaching if I dare suggest  such a thing. In another great article Mark Guzdial talks about Experience drives learning: Implications for CS Ed which highlights some factors that I think may come into play. White males tend to get more and [...]

    Reply
  • 4. Errol Thompson  |  August 23, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    When I taught a group of second chance education students early in 1990s, I learnt that I had to help them understand the concept of a spreadsheet or a word processor or a program before you could really get them to achieve what the course was really teaching.

    One of the dangers of saying that experience or background drives learning is that we can say we will only pick students with the right background. Simply because a student starts with no concept of what they are about to learn doesn’t mean they are never going to learn the material. What if does mean is that we need to find things in their experience that can help them develop the appropriate conceptual base.

    Talking from teaching programming or computational thinking, most students have written instructions or developed computational type solutions to problems. What they don’t often have is the connection or conceptual base that allows them to make the connection with computer programming.

    My introductory programming teaching always starts with a discussion of what a programme (purposely the British spelling) in a general context is and then linking this understanding with what a computer program is.

    For each critical threshold concept, we need to do the same type of conception with existing conceptual understandings that the students might already have that will allow them to learn the material.

    Reply
    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  August 24, 2012 at 9:47 am

      Errol, I’m not sure that the danger you describe necessarily follows. Students suffering malnutrition can’t focus well in school, but rather than keep out malnourished students, we feed them. If experience does drive learning, then students without necessary experience should be given the opportunity to have that experience, just as you describe with giving students the experience of a spreadsheet or a word-processor in order to introduce them to the concept of a programme/program.

      Reply
  • 6. Quantity Is Not Enough | UpSearchLearn  |  August 25, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    [...] of teaching if I dare suggest  such a thing. In another great article Mark Guzdial talks about Experience drives learning: Implications for CS Ed which highlights some factors that I think may come into play. White males tend to get more and [...]

    Reply
  • [...] learning about the invisible.  It’s hard to do.  One way we teach that is with forms of cognitive apprenticeship: modeling, coaching, reflection, and eliciting [...]

    Reply

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