Marvin Minsky and understanding things in more than one way

Marvin Minsky died last month.  I never met Marvin. I met his daughter, and worked with people who knew him well.   He must have been a remarkable person.

The NYTimes piece has several quotes from Alan Kay about Marvin.  Below is my favorite.  I’ve heard it before, and I think about it often when designing classes and lessons.

I want students to understand what I do in class, but not memorize it. I want them to understand it in more than one way.  It’s why I emphasize revision and multiple iterations so often in a class.  I want them to understand well enough to transfer the knowledge, at least in near contexts.

 

For Dr. Kay, Professor Minsky’s legacy was his insatiable curiosity. “He used to say, ‘You don’t really understand something if you only understand it one way,’” Dr. Kay said. “He never thought he had anything completely done.”

Source: Marvin Minsky, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 88 – The New York Times

February 12, 2016 at 8:15 am Leave a comment

CRA Report: The Importance of Computing Education Research

Steve Cooper organized a series of workshops (see blog posts here and here) exploring how we might grow computing education research within computing departments.  How do we make sure that computing education research (CER) faculty succeed (e.g., get tenured and promoted)?  How can we have CER PhD students within computing departments?  Interesting to note that in Craig Wills’ recent analysis of CS department job ads, CS Education Research is in the “other” category. (Thanks to Yasmin Kafai for pointing this out.)  Too few departments were interested in CS Ed to appear on his graphs.

The report with recommendations from those workshops is now out and available here.  Quoting from the report:

This growth is an unparalleled opportunity to expand the reach of computing education. However, this growth is also a unique research challenge, as we know very little about how best to teach our current students, let alone the students soon to arrive. The burgeoning field of Computing Education Research (CER) is positioned to address this challenge by answering research questions such as:

  • How should we teach computer science, from programming to advanced principles, to a broader and more diverse audience?
  • How can we ensure that we retain this more diverse audience through inclusive pedagogy and generally more effective teaching?
  • How can teaching approaches and their assessment (regarding student learning) scale effectively?
  • What training should K-12 teachers receive? What methods have been shown to be effective?
  • How can computer science teaching adapt to how different people learn and build on age related learning progressions?
  • How should computing be taught and integrated into other disciplines?

We argue that computer science departments should lead the way in establishing CER as a foundational research area of computer science, discovering the best ways to teach CS, and inventing the best technologies with which to teach it. This is not only in the best long-term interest of our field, but also the long-term interests of society. This white paper provides a snapshot of the current state of CER and makes actionable recommendations for academic leaders to grow CER as a successful research area in their departments.

February 10, 2016 at 8:07 am Leave a comment

Shifts in gender ratios across roles in higher education

A recent article in The Chronicle talked about just how white higher education faculty are — see article here.  Most of the student protests about equity and diversity on college campuses this last year demanded more minority faculty.

In this graph, I found a different and fascinating story in just the first two bars in each set:

gender-race-disparaties

Professors are overwhelmingly male.  Associate professors are only slightly more male.  Assistant professors are slightly more female. Instructors are much more female.

It’s not surprising, but it’s interesting to see it.  The women in academia have the lion’s share of the lower status jobs, and the men have the lion’s share of the higher status jobs. When you take into account the landed-gentry/tenant-farmer relationship between the tenure track faculty and the teaching track faculty (see previous blog post), the relationship between gender and academic power becomes much more stark.

February 8, 2016 at 7:29 am Leave a comment

CS Teaching Faculty are like Tenant Farmers

There are many, many teaching jobs available in computer science right now. Scarcely a day goes by that there isn’t another ad posted in the SIGCSE Members list — sometimes for many positions at the same department. A great many of these are at Universities, with a clear statement that this is a Teaching track position, not a Tenure track position.

Many of these ads, when posted to SIGCSE Members, contain a paragraph like this (edited and hopefully anonymized):

(Highly-ranked University)’s full-time (without tenure) teaching faculty positions are called (pick one of:) Lecturers with Security of Employment, Professors of the Practice, or Teaching Professors, or Lecturers, or Instructors. These positions typically involve a teaching load of two courses each semester, advising responsibilities, and service (committee work) as well. (Highly-ranked University)’s computer science teaching faculty are NOT treated as second class citizens. We vote at faculty meetings, represent the department on university committees, and are generally well respected inside and outside the department. We currently are seeking more (see ad below).

From time to time, I write the person (almost always a teaching track faculty member) who posted the ad, to follow-up on the “NOT second class citizens” part.

  • Do teaching faculty get to serve on the hiring committee for teaching faculty? Usually yes.
  • Do teaching faculty get to serve on the hiring committee for tenure-track faculty? Usually not.  This question often results in a snort of laughter.  Why should teaching professionals be involved in hiring tenure-track faculty? That seemed obvious to me — teaching faculty are hired to be experts in teaching, and tenure-track faculty do teach.
  • Do teaching faculty serve on tenure-track promotion and tenure committees? Almost never, despite the fact that tenure track faculty are expected to teach and are supposed to be evaluated (at least in part) on that teaching. Shouldn’t professionals with expertise in teaching have a voice in evaluating teaching of tenure-track faculty?
  • Do teaching faculty have a voice/position at the Dean/Chair’s Cabinet/Executive Committee? I know of only one in the US.

Maybe I have been watching too much “Downton Abbey.” The treatment of teaching track faculty by tenure track faculty sounds like the relationship between the landed gentry and the tenant farmers. The University teaches as one of its primary roles, just as the estate survived through farming (and the sales and rent that were generated). The tenure track faculty (landed gentry) leave most of that to the teaching track faculty (tenant farmers). It’s a delegated responsibility, like custodial and lawn management services.  The teaching track faculty don’t own the department or programs (land). The tenure track faculty make the decisions about hiring and promoting the teaching track faculty. The teaching track faculty don’t make any of the decisions about tenure track faculty.  Of course, the greatest match with the analogy is that tenured faculty can’t be fired — like the landed gentry, they own their positions.  Teaching track faculty are rarely tenured.  One of the teaching faculty with whom I work has only a six month contract and can be fired with a month’s notice.

It is in our best interests for teaching track to be a profession. Teaching track faculty should be experts in teaching. Members should be expected to join professional organizations like SIGCSE (see previous post about the lack of membership in SIGCSE), to attend and present at organizational meetings, and to improve their practice. They should have a promotion path and evaluation as rigorous as the tenure-track promotion and tenure process.  I’m pleased to see these ads, because they suggest national searches for good teaching track faculty — as opposed to hiring (for example) graduate students and post-docs who don’t want to leave their home institution.

A first step towards professionalization of teaching track faculty is to treat them with the same respect as tenure-track faculty. Tenure track faculty are treated as experts in research.  Teaching track faculty should be treated as experts in teaching. If both teaching and research are important, then treat the teaching track faculty like the research faculty. There should be a comparable sense of responsibility, power, and ownership.

 

February 5, 2016 at 7:47 am 19 comments

How to Participate in the K12 CS Framework Review Process

I’ve mentioned the K12 CS Framework Process a couple of times before (see this blog post).  It’s now available for public comment.

Individuals and institutions are invited to be reviewers of the K-12 CS framework. Institutions, such as state/district departments of education and organizations (industry, companies, non-profits), are responsible for selecting an individual or a group to represent the institution. Reviewers can choose to participate in one or both of the two review periods:

  • Feb 3 to Feb 17: Review of the 9-12 grade band concepts and practices
  • March 14 to April 1: Review of the entire K-12 concepts and practices

There will be a public webinar (save this link) to launch the first review period on Feb 3 at 8pm ET / 5pm PT. Learn about the development of the framework and how to provide an effective review.

Find different instructions for individuals and facilitators of group reviews, including an informational session kit for review group facilitators at http://k12cs.org/review.  Visit this page after 9 am on Feb 3rd and you’ll be able to access the framework draft and an online feedback form for the first public review

Sincerely,

Lian Halbert, K-12 CS Framework development staff

P.S. Are you attending SIGCSE 2016 in Memphis this March 2-5? We will hold a Birds of a Feather session on Thursday March 3 for all SIGCSE attendees – feel free to invite folks so they can learn about the K-12 CS framework.

February 3, 2016 at 8:02 am Leave a comment

Summarizing the Research on Designing Programming Languages to be Easier to Learn: NSF CS Ed Community Meeting

I’m at the NSF STEM+Computing and Broadening Participation in Computing Community Meeting.  At our ECEP meeting on Saturday, we heard from White House Champion of Change Jane Margolis.  She did a great job of getting our states to think about how to change their state plans to emphasize diversity and equity — more on that in a future blog post.

12657757_10101604211025169_5607395108039854037_o

I moderated a panel yesterday on how to integrate computing education into schools of education.  Here’s the description of the session — again, more later on this.

Integrating Computing Education into Preservice Teacher Development Programs  

(Mark Guzdial (moderator), Leigh Ann DeLyser, Joanna Goode, Yasmin Kafai, Aman Yadav)

For computing education to become ubiquitous and sustainable in US K-12 schools, we need schools of Education to teach computing.
  • ​What should we be teaching to preservice teachers?
  • Where should we teach CS methods in preservice teacherdevelopment?
  • How do we help schools of Ed to hire and sustain faculty who focus on computing education?
Panelists will talk about how CS Ed is being integrated into their preservice teacher development programs, and about alternative models for addressing these questions.

Yesterday, our other computing education research Champion of Change, Andreas Stefik presented a summary of the empirical evidence on how to design programming languages to make them easier to learn.  Follow the link below to get to the two-page PDF pamphlet he produced for his presentation — it’s dense with information and fascinating.

This pamphlet is designed to provide an overview of recent evidence on human factors evidence in programming language design. In some cases, our intent is to dispel myths. In others, it is to provide the result of research lines.

from Programming Languages and Learning by Andreas Stefik

February 2, 2016 at 8:58 am 5 comments

Computer science is the study of computers and all the phenomena surrounding them

One of the common questions in CS education is, “What is computer science?”  I recently looked into the original article in Science that introduced the term in 1967 from Allen Newell, Alan Perlis, and Herbert Simon.  They define computer science as the study of computers and the phenomena surrounding them.

I do see the point that what computer scientists are really interested in is computing, which is separate from computers themselves.  That’s a distinction that is mostly lost on students, though, and is not all that important to emphsize now that computers exist.  We can argue that computer science existed before computers, but that’s a thought experiment.  What we study today is based on the reality that the devices exist.

CMU keeps a library of correspondence from Herb Simon and I found this letter (see link here) interesting because it shows Simon making a similar distinction.  Computers had to exist before computer scientists before we could really define a field:  “A point of our letters was that, whether genuine substance now exists in computer science or not, computers constitute such a rich set of phenomena that it obviously will exist. (In a sense, there had to be plants, then botanists, before there could be botany.)”

There are computers. Ergo, computer science is the study of computers. The phenomena surrounding computers are varied, complex, rich. It remains only to answer the objections posed by many skeptics.

Objection 4. Computers, like thermometers, are instruments, not phenomena. Instruments lead away to their user sciences; the behaviors of instruments are subsumed as special topics in other sciences (not always the user sciences – electron microscopy belongs to physics, not biology). Answer. The computer is such a novel and complex instrument that its behavior is subsumed under no other science; its study does not lead away to user sciences, but to further study of computers. Hence, the computer is not just an instrument but a phenomenon as well, requiring description and explanation.

from What is Computer Science?

February 1, 2016 at 8:03 am 5 comments

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