Stories Teachers Tell Themselves

June 15, 2009 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Last Saturday was our last Disciplinary Commons for Computing Educators (DCCE) meeting for this academic year (funded by NSF CPATH program, organized by PhD students Lijun Ni and Allison Tew).  The Georgia DCCE is based on the successful model by Sally Fincher and Josh Tenenberg, where computing teachers are brought together to discuss their common issues, create a community, and in so doing, improve their own teaching.

The Georgia DCCE has a couple of twists.  First, we combine high school and undergraduate teachers, to encourage discussion about the boundary and making them easier to cross for students. Second, we engaged teachers in action research: Coming up with small assessments to use in their own classrooms, and then compare across classrooms.  A key point of a disciplinary commons is to get teachers to reflect on their practice.  Sally and Josh used portfolios and journals to get this reflection.  We decided to try action research.

In our DCCE, we went through two cycles of coming up with questions, create instruments, evaluating data, and reflecting on the results.  The first round was based on assessment questions and instruments developed by others. The second round was invented entirely by the teachers.  Saturday was the our “data party” to combine results, and then a “gallery walk,” where teachers posted on a wall their results and claims, and what they took as the implications for their teaching.  I was really struck by some of the claims and implications that teachers drew from their stories.

One mini-study involved two teachers of a year-long Advanced Placement CS (APCS) course and one teacher of a single semester introductory programming course.  (In Georgia, high schools have a three course CS sequence that they teach: Computing in the Modern World, Introductory Programming, and APCS.)  The two APCS classes did much better than the introductory students.  The teacher of the intro course took as his implication that the new book he started using wasn’t as effective as the old book he used to use.  He may very well be right, but there are lots of other possible suspect variables there, like the difference in level, length of time of the course, and the socio-economic situation of the students.  The intro course is in one the poorest sections of Atlanta, while the two APCS classes are in affluent sections of the suburbs.

A second mini-study involved asking two college classes to tackle the calculator problem from the McCracken ITiCSE Working Group.  The classes did no better than did the students in the original Working Group study.  When asked why, the one teacher explained, “Most of these students don’t really belong in CS.”  He may very well be right, but I still found it an unusual argument — but mostly because of my own cultural and epistemological biases.  I tend to believe that all kids can learn to read, write, do basic mathematics, and learn basic programming.  I think of computing as a form of literacy, so it doesn’t enter into my world-view that, “these kids just can’t do it.”  I would look at these same data and try to understand what was hard for the students, what were the barriers, and how might they be reduced.

I thought about these implications and rationalizations when reading a recent NPR report on the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness which is supposedly influencing the Obama administration’s thinking on influencing citizen’s decisions.  The bottomline is that we are all irrational decision makers.  We see a low starting rate for a credit card or cellphone, and don’t think about the overall costs over the next two years.

Teachers tell themselves stories about what happens in their classrooms all the time.  I know that I do.  I explain to myself why students fail my classes, or why graduate students choose not to work with me, or why a paper or proposal gets rejected.  We all do.  I’m sure that I, like the irrational decision-makers in Nudge and the teachers in the DCCE, make assumptions and ignore possible explanations that are more likely than the ones I’ve chosen.  A problem, though, is that the stories I tell myself about my classes influence more than just myself — my response to those stories changes how I teach the next time, and thus influences the next group of students.

I’ve been thinking that Nudge is a good argument for Teaching Circles and other community of teachers mechanisms.  We need some way to check our rationalizations, to hear alternative explanations, and to make sure that we don’t make huge changes based on erroneous assumptions.  We’re just individual irrational decision-makers, but maybe together, we can make better decisions.

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