Archive for November 24, 2009

The role of debate in learning

“With my undergraduates, the hardest thing to teach them to do is make an argument, support that argument with evidence and bend and move and evolve,” said Susan Herbst, a professor of public policy at Georgia Tech. “Debate is an accelerated way to teach students to do that.”

via High school debate: We all need a lesson in it — chicagotribune.com.

I am actually teaching two educational technology classes this semester, one for undergraduates and one for graduates.  They happen to meet in the same room at the same time, which means it’s basically one, large, large-variance course.  I have undergraduates in Computer Science and Computational Media; and MS students in Computer Science, Digital Media, and HCI; and even some PhD students.  I’m teaching this class around argumentation.

  • In Phase 1 of the class, I gave them a proposition, had them read papers about that proposition, then they wrote me a paper making an argument. The proposition was: “Computing creates an opportunity to program, and learning to program creates an opportunity to learn other things better.”  We read Seymour Papert and Alan Kay, Sharon Carver and Elliot Soloway.
  • In Phase II, I gave them propositions and papers, and they picked proposition (in teams) then presented it and wrote a paper with the argument.
  • In Phase III (right now), they invented the proposition and I helped them with the papers.  They’re presenting for the rest of the term, then owe me a paper at the end.  One group last Thursday defended “The choice of computer language used in CS1 courses has no great impact on the ability of computer science majors to perform in follow-on computer science courses” and another team defended “Instructional video materials can be used to teach declarative and procedural knowledge about computer science, creating expanded opportunities for learning with limited technological investment.”

My reason for this structure is that I’m trying to avoid graduate students coming to qualifying exams unable to argue a position. Since we’re a research institution, all students should learn a critical research skill — how we make an argument based on research literature.  Even for the undergraduates, it’s worthwhile for them to learn in terms of argument, evidence, and story.

The presentations have been so-so.  They sometimes work really hard to involve the audience and present interesting material.  However, in so doing, they often miss the argument.  The argument comes through better in the papers.

All the papers have been readable, but few really present an argument.  My undergraduates don’t write to an audience.  They all spend way too much time setting up their story and making flowery claims about the importance of education and of their proposition — things that make it easy to hit the 10-12 page expected length but don’t really speak to me or their classmates as an informed audience.  Surprising to me, only my Masters students from our Digital Media program really know how to make an argument. They are really careful in their analysis, defining their terms, and making their claims. Even PhD students skip basic steps like defining terms.  One recent team completely ignored half their proposition.

I’m not really surprised.  I spend much of my writing time with my PhD students trying to teach them to write to a story and to defend their argument.  I know that my advisor, Elliot Soloway, spent a lot of effort helping me to tell stories in my papers.  I’ll bet most advisors do.  So while I might wish for better from our undergraduates, I don’t expect more than I’m seeing with regards to writing and argumentation ability. The article referenced above is making a stronger point — that debate is a critical skill, and we should teach it earlier. I think that Susan Herbst’s comment above is particularly critical for our graduate students.  They must know how to make an argument, to engage in debate, to tell a story with evidence.

The role that debate (as Susan refers to it — making an argument, using evidence, telling a story) plays in learning is important in computing education, too, in the sense of the blue-collar vs. white-collar distinction made in the last blog post.  It’s not clear how much you learn about computer science just by programming.  It’s clear that you can learn a lot of computer science by programming, if you bring a lot of knowledge to the task in the first place.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, if you don’t understand grammar and the notional machine, you work to correct bugs with random walks of semi-colons.  If you know what you’re doing, a new bug can become an exploration that leads to new learning.  In my experience, learning from the activity of constructing and designing only really works when there is a base of knowledge to begin with.  It’s hard to start from programming.

The base of knowledge to learn from construction and design is akin to the elaborated knowledge necessary to engage in a debate.  Then, when you have a bug, it’s a challenge to your understanding, and you have to “bend and move and evolve.”  How do we develop that elaborated knowledge in computer science students?  We lecture at them and have them read a book.  Is that enough?  Does reading a book teach you to have the knowledge of a debater?  What is the analogy of debate for computer science students? How do we help computer science students develop rich understanding, like that developed through debate?

November 24, 2009 at 10:07 am 30 comments


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