Context matters, not just my context

February 2, 2010 at 11:06 am 7 comments

I had a really interesting conversation yesterday with Ron Eglash of RIT at the BPC Community Meeting.  Ron does wonderful work exploring the computing and mathematics in cultural practices, like the transformational geometry in how cornrows are woven, or the complex graphics algorithms in Native American bead weavings.  He mentioned that one of the surprising things he’s discovered is that the context matters a lot, but it doesn’t have to be their context.  As he’s been taking his design tools to places like Ghana and to peoples like the Inuit in Alaska, he finds that students often find most interesting the tools not from their own context.  He says that he shows them all his tools, then let’s them pick what they want to explore further, and they rarely pick their own culture’s practices.

I think that meshes with what we’re learning about contextualized computing education.  Not all the students in our IPRE CS1 want to become roboticists, but the students recognize that robotics is part of CS, so the robotics context brings meaning to what they’re doing.  Lana Yarosh found that 60-70% of the students in the Media Computation data structures class found  that the media context made the class more interesting and more motivating — even though the majority of the students were Industrial and Systems Engineers who were probably not going to be doing much media manipulation in their careers.

All these stories remind me of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning not that I’m saying taking a computer science class is like surviving a concentration camp!  Piaget said that humans are sense-making: we try to make sense of situations. Frankl said that humans are meaning-making: we need to have a reason for doing.  Ron’s work and our contextualized computing education is about providing meaning, demonstrating the value of what’s being learned, and giving a reason for making the effort to make sense of the material.

Context matters.  I have to value the context, but it doesn’t have to be my context.

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The Productivity of CS Teachers What if “CS1” is just a really bad idea?

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  February 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I agree with this sentence “Frankl said that humans are meaning-making: we need to have a reason for doing”

    — but I hate the idea that children can get into college without their “reason for doing” being “to learn”. This is pathetic.

    I know, I know, “this is the way it is today” — pretty much everything from 2nd grade on is some kind of remediation coupled with trying to find new kinds of sugar water to bribe children (and parents — and teachers) to take advantage of the most wonderful opportunities in history.

    Oscar Levant was great at coming up with titles for his various autobiographical books (he could not write any other kind of book — but they were at least as funny as bon mots about depression and narcissism can be). Perhaps the one that applies best here is “Treadmill To Oblivion”.



    • 2. Joyous  |  February 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm

      I hate the idea that children can get into college without their “reason for doing” being “to learn”. This is pathetic.

      Why is this pathetic? College costs a lot of money. If all I wanted to do was learn, I’d go to the library. Sure, learning’s *one* good reason to go to college, but it helps to have some reasonable expectation of a return on the investment.

      • 3. Alan Kay  |  February 6, 2010 at 10:00 am

        The shortest comment I can think of making here is that the deep purpose of education is to take a child whose limited knowledge and outlook on the world has them desiring to get from “A to B” and instead get them to a C that is much richer with many wider perspectives.

        Training and vocational schools usually accomplish only the “A to B” part.

        When colleges and universities decided to become businesses, they increasingly put themselves into the “vocational training business” (which is not necessarily a bad thing to add, but it is a disaster if done at the expense of real education).

        So, in a very real and important sense, the “return on investment” for a real education is “enlightenment”. The return on investment for training probably should be a job as you suggest.

        The rapid changes in CSTEM and society — plus the rather dismal state that so many citizens (and our own field) is in — suggest that a lot more enlightenment and perspective is needed, not more training.

        Best wishes,


  • 4. Wicked Teacher of the West  |  February 3, 2010 at 3:20 am

    I think a corollary might be that the context must be accessible. If students have to spend too much time trying to decode the context itself, when the true goal of the activity isn’t the context, then it is a barrier. The context either has to be one that is motivational or accessible for students. Motivation can come because they think it is neat or because they think it will be useful, such as a problem from their major. It can be accessible if it is explained well and easily understood, such as Eglash’s work. (The explanations I’ve seen in his work are very clear and the corresponding pictures are enlightening.)

    I think Suzanne Hambrusch may have some recent work about this, showing that students struggle more when they’re learning programming and working in an unfamiliar context, but I only know about it second-hand, so we should ask her.

  • 5. Joyous  |  February 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Re: Your first paragraph, this seems a logical extension of being a creative person. Of course the design students are interested in tools that are not from their own context–that’s part of what creativity is.

    Continuing, I wonder if your student’s interest in robotics, despite pursuing a different career path, might not be due to understanding that “robotics is part of CS,” but simply to the fact that robotics is *cool*. 🙂 Likewise, Yarosh’s Industrial and Systems Engineers may have found media manipulation fun and interesting regardless of whether or not it was “their” context.

    Not disagreeing with you–on the contrary, I believe context is very important to learning anything–just noting that “cool” contexts might be more appealing than less cool ones. 🙂

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  February 6, 2010 at 9:45 am

      It’s a great question: What makes a “cool” context? Most of us computing faculty today learned computing through Fibonacci sequence and solving the Towers of Hanoi — that was a “cool” context for us. Today’s students have different expectations, perhaps driving in part by advancing technology? One of Barb’s teachers just sent her a video of her AP CS students’ MediaComp collages. You couldn’t do things like THAT with Fibonacci numbers!

      • 7. Alan Kay  |  February 6, 2010 at 10:22 am

        Hi Mark

        I like to use the contrast between “News” and “New” — the former can be told in a few minutes because it is completely incremental to what people already know (we all know about war, car crashes, snow storms, etc.). On the other hand “New” is precisely about what we haven’t seen before.

        When “New” appears, most people try to reject it, or to see it as “News”. In both cases, they miss what’s actually “New”. For example, the “News” about the printing press was that it could automate what monks did with manuscripts; this seemed so benign that the Church did not think to destroy it (until many years later).

        What was “New” was that the press was a new way to argue and allowed new forms of arguments and new thoughts to be formed and discussed by everyone. It took a while for the “New” to have its way, but the 18th century was the result — in which every important detail was quite unthinkable in the 15th century when the press appeared.

        (As you might guess, a few visionaries early on were able to see what was “New” and thus to see the future rather clearly — but for most it was a huge surprise.)

        Dijkstra was famous for putting considerable style on biting comments which were often wide of the mark (but not always).

        In his famous essay about computing ca 1989, one of his more interesting arguments is that it is a real mistake to try to present computing as “News”. He wanted to go right at what was really novel and powerful and “New” about it, and let this be the excitement and motivation to really dig in to learn it and start thinking about the real motivations.

        The best stuff that has been done over the last 50 years or so has had the character of being “New” and not like what most people thought the computer was.

        As an official old fogey now, I would characterize most of what is being done today, both in the field and in teaching the field, as bending over backwards to present it as “News”.

        An example that astounds me is the contrast between the “News” of: “computers are to be programmed in a programming language to make various kinds of applications” versus the “New” of: “if we have have a computer, we can make a more suitable computer in which to make what we want”.

        The preference for the simple minded “News” perspective leads to what I think is a major disaster in the whole approach to teaching programming today and for much of the past. (And of course an even worse disaster in our field as a whole.)




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