Sally Fincher on Useless Truths at SIGCSE 2010

March 11, 2010 at 9:10 pm 19 comments

Sally Fincher explained to me this morning why design patterns are important.  I’ve never quite grokked them previously.  Honestly, they felt like a conceit. “I am very expert, and I can write down my knowledge in such an abstract way that it sounds like a scientific principle. Then I can teach these principles to you, and you’ll be expert, too.”  The idea of using design patterns in CS1 classes has always seemed ludicrous to me — these students have zero experience, and you want them to understand this highly abstracted knowledge?  Today, I see the value.

Sally gave the keynote for SIGCSE 2010 this morning, as the Outstanding Contributions to CS Educaiton awardee.  She gave an amazing talk.  It was one of those talks that I’ve seen only rarely — that has me thinking about it all day long, and it will take even more reflection to understand the ramifications for my own research. I can already see that I need to re-think some of what I’ve been doing in the new terms I learned today.

She started out trying to explain why we value research, but don’t value teaching.  You can have a good teacher and a bad teacher work in the exact same classroom. It looks the same in either case. It requires no specialized facilities. The only people that really care about your teaching are those in your department.  In contrast, you care about the results of people in the same research field as you. But really, nobody at SIGCSE is really hurt if I teach badly. The community of practice for teaching is very localized.

Then she introduced Max Boisot and his concept of Information Space (I-Space).  Boisot splits up information along two dimensions: From uncodified (craft knowledge, experiential knowledge to codified (which separates representation from experience); and from concrete (tacit, can’t be fully articulated or represented, embodied) to abstract (“minimizes uses of categories”).  Teaching (both from the student and teacher’s perspectives) is concrete and uncodified.  It’s experiential.

Now, why aren’t education research results reused by others?  Because research is inherently abstract and codified.  That’s what it’s about.  Thus, education research and “best practices” lists become “useless truth.”  Sure, it may be true.  No, I have no idea how to reuse it, and replication is not guaranteed anyway.  “Your codified and abstracted knowledge is too separate from my localized context.”

Then came the figure that really has me thinking (scanned from my notes):

How do we bridge the gap between the symbolic and embodied, the gap of “useless truths”?  Through stories.  Narrative knowledge helps us to embody symbolic knowledge, and thus, to use it, and perhaps eventually, to codify it.  Narrative knowledge can help us move from the embodied to the symbolic.

Sally went on to explain how this explains why students (whose experience is embodied) don’t grok textbooks (which are codified and abstract), and why illustrations, metaphors, explanations, and stories help to bridge that gap.  She went on to connect it to her work with Disciplinary Commons, but I was already trying to make sense of these ideas for my work.  She had just explained teacher reuse in a way that helps with the work Lijun Ni and I have been doing.  I see how the Commons work in a whole new way.

One of her examples was that Design is also a tacit, embodied skill.  Patterns and Pattern Languages are ways of capturing and sharing good “expert” design practices.  She then did a very nice tour of scanned copies of Alexander’s original design patterns book, to explain how they work.  Now, I got it. Design patterns aren’t about telling novices.  It’s about experts talking to each other. It’s a way of talking about practice, about connecting from my experience and my abstraction on that experience, to your experience.  Ohhhh.

Now I’m thinking about how best to help teachers, about how best to provide teaching materials to CS teachers, and about how best to develop and convey stories that bridge that “useless truths” gap for students.  Maybe we’re already doing the right thing for students. Maybe a context is a form of narrative knowledge to bridge that gap. Maybe “media” (for example) has the role of making the abstractions of computing into usable, concrete, embodied knowledge.

SIGCSE has already been worth the price of admission for me.  I have a new sense for the value and role of story in computing education.

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iMPaCT: a Media-Propelled introduction to Computational Thinking Website for the new AP “Computer Science: Principles”

19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg Wilson  |  March 11, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Was it recorded, and if so, do you know the URL?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  March 12, 2010 at 8:20 am

      No — SIGCSE rarely records sessions. Since attendance is low this year, and budgets are tighter, I don’t think that’s happening at all here.

      • 3. Barbara Boucher Owens  |  March 13, 2010 at 12:21 am

        Actually Dan Garcia videoed the session and perhaps we can get it on the SIGCSE site

  • 4. Steve Wolfman  |  March 12, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Actually, Dan Garcia Guerrilla Archivist recorded the session. Sally and Dan are in discussions about how and whether it can be posted on the SIGCSE 2010 website (which may be a no-brainer or may be a problem.. not enough time to know yet).

    Don’t expect instant posting, however. Dan will need to synch audio and video and do some cleaning, and his pay for this job (like Mark’s “price of admission” above) is dramatically limited.

  • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  March 12, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I just got teased in the plenary session Friday morning for saying: “SIGCSE has already been worth the price of admission for me.” As Associate Program Chair, my registration fee was free!. Point well-taken, Steve!

    Of course, “price of admission” includes travel costs, being away from office and family, etc. Even including all of that, Sally’s talk already made it worth while.

  • 6. Stacy  |  March 17, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks for the nice post. One correction about Alexander’s patterns is that they actually _are_ supposed to communicate to novices. The big idea behind Alexander’s language is to open the elite task of design up to the masses towards a more democratic design process.

    Since you seem to be looking for something to love about patterns, I’ll share why I enjoy them so much. I think they try to teach by showing examples (so they are actually less abstract than other forms of documentation), In this way, they remind me of Wittgenstein’s approach to language (in his later work, Philosophical Investigations). That is, words cannot be understood out of the context of their sentences, but we can teach the abstract meaning of individual words (like “games”) through providing a number of examples (like “backgammon,” “hide and go seek”, etc.).

    I recently heard an excellent keynote from designer Bill Gaver (at HCIC 2010) about the difference between science and design cultures. He seems to agree (as do I) that design is an embodied, grounded affair. I also think he would agree that you can tap into this tacit understanding through certain representations. I believe he suggested designers’ portfolios as one representation: “portfolio as design theory,” he said. He was, however, still somewhat hesitant in noting that “if not predictive, then at least productive” theory is possible in design.

    Finally, “examples” (like patterns and portfolio contents) are powerful educators in design. I’ve often thought CS1 could benefit from a studio style peer evaluation setup (as used in design education) to help in sharing examples (and many other things). Just another thought to add to the heap!

    I do like the idea of narrative and story as knowledge representation, but I think that, ultimately, the devil is in the details. “Which details should be included in the story?” and “how should they be represented?” are two questions whose answers are extremely important.

    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  March 17, 2010 at 10:10 pm

      Stacy, do we have any evidence that design patterns work for novices? I find design patterns very abstract. Alexander may have meant design patterns for novices, but that doesn’t mean that they were effective for educating beginners. Feynman thought his Lectures in Physics were appropriate for freshmen, but they really only worked for professors and graduate students.

      • 8. Stacy Branham  |  March 18, 2010 at 10:41 pm

        Mark, I honestly don’t know if there is much evidence for either novices or experts. I have not actually read The Oregon Experiment (an extensive field test of The Pattern Language), which may be a good place to look. Also, Dearden and Finlay wrote an excellent journal paper on patterns in HCI (here: that points to some positive studies involving novices and others including experts. But, I suppose these findings need more substantiation given the following concluding remark: “one of the most obvious weakness in HCI research on patterns is the lack of substantive evidence of their benefits for actual design practice.”


  • 9. Deborah Tatar  |  March 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Actually, I am wondering where the idea comes from that Alexander thinks design patterns are for novices or should be transparent. After all, there is only one arbiter of whether something qualifies as a design pattern from Alexander’s point of view, and that is him.

    My impression is that what computer scientists are doing with design patterns is quite different from Alexander’s original approach. Key to Alexander’s thinking is the idea that patterns are immortal and timeless—a very difficult argument to make about anything in computation, and we generally ignore it (but this, and his claims of ownership, caused a melt down of the architectural school at Berkeley when he was on the faculty). My take on what design patterns can provide in CS is this: That we have few other ways of talking about how to reconcile multiple cross-level design goals. A pattern (at best) traces a successful path through multi-level design spaces integrating user behavior with underlying architecture. I prefer the concept of Design Tensions as a way to explore potentially contradictory design spaces and goals (which I’ve written about in the journal HCI), because I worry that design patterns confine us to the one path that’s already trod.


    Deborah Tatar

    • 10. Stacy Branham  |  March 18, 2010 at 10:29 pm


      The second sentence in your first paragraph seems true from what I have seen. As for design patterns being intended for non-experts and more democratic design, see Alexander’s The Oregon Experiment (search for “the principle of participation” on page 5 in the Google Books entry: Also see this article:

      I agree that this is not why/how patterns are used in SE today, and I didn’t mean to imply that this deviation somehow cheapens current usage. If it works, it works!


      • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  March 19, 2010 at 10:11 am

        It’s a really interesting assessment question to ask, “What does it mean for design patterns to work?” For novices, we’re most likely hoping that they gain some additional design insight. I built a case library design aid for students once, called STABLE, that did measurably influence students’ design understanding — but those were concrete examples, not abstracted patterns. I’m not convinced that you could measure much improvement in design understanding in novices with use of design, patterns.

        It’s a completely different thing for experts. It’s hard to measure increases in understanding or skill for experts — by virtue of being experts, their levels are already beyond what our instruments (designed mostly for educational purposes, so novices) are designed to measure. Maybe that’s not what we care about for experts, though. Maybe the fact that design patterns are just so popular is good enough. Causing dialogue about design is a good and useful thing in itself. I see Deborah’s concern about forcing people down one path, and that would be interesting to explore. But from a social constructivist perspective, any discussion about design is better than no discussion.

  • […] wrote earlier this month, when Sally won the ACM SIGCSE Outstanding Contribution in CS Education award, about her work with Disciplinary Commons with Josh Tennberg.  Suffice to say here, there are […]

  • […] would like to take the occasion to tip my hat to Sally Fincher, who gave one of the keynote talks at the 2010 SIGCSE conference in Milwaukee, WI and was, by many accounts, fantastic. I’ve […]

  • 14. Mark Guzdial  |  April 8, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Raymond Lister just posted that the audio and slides from Sally’s SIGCSE 2010 talk are now available at:

  • […] 26, 2010 In her keynote as the Outstanding Contributions to CS Education awardee, Sally Fincher talked about the “useless truths” that education researchers publish. […]

  • […] the teacher!  A skilled teacher is a master at their craft.  Teaching is an embodied practice, as Sally Fincher told us at the last SIGCSE Symposium.  How can you judge that craft without seeing the practice, or inspecting the products (e.g., […]

  • 17. Ben Chun  |  October 24, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    And what if there were design patterns for teaching? I think Doug Lemov has at least the beginnings of something like that:

    • 18. Mark Guzdial  |  October 24, 2010 at 5:10 pm

      Sally has been working on design patterns for teaching for quite some time. She refers to them as “pedagogical patterns.” As she discussed in her talk, that’s exactly the kind of “story” that bridges from the abstract to the embodied.

  • […] was talking about in her SIGCSE keynote in 2010 — she called the research results “useless truths.”)  Turadg argues that bridging the gap is a job for Design (Big-D “Design,” […]


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