Archive for May 26, 2010

Teacher’s Materials, Family, and Hawaii

My main activity for the last couple weeks has been to work on teacher’s materials for the Media Computation website.  I made a pass at cleaning up the front page, making it easier for teachers to navigate to the materials that they need.  (Along the way, we discovered that the media sources that we linked in for the Data Structures book were wrong!  The right ones are now linked there — sorry!)  The largest single consumer-of-hours has been the creation of the Powerpoint slides for the Python Second edition book.  I’ve owed these to teachers for the whole academic year that the new edition has been out, and I’m sorry for the delay.  (My announcement about these slides to the mediacomp-teach mailing list started out with “From the Slow-but-not-Dead Department.”)  I recognize that for many overworked teachers, having a complete set of slides already prepared is necessary to be able to use a new approach or textbook.  I’m now working on updating the Data Structures book slides, since changes happened between the last time I taught the class and us finishing the book.  (For one, my co-author joined the effort, and Barb writes much better code than me.)

But whatever gets done today and tomorrow is all that will get done there for a couple weeks.  Things are crazy here at our house.  We’re hosting a graduation party for our son this weekend, with some five carloads of family coming down from Michigan for it.  So today and some tomorrow is all the work time that I can spare, then I’m in high gear for planning, shopping, and cooking.

The relevant part for this blog is that next Tuesday, June 1, I’m going off-line for 10 days.  This year, my lovely wife and I are celebrating 25 years of marriage, and my parents are celebrating 50 years!  The whole extended family is going to Hawaii to celebrate, leaving on Tuesday June 1, returning June 11. I will not be on-line during this time! No email, no blog.  My apologies for the delay, but it’s time to disconnect.

When I return, I will be heading out almost immediately (June 13) to teach workshops in Amherst and Cambridge, MA.  (Um, whose idea was it to teach 9-5 for five days while jet-lagged?  Oh yeah — mine.)  I will be trying to catch up in the evenings that week, so it may be two weeks before I can post again.

Happy early summer to all of you!

May 26, 2010 at 10:32 am 4 comments

In Praise of Drill and Practice

Last night, Barb and I went out to dinner with our two teens.  (The house interior is getting painted, so it was way easier than trying to eat in our kitchen.)  We got to talking about the last academic year.  Our eldest graduated from high school last week, with only one B in four years, including 7 AP classes.  (While I take pride in our son, I do recognize that kids’ IQ is most highly correlated with mothers’ IQ. I married well.) Our middle child was moping a bit about how hard it was going to be to follow in his footsteps, though she’s doing very well at that so far.

Since our middle child had just finished her freshman year, we asked the two of them which teachers we should steer our youngest toward or away from.  As they compared notes on their experiences, I asked about their biology teacher, Mrs. A.  I couldn’t believe the homework load that Mrs. A. sent home with the kids each night — almost all worksheets, fill-in-the-blank, drill-and-practice.  Sometimes, our middle child would have 300 questions to complete in a night!

Both our kids loved Mrs. A!  No, they didn’t love the worksheets, but they said that they really liked how the worksheets “drilled the material into our heads.”  “She’s such a great teacher!” they both said.  They went on to talk about topics in biology, using terms that I didn’t know.  Our middle child said that she’s looking forward to taking anatomy with Mrs. A, and and our eldest said that many of his friends took anatomy just to have Mrs. A again.

I was surprised.  My kids are pretty high-ability, and this messes with my notions of Aptitude-Treatment Interactions.  High ability kids value worksheets, simple drill-and-practice — what I used to call “drill-and-kill”?

On the other hand, their experience meshes with the “brain as muscle” notions that Carl Wieman talked about at SIGCSE.  They felt that they really learned from all that practice in the fundamentals, in the language and terms of the field.  Cognitive load researchers would point out that worksheets have low cognitive load, and once that material is learned, students can build on it in more sophisticated and interesting ways.  That’s definitely what I heard my kids doing, in some really interesting discussions about the latest biology findings, using language that I didn’t know.

I realized again that we don’t have (or at least, use) the equivalent of worksheets in computer science.  Mathematics have them, but my sense is that mathematics educators are still figuring out how to make them work well, in that worksheets have low cognitive load but it’s still hard getting to what we want students to learn about mathematics.  I suspect that computational worksheets would serve mathematics and computer science better than paper-based ones.  A computational worksheet could allow for dynamics, the “playing-out” of the answer to a fill-in-the-blank question.  Much of what we teach in introductory computer science is about dynamics: about how that loop plays out, about how program state is influenced and manipulated by a given process, about how different objects interact.  That could be taught (partially, the foundational ideas) in a worksheet form, but probably best where the dynamics could be made explicit.

Overall, though, my conversation with my kids about Mrs. A and her worksheets reminded me that we really don’t have much for CS learners before throwing them in front of a speeding interpreter or compiler.  A blank editor window is a mighty big fill-in-the-blank question. We need some low cognitive load starting materials, even for the high ability learners.

May 26, 2010 at 10:15 am 15 comments


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