Raymond Lister on research themes and approaches

July 2, 2010 at 9:42 am 4 comments

Raymond wrote a long comment in response to the blog post on tutors. I will respond in comments here. Given the effort he made at creating this interesting statement, I wanted to promote it to a post.

Mark wrote, “Raymond, do you forego giving students textbooks or other pedagogical tools, because we don’t yet have good human-based pedagogy for computer science?”

I think that’s not quite the right analogy. You are not proposing to *use* existing automated “cognitive tutors”, but to *build* them. So a better analogy would be “Raymond, do you *write* textbooks when you don’t believe you have a good human-based pedagogy for computer programming?” To that question, my answer is, “I haven’t written a textbook for that very reason”.

Another problem with the analogy is that doesn’t distinguish between teaching practice and CSEd research. What I do in my teaching practice is bricolage, which Wikipedia describes as “to make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand”. (For a more sophisticated description of bricolage, and the difference between bricolage and science, the interested reader might try to read the book by Claude Lévi-Strauss ‘The Savage Mind’ – but I confess I found it to be a very hard read.) In the *practice* of teaching, as part of that bricolage, I do make creative use of whatever materials are at hand, such as bits and pieces out of textbooks, and perhaps bits and pieces from computer-based tools, but it doesn’t follow that my bricolage also defines my research.

[One more thing about this textbook analogy, perhaps just an amusing non sequitur … last time I taught a class, over 90% of the class did NOT even BUY the textbook! Almost all those students passed, and many achieved high grades, so maybe those students know something about textbooks and learning that I don’t know!]

Mark wrote, “When I was in Education grad school …”

Your graduate school experience is clearly the dominant influence on your CSEd research orientation. And why not? You were in the right place for that time. Soloway and his associates did the right sort of research for their time, and they did it about as well as anybody could. But the difference between your CSEd research orientation and my CSEd research orientation is how we each view the Soloway et al. legacy 20+ years later. You see myself and some other CSEd researchers as people who are not sufficiently aware of Soloway et al. ‘s work , and as a consequence we are at best doomed to repeat the Soloway et al. work. For example, in a blog posting some months ago, you characterized the work that I and others did as part of the ITiCSE 2004 Leeds working group as a recapitulation of work in Spohrer’s thesis. My motivation to start that ITiCSE working group was a desire to explore a new philosophical approach to studying the novice programmer, and from that perspective the Leeds working group paper describes research that is fundamentally different from the research in Spohrer’s thesis, and all work in the Soloway tradition.

I can’t prove it, not yet, but my hunch is that Soloway et al. ‘s work was a necessary research program that turned out to be a failure. (I’m using “research program” in the sense that Lakatos used it.) That Soloway et al. ‘s work failed is in no way a criticism of their work at that time. Soloway et al. ‘s work was a research program we had to have before we could move on to better ways of thinking about novice programmers. In my work from 2004 onwards, I’ve been trying to develop a new way of thinking about the novice programmer.

Maybe your view of the Soloway legacy will turn out to be right, and mine wrong. Both of our positions are open to an empirical answer, and only time will tell who is right. (And maybe both of us are wrong.) However, I disagree profoundly when you express implicitly the view that work on cognition in the rationalist/computational tradition (e.g. Soloway and Anderson) is something that is based upon a self-evident truth, the only possible truth. Such a view denies legitimacy to research based in other traditions.

While it is contrary to the traditional university education of a computer scientist to imagine non-rationalist / non-computational ways for describing the mind of the novice programmer, alternative ways of describing human thinking have been articulated outside of computer science. Most of that work traces its roots to the philosophers Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. I won’t pretend to understand that foundational work by those two philosphers, but I feel I do understand the interpretation of that work, in the context of artificial intellengence / cognitive scence, by Hubert Dreyfus (see his book “What Computers Can’t Do”, subsequently and amusingly republished with the title “What Computers Still Can’t Do”.) There’s also the biologically inspired way of describing human thinking, which has its roots in people like Maturana and Varela. (As I posted earlier, the most accessible read on that work is the book by Winograd and Flores, `Understanding Computers and Cognition’.) My own most recent work is influenced by the bio-psychological work of the neo-Piagetians.

Mark wrote, “I used to work with Chemical Engineers on tools to teach modeling. We built models of these large chemical engineering plants. I’d ask them, “Okay, now what happens as we start the system.” And the answer was, “Really, we don’t know.” Most of Chemical Engineering explains the steady-state. Starting up a refinery or pumping system is a sort of black art …”

If I may borrow and distort your analogy for my own evil ends … Just as chemical engineers don’t attempt to formally model what they don’t understand, I hesistate to build formal models of something that I don’t understand – how novice programmers learn. Also, to run with the chemical analogy some more, the human mind is *never* in a steady-state, and requires a non-traditional way of thinking, a way of thinking pioneered by Nobel Prize winning chemist Ilya Prigogine. His popular science book, “Order Out of Chaos” offers a non-rationalist way of thinking about all non-linear systems, not just chemical systems, and I have found his ideas to be a fertile source of inspiration for my own thinking about novice programmers.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Guzdial  |  July 3, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Raymond, are you familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay The American Scholar? His model of the scholar is one that gets his hands dirty (“I grasp the hands of those next me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work”) and actually does something:

    Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

    Scholarly analysis is appropriate for theory-building. In education especially (where we are so bad at predicting outcomes from theory), the test of any theory is an intervention. Educational theory is only valuable if it is useful in prediction or in design of an intervention.

    Raymond, you should be aware that the “instruction as engineering psychology” idea came from Robert Glaser (not Elliot Soloway), past president of the American Educational Research Association and awardee of the American Psychological Association’s award for contributions to education. The tradition you are rejecting is not just Soloway and Anderson, but most of cognitive science, education, and psychology today. You’re absolutely right — it could all be wrong. But that’s where I see the best evidence, and that’s the approach I’m building upon.

    My job as a professor and as a researcher is to further that work in which I find value, and to ignore or explicitly critique and reject work in which I do not find value. I’m not making any claims about “self-evident” or “only possible truth.” I’m making judgments based on my interpretation of the available data and analyses.

    You may have this forum (my blog) confused with a journal, which should publish papers that present sound evidence supporting theory, coming from any tradition. This is my blog where I represent what I think. It’s part of my job to reject theory that I believe is erroneous or unsupported. If you have evidence to support another theory, please do publish it or put it in your own blog. If I agree with you, I’ll build on it, too.

    I didn’t claim that your work at ITICSE 2004 was a “recapitulation” of Spohrer’s work. I said that Spohrer’s theory could be used to explain your results. That’s something we look for in good theory, that it can be predictive and explanatory. I believe that you that started from a different approach. In my opinion, your theory and approach has not yet achieved something beyond the rationalist/computationalist perspective that you reject. I DO hope that you do — that would be a real achievement and a contribution to the community.

  • 2. Raymond Lister  |  July 7, 2010 at 10:59 pm


    My apologies for creating a misunderstanding in my previous post. What follows is an explanation of what I intended.

    Some months ago, we exchanged posts, in which I alluded to epistomelogical and ontological issues with schemas. At that time, you asked me to provide some pointers to the literature to which I was alluding. At that time, I replied that I was in the midst of packing up in Vancouver, before taking a long Canadian vacation, and then returning to Australia,
    so I would not post those pointers until my return to Australia. It’s about a week since I resubscribed to the email feed of your blog, and my last post was the promised description of that literature.

    In retrospect, I should have started my last post with an explanation like the one in the above paragraph. My mistake, and my apologies.

    In the interests of bringing this thread to an end, I won’t comment on the specific points you raised in your post to me in this thread, nor will I post to this thread again. Whether you post or not is an entirely a matter for you, as it is after all your blog.


  • […] and common users know about computing.  That’s a really important science goal.  However, we are also engineers — we attempt to create solutions to learning problems.  As computing education researchers, […]

  • […] Raymond Lister on research themes and approaches (computinged.wordpress.com) […]


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