Archive for November 5, 2010

Slow change in CS1 Culture: China and Gates

I’m currently in China. Barb and I arrived in Beijing Wednesday night, visited the Great Wall and the Forbidden City on Thursday, and are now traveling to Jinan where I will be speaking on Saturday. For me, China feels the most foreign of any place I have visited. Qatar was very different, but China differs from my American expectations in everyday life in a way that Qatar didn’t, in values about food, money, time, and space.

I’ve been particularly thinking about culture since I read on the (unbelievably long) outbound flight a great interview with Melinda French Gates in the July/August issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It’s a special issue (that I’ve been working through very slowly), on the 40th anniversary of the magazine, about the next 40 years.

Q: You have referred to mistakes as “learning opportunities.” Which have had the greatest impact on your thinking?

One thing that was driven home on my last trip to India was how important it is to pair the best science with a deep understanding of traditional cultures. I was in Rae Bareli, a rural village in northern India, to see a project called Shivgarh. This is a Johns Hopkins research site that our foundation and USAID funded together, and the goal is to decrease infant mortality. The first six months of the Shivgarh project was spent on research to understand current newborn care practices, with a focus on identifying the practices that lead to neonatal deaths, and analyzing the perceptions on which these practices are based.

The researchers found that most mothers didn’t understand the importance of skin-to-skin contact, immediate breast feeding, or keeping the umbilical cord clean. However, by making analogies to important local customs, health workers were able not just to tell women what to do but also to explain why they should do it. In less than two years, Shivgarh has seen a 54 percent reduction in neonatal deaths in the target areas.

Gates does not actually answer the question about mistakes. Rather, she tells a story of a success–from taking into account cultural values, and introducing improvements as incremental changes in practice that still relate to those values. We’re left to wonder about what the mistake was that gave her this insight. What happens if you force change? Maybe the change doesn’t get adopted. Maybe the change leads to something worse.

I’m no anthropologist, so connections I draw are those of an amateur. I think Gates’ story may offer insights for us in computing education. Look at the history of CS1, seen in terms of what’s happened to the AP CS. First it was in Pascal, and then C++ and Java. Python is clearly gaining a foothold in CS1, and maybe it will be a language for the new AP CS. If we look at that sequence, it feels to me like a series of incremental changes that maintains certain values about what an introductory language should look like and what students should learn to do. Think about some of the options that have been explored for CS1 during this same time, like Scheme, or Prolog, or Smalltalk. None of those gained the momentum of the AP CS languages. Why not? Maybe those other languages were too radical a change. Maybe they challenged the cultural values of the majority of CS1 teachers. I can well believe that we might have much greater success (measured in your choice of measures) if we all adopted a radically different language. But we didn’t.

There’s a similar story to be told about how we teach CS1. Media computation challenges CS1 values about what we ask students to program. Most schools try Media Computation for their non-majors where it doesn’t challenge CS1 cultural values. Only a few (like UCSD and UIC) have tried it with their majors. Pair programming is popular, though not in the majority of CS1’s. I think it challenges CS1 teachers’ notions about the individual effort that CS1 students should make. Peer instruction and peer-lead team learning may make greater inroads because it doesn’t challenge CS1 culture in the same way, though it does challenge our sense of what a CS1 teacher does.

In Lijun Ni’s research, she found that the main factor influencing teacher’s adoption was the personal excitement or appeal that the approach has for the teacher. The research evidence did not matter at all to her subjects. That supports Gates’ view–it’s about appealing to currently held values, not about making a rational argument. Values trump reason, especially long-held values.

I don’t really know what leads to changes in values and culture. I suspect that it’s important to keep innovating, to keep challenging culture and values, and that that’s what leads to change. Gates suggests that, if you really want to make change happen in the short term, you figure out what the current values and practices are, and introduce change as an increment on those practices, explained in terms of those values. That may be frustrating if you don’t agree with the values. I’ll bet that Gates’ researchers didn’t agree with all the values they found in Rae Bareli, but that’s not the point. You work with what is there.

November 5, 2010 at 3:06 am 20 comments


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