Technology changes what we teach — even in CS

December 9, 2011 at 6:31 am 5 comments

It’s a compelling idea (below) that technology enables a focus on higher-level thinking. For the most part, teaching kids “how to think” (HOTS: Higher Order Thinking Skills) hasn’t worked. But Google (and even more, Wolfram Alpha, which is just an astounding tool) do force us to re-think curriculum. What should we be teaching students when facts (via Google) and even analysis (via WolframAlpha) are so easily accessible? What facts are necessary to be learned, so that students can build abstractions on top of lower-level facts? Can one learn abstractions without knowing the facts? If one can, what abstractions should we be teaching, and how do we get to HOTS?

Technology’s advances create implications for computing education as well. How much should we test students on syntax when tools like Eclipse lead us through immediately correcting syntactic errors? Google lets students find all kinds of code — including the answers to many of our programming assignments. How can we use tools like Google and Eclipse to move our teaching and learning to a higher-level of abstraction?

I would love to study novices learning Mathematica. Mathematica 8 now accepts free-form natural language input (like WolframAlpha) as well as the traditional Mathematica programming language (which is very powerful and usable in multiple paradigms). Now, we can think about starting students specifying computation (is it “programming”?) in natural language, and moving into a traditional programming language, in much the same way that we think about starting with Scratch or Alice today, then moving into languages like Python or Java. What are the advantages (e.g., text->text vs. graphics->text), and what are the disadvantages? What mental models do students develop about computation when moving from natural language specification of computing into Mathematica’s programming language?

Another speaker at Ciudad de las Ideas today, NYU professor of psychology Gary Marcus, argued that schools should focus less on teaching facts—which can be easily ascertained from Google—and more on teaching them how to think. How do our brains mislead us? What biases do we have? As technology has put more information at our fingertips, Marcus believes, we need to change our schools. Benjamin agrees: He hopes that mathematical education will be less about computation—we’ve got calculators for that!—and more conceptual, like “understanding when you need to do integrals, when you need to do a square root.”

via Math education: How colleges and high schools can fix it..

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson  |  December 9, 2011 at 10:48 am

    The problem with the idea that one can just look up facts is that you still have to know some facts to know how to ask the questions. If you can’t articulate the question in a meaningful way you will spend a lot of time searching though incorrect paths that would be avoidable if you had a better base of knowledge.

  • 2. Franklin Chen (@franklinchen)  |  December 9, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Without knowing some things already, indeed, it is hard to know how to formulate a Google query, and to interpret the results and choose what is trustworthy. I have personally seen people in real time try to find information using Google and fail miserably for half an hour to get what they need, and have them be amazed when I type in a couple of words and in seconds find what they need.

    I have also seen copy-and-pasted code people have found online and put into programs completely out of context and without any understanding. I think that a real understanding of low level details is always going to be necessary no matter how high on abstraction one eventually progresses. I think human beings are simply built that way. We take the concrete and specific and build up from that.

    When people work with a programming IDE and just randomly type stuff until syntax errors go away, I am fearful.

  • 3. Errol Thompson  |  December 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    I agree that some base knowledge is needed to use search engines and to be able to utilise existing code. But can we reduce the time taken to teach basic syntax?

    IDEs like eclipse that support syntax completion and refactoring don’t do away with a need to know syntax. However, as an experienced programmer (30+ years and n+1 languages), I do rely heavily on IDEs to remind me of the syntax rules. Should I expect my students to be any different?

    I will be moving to an IDE that provides code completion facilities but I won’t stop running a lecture that talks about syntax and semantics early on in the course. The reason is that these are basic concepts that apply to languages both programming, spoken, and written. Students need to understand the similarities and differences. However, I don’t want to see my students struggling in the lab with an IDE that doesn’t provide adequate support or allow them to program by intent (i.e. starting with tests or the higher level logic and filling in the detail). I want them to be thinking about the overall requirement and not getting lost in the detail. This is something that I see happening far too often (maybe room for some educational and practitioner research here).

    Having just completed a term of introductory Java programming, I think we have a bigger problem with our students. They are focussed on how to get a grade rather than on learning. This leads them to wanting to find quick solutions and not having to do the thinking. We have to change the assessment and grading system so that it rewards learning and thinking and not the final products.

    I am trying an approach at the moment where they are being rewarded for their explanations of solutions and not simply the solution. If I take this further then if they have copied code and can’t explain it then possibly zero marks or at least a failure for the exercise. Such explanations are easier to check for plagiarism than the small code segments often used for introductory assessments.

    A bit longer than I intended but this is an issues that I am wrestling with at the moment as I watch my students and the issues that they are having.

  • 4. lozeerose » Blog Archive » First Alice Assignment  |  December 14, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    […] Technology changes what we teach – even in CS ( Share this:ShareShareEmailPrint […]

  • […] new system for end-user programming from MIT raises a question for me about users’ mental models, which I think is key for computing education (e.g., for figuring out how to do inquiry learning in […]


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