Archive for December 20, 2011

Learning about Learning (even CS), from Singing in the Choir

Earlier this year, I talked about Seymour Papert’s encouragement to challenge yourself as a learner, in order to gain insight into learning and teaching.  I used my first-time experiences working on a play as an example.

I was in my first choir for a only year when our first child was born.  I was 28 when I first started trying to figure out if I was a bass or tenor (and even learn what those terms meant).  Three children and 20 years later, our children can get themselves to and from church on their own. In September, I again joined our church choir.  I am pretty close to a complete novice–I have hardly even had to read a bass clef in the last two decades.

Singing in the choir has the most unwritten, folklore knowledge of any activity I’ve ever been involved with. We will be singing something, and I can tell that what we sang was not what was in the music.  “Oh, yeah. We do it differently,” someone will explain. Everyone just remembers so many pieces and how this choir sings them.  Sometimes we are given pieces like the one pictured above.  It’s just words with chords and some hand-written notes on the photocopy.  We sing in harmony for this (I sing bass).  As the choir director says when he hands out pieces like this, “You all know this one.”  And on average, he’s right.  My wife has been singing in the choir for 13 years now, and that’s about average.  People measure their time in this choir in decades.  The harmony for songs like this were worked out years and years ago, and just about everyone does know it.  There are few new people each year — “new” includes even those 3 years in. (Puts the “long” four years of undergraduate in new perspective for me.) The choir does help the newcomers. One of the most senior bass singers gives me hand gestures to help me figure out when next phrase is going up or down in pitch. But the gap between “novice+help” and “average” is still enormous.

Lave and Wenger in their book “Situated Learning” talk about learning situations like these.  The choir is a community of practice.  There are people who are central to the practice, and there are novices like me.  There is a learning path that leads novices into the center.

The choir is an unusual community of practice in that physical positioning in the choir is the opposite of position with respect to the community.  The newbies (like me) are put in the center of our section.  That helps us to hear where we need to be when singing.  The more experienced people are on the outside.  The most experienced person in the choir, who may also be the eldest, tends to sit on the sidelines, rather than stand with the rest of the choir.  He nails every note, with perfect pitch and timing.

Being a novice in the choir is enormous cognitive overload.  As we sing each piece, I am reading the music (which I’m not too good at) to figure out what I’m singing and where we’re going. I am watching the conductor to make sure that my timing is right and matches everyone else. I am listening intently to the others in my section to check my pitch (especially important for when there is no music!).  Most choir members have sung these pieces for ages and have memorized their phrasing, so they really just watch the director to get synchronized.

When the director introduces a new piece of music with, “Now this one has some tricky parts,” I groan to myself.  It’s “tricky” for the average choir members — those who read the music and who have lots of experience.  It’s “tricky” for those with literacy and fluency.  For me, still struggling with the notation, it takes me awhile to get each piece, to understand how our harmony will blend with the other parts.

I think often about my students learning Java while I am in choir.  In my class, I introduce “tricky” ideas like walking a tree or network, both iteratively and recursively, and they are still struggling with type declarations and public static void main.  I noticed last year that many of my students’ questions were answered by me just helping them use the right language to ask their question correctly. How hard it must be for them to listen to me in lecture, read the programs we’re studying, and still try to get the “tricky” big picture of operations over dynamic data structures–when they still struggle with what the words mean in the programs.

Unlike working on the play, singing in the choir doesn’t take an enormous time investment — we rehearse for two hours one night, and an hour before mass.  I’m having a lot of fun, and hope to stick with it long enough to move out of the newbie class.  What’s motivating me to stick with it is enjoyment of the music and of becoming part of the community.  There’s another good lesson for computer science classes looking to improve retention.  Retention is about enjoying the content and enjoying the community you’re joining.

 

December 20, 2011 at 8:45 am 6 comments


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