Archive for April, 2013

Learning about learning in a musical: The power of deliberate practice in a whole setting

I am working set crew for a musical for the last two weeks and through this weekend. This is my third year doing it, so I’m not quite the novice I was when I first wrote about the experience.  We’re doing “Curtains” which is a show-in-a-show musical — the setting is a theater in Boston where a Western musical is being readied for Broadway, when murders start backstage.

Again, I’m struck by the complexity of musical theater.  The actors have been at it since January, and everything they have to learn amazes me.  As stage crew, I only owe them three weeks of every evening, but I still have had a lot to learn in a short time.  In part of Act Two, I’m setting flats, then racing back to help actors with their quick change (it’s way harder to button someone else’s shirt buttons than your own), then lift a globe into place (turning it sideways to fit through door frames), before racing back to set up a river in the next scene.

What’s particularly striking me this year is how we have not only learned some fairly complex activities, but we have learned them well enough to self-monitor and invent.

  • During one performance this last weekend, I was the last crew still on stage when the stage manager whispered to me, “The rope!”  The rope that held the globe still had come loose and was dangling.  I grabbed it and dove behind a riser — just as the lights came up.  I was trapped.  (Not seriously, of course.  The worst that would happen is that the audience would see a guy in black crawl by at the back of the stage.  But the whole point of theater is to maintain an illusion, so you avoid those kinds of incongruities.) The stage manager whispered to me to climb up the ladder behind the globe without being seen, and tie the globe down, which I did.  Now, I’m trapped on a ladder behind the scene and thinking, “What do I do next?”  In the next scene change, I was to be a real stagehand acting like a stagehand.  “Curtains” is a play about a play, so at a few times in the show, someone yells, “Clear the set” and we stagehands come out (in the lights! in front of the audience!) to clear the set.  When Lt. Cioffi yelled, “Let’s bring in the river,” I ran out to bring in the river scene — from behind the globe.  Nobody would have noticed or cared where the stagehand came from, so the illusion was maintained.
  • During last night’s performance, the trap door that drops the heavy sandbag (an attempted murder) didn’t work.  One of the actors on stage invented dialog to get around that flub and keep the story going  — that was quick thinking.  The trap door failure created a challenge for the set crew.  Why didn’t the trap door work?  Was it going to get unstuck and drop a weight during the middle of another scene?  While one member of the set crew started crawling around to check the trap door, the rest of the stagehands covered his chores.

I could go on and on.  A prop is missing, a costume breaks, someone flubs their line or doesn’t get on stage quick enough.  Things happen, and people have to think on their feet.  Let’s compare this to introductory computer science class, where  students famously have difficulty figuring out one way to do something in 10-15 weeks of practice.  Or when they do something the one way that they can figure out, it just barely works and the code is frequently awful — ugly and hard to read.

What we see going on in the musical is complex learning, with flexibility. It’s not quantum physics, but it is complex.  If you’ve ever learned a dance or martial arts, you know that remembering and recreating a sequence of physical moves can be challenging.  Now combine that across multiple scenes, with rapid timing (quick changes have to be completed before the orchestra finishes the song), with lots of people involved, and it’s complicated.  I just bought the “Curtains” soundtrack and am impressed.  Our actors and singers can hold their own with the original cast recording.

How did everyone involved in the musical learn so much, so well, in such a short amount of time?  And why doesn’t that happen so often in formal education?  There are lots of things going on.  Here are two that I’ve been thinking about:

  • I’m currently listening (in my work commutes) to “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” where she talks about Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice.  I’m not suggesting that the actors or stagehands in the musical have put in ten thousand hours or are experts (though I would not be surprised if some of our top actors, who do a lot of theater and commercial work, may cross that threshold).  I am suggesting that Ericsson’s conditions for developing expertise are present here: “The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.”  We do the musical over-and-over.  We are motivated to get it right.  The directors critique, and we critique ourselves.  “That didn’t go well,” or “we could do that better.”  That doesn’t happen in formal education so much.
  • I’m reading David Perkins’ “Making learning whole,” where he talks about how we tend to teach piecemeal in formal education, but in informal education (in his introduction, it’s learning baseball), the learner knows what the end product is supposed to look like.  The actors and stagehands in a musical know where we’re going.  We have a complete picture of the role of each piece.  We know what a good show looks like.  We focus on this number here, and this set change there, but there’s no question that everything is supposed to fit together.  It’s not like “We’re learning recursion, and I’m not sure why I’d ever want to do this.”  Students in formal education often don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning, of how it all fits together.

P.S.  If you’re in Atlanta, there are shows this Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 4 pm. Come see it!

April 30, 2013 at 1:43 am 5 comments

New Center for Research on Cyberlearning

This is a pretty exciting center.  EDC does very good work, and Jeremy Roschelle is an excellent researcher in learning sciences (author of the JLS article on economic benefits of STEM education that I blogged on last year).

The new center aims to maximize the potential of NSF-funded projects focused on learning with technology, with the goal of addressing pressing needs in STEM education. Of particular interest are technological advances that allow more personalized learning experiences, that draw in and promote learning among those in populations not currently well-served, and that allow access to learning resources. EDC’s role will be to assess the needs of NSF grantees, foster the development of partnerships, and facilitate and lead events that bring together grantees and stakeholders from the national cyberlearning community.

“This initiative brings another NSF program resource center to EDC and allows us to harness our collective experience and knowledge in this area,” said EDC’s Sarita Pillai, who will lead the EDC team. “Through this work, we expect to accelerate progress in the field of cyberlearning and to improve student learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.”

“This is a timely, important opportunity to connect high-quality research with the rapidly growing market for digital learning, an area of intense need and investment in Silicon Valley and throughout the country,” said SRI’s Jeremy Roschelle, director of CIRCL.

via EDC a Partner in New Center for Research on Cyberlearning | Education Development Center.

April 29, 2013 at 1:32 am Leave a comment

Making Education a Team Sport

This is a compelling vision.  Set aside MOOCs or not — how could we use a team-based approach in building postsecondary education, so that we have the best of texts, tools, in-class experiences, videos, and individualized tutoring and advising?  If we want higher-quality, we can’t expect one teacher to perform all roles for increasing numbers of students.

The real threat to traditional higher education embraces a more radical vision that removes faculty from the organizational center and uses cognitive science to organize the learning around the learner. Such models exist now.

Consider, for example the implications of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. More than 10 years ago, Herb Simon, the Carnegie Mellon University professor and Nobel laureate, declared, “Improvement in postsecondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community-based research activity.” The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) is an outgrowth of that vision and has been striving to realize it for more than a decade.

via Essay on how technology and new ways of teaching could upend colleges’ traditional models | Inside Higher Ed.

April 29, 2013 at 1:20 am Leave a comment

LiveCode Community Edition is released: HyperCard is free again and runs on anything!

I’m excited about this and find myself thinking, “So what should I do with this first?”  LiveCode isn’t as HyperCard-like as it could be (e.g., you edit in one place, then compile into an application), and it has all of HyperCard’s limitations (e.g., object-based not object-oriented, lines are syntax).  But it’s freeincluding all engines.  I can program iOS and Android from the same HyperCard stack!  I can build new kinds of programming languages and environments on top of Livecode (but who in the world would want to do something like that?!?) that could compile into apps and applications!  It’s a compellingly different model for introductory computing, that sits between visual block programming and professional textual programming. Wow…

LiveCode Community is an Open Source application. This means that you can look at and edit all of the code used to run it, including the engine code. Of course, you do not have to do this, if you just want to write your app in LiveCode there is no need for you to get involved with the engine at all. You write your app using LiveCode, the English-like scripting language, and our drag and drop interface. Fast, easy, productive and powerful.

via Community Edition Overview | RunRev.

April 26, 2013 at 1:28 am 9 comments

Google’s Computer Science Teach Fellows Program

At first, Google contacted us to find existing CS teachers to be part of their new teaching fellows program, but they’ve just opened it up to new grads as well.

Google is searching for talented (STEM) Science, Technology, Engineering or Math teachers to join a 2-year post-graduate program designed to grow leaders in computer science education. The program targets new graduates passionate about the future of computer science education. Applications are being accepted on a rolling basis for a two-year program that begins in June 2013. Applicants must be able to commit to the entire two years. As a part of the practicum, you will be working with thought leaders in education to learn the newest techniques and programs for computer science pedagogy, implementing programs with area schools and students, and creating your own innovative approaches to student learning. You can apply for the position and find more details about the program on this website. Please direct any questions you might have to

The role: Computer Science Teaching Fellows, New Grad 2013

Minimum Qualifications:

• Bachelor’s degree in computer science or related field

• Some form of teaching or instruction experience (e.g., teaching assistant, tutor)

• Able to commit to a 2-year program and start June 2013

• Willing to relocate to/within South Carolina

April 25, 2013 at 1:14 am 5 comments

School for Poetic Computation

I love the idea of this school.  It reminds me of Donald Knuth’s Turing Award lecture Computing Programming as an Art and of Guy Steele’s call for an MFA in software practices.

We are interested in craft, and the idea that every writer needs space and time to hone their trade. Our school aims to provide a safe haven – so you could get acquainted with the craft at your own pace, make it your own, find that part between your true creative process and the craft. This takes time, encouragement, the right push at the right time, conversations with colleagues, and more time.

via SFPC – mission.

April 25, 2013 at 1:09 am 2 comments

Diversity programs give illusion of corporate fairness: Costs of just a little education

Reminds me of the Jump$start program that made students over-confident and worse at making financial decisions.  Teach people a little about diversity, and they think it doesn’t exist anymore.

Diversity training programs lead people to believe that work environments are fair even when given evidence of hiring, promotion or salary inequities, according to new findings by psychologists at the University of Washington and other universities.

The study also revealed that participants, all of whom were white, were less likely to take discrimination complaints seriously against companies who had diversity programs.

via Diversity programs give illusion of corporate fairness, study shows | UW Today.

April 24, 2013 at 1:28 am Leave a comment

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April 2013

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