Creating CS Meetups for Constructionist Adult Education

October 8, 2014 at 8:24 am 7 comments

A few months ago, I wrote a post on Constructionism for Adults. I argued that we want constructionist learning for adults, but most constructionist learning environments are aimed at children. I suggested that adults have three challenges in constructionism that kids don’t have:

  • Adults have a “face” (in the Goffman sense) that they want to preserve.
  • Adults don’t necessarily have expertise in an area, but as adults, they are presumed to have expertise.
  • Adults have less free time and more responsibilities than children.

I mentioned in that post that I was learning to play the ukulele, and that that experience was leading to new insights for me about adult education. I’m going to continue to use my ukulele learning to suggest a way to create constructionist learning opportunities for adults.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation for Adult Learning

From this point of view a very remarkable aspect of the Samba School is the presence in one place of people engaged in a common activity – dancing – at all levels of competence from beginning children who seem scarcely yet able to talk, to superstars who would not be put to shame by the soloists of dance companies anywhere in the world. The fact of being together would in itself be “educational” for the beginners; but what is more deeply so is the degree of interaction between dancers of different levels of competence. From time to time a dancer will gather a group of others to work together on some technical aspect; the life of the group might be ten minutes or half an hour, its average age five or twenty five, its mode of operation might be highly didactic or more simply a chance to interact with a more advanced dancer. The details are not important: what counts is the weaving of education into the larger, richer cultural-social experience of the Samba School.

So we have as our problem: to transfer the positive features of the Samba School into the context of learning traditional “school material” — let’s say mathematics or grammar. Can we solve it?

— Seymour Papert, “Some Poetic and Social Criteria for Education Design” (1975)

What Seymour was seeing in Samba schools is what Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger called a community of practice. My colleagues Jose Zagal and Amy Bruckman have a wonderful paper describing how Samba schools are a form of a community of practice, and how that model appears in the Computer Clubhouses that Yasmin writes about in her new book. In their influential 1991 book Situated learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Lave and Wenger described several examples for how learning occurs in everyday settings, often with adults. Lave and Wenger point out

  • There are the midwives who train their daughters who start out just going-along to help mother at births.
  • There are the tailors who start out by delivering fabric and pieces between shops, and in that way, get to see many shops — without actually doing tailoring but still doing something useful to being a tailor.
  • There are the attendees at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings who learn to tell their stories through listening to role models and getting feedback from others.

There are some key elements to these stories:

  • Newcomers start out doing something useful, but on the periphery of the community — hence, legitimate peripheral participation. Jose and Amy point out that successful Samba schools are flexible to outsiders (anyone can become a newcomer).
  • Everyone sees practice (story-telling, being a tailor, helping a birth, dancing at Samba school) at different levels. Jose and Amy talk about having a diversity of membership (socio-economic, age, race, and expertise) and that there are events for public to exhibit practice.
  • There are some members of the community of practice who are clearly at the center. They serve as role models for others. From the newcomers to those practicing but not yet central, everyone strives to learn to become like those at the center of the community of practice.

Ukulele Meet-up As Samba School and Community of Practice

In my quest to learn to play ukulele, I’ve joined the Southeast Ukers, a group of ukulele players in Atlanta. I was fortunate to know a Uker who invited me to a meet-up. A meet-up is the experience I’ve had that is closest to how I understand a Samba school.

The meet-up is held at a local Hawaiian BBQ restaurant at 2 pm on the 1st and 3rd Sunday’s in a month. Ukers show up with a couple of Ukulele songbooks with literally hundreds of songs. (I happened to have one of them on my iPad when I first went, and had both by my second meet-up.)

For the first 90 minutes, it’s a “strum-along.” The leader calls out a page number, then after a count off, everyone plays the same song and sings along. This is a remarkably successful learning activity for me as a newcomer.

  • It’s completely safe. If I can play along, I do. If I can’t, I just sing, or just watch. If I can play the chords but more slowly, I catch up on the second or third strum of a measure. I can immediately hear if I’m getting it right (right chord, right rhythm) or if I made a mistake. The people right next to me can hear me and can comment on my playing, but only those — it’s a big group.
  • It’s a public opportunity for learning. I know what chords everyone is playing. I can look around and see how everyone else plays it.
  • While everyone is strumming, the really good players are picking individual notes, or doing tricky rhythms. I can hear those, and watch them do it, and develop new goals for things I want to learn.

The gaps between the songs are when a lot of the learning happens for me. I get coaching (e.g., “You are doing really well!” or “I heard you stammer in your rhythm on that hard chord change”). I can ask specific questions and get specific advice. I’ve received tips on how to make D7 chords more easily, and different ways to do barre chords.

After 90 minutes, it’s open-mic time. Individual ukers sign up during the strum-along, and then go up to the corner stage to perform (a quality setup, with separate mics for singing and for playing and someone at a sound board). Here’s where we get to see those on their way or at the center of the community of practice. Those at the center of the community of practice reference other meet-ups and other performances, and often play their own compositions.

As a newcomer, I stare slack-jawed at the open-mic performances. They create music that I didn’t know could be made on a ukulele. Slowly, I’m starting to imagine myself playing at open-mic, even writing my own music. I’m starting to set a personal goal to become more central to this community of practice.

At a meet-up, I talk to my fellow ukers and get a sense of how much effort does it take to develop that level of expertise. I start to get a sense of how much effort it will take me to reach different levels of expertise. There’s no expectations set on me, and no presumption of expertise. I can decide for myself on how good I want to get and how much effort I can afford to put in. I can set my own pace for when I might one day sign up for an open-mic performance, and maybe even try to compose my own music. (But it won’t be soon.)

Creating a Computing Samba/Meet-Up Culture

Could we create an experience like the Samba school or like the meet-up for learning computing by adults, like undergraduates, end-user programmers, and high school teachers? What are the critical parts that we would need to duplicate?

It must be safe. People should be able to save face at the meet-up. Participants need to be able to talk with one another privately, without overhead (e.g., learning some complicated mechanism to open a private chat line). Newcomers need to be able to participate without expectation or responsibility, but be able to take on expectation and responsibility as they become more central to the community.

There must be legitimate peripheral participation. Newcomers have to be able to participate in a way that’s meaningful while working at the edge of the community of practice. Asking the noobs in an open-source project to write the docs or to do user testing is not a form of legitimate peripheral participation because most open source projects don’t care about either of those. The activity is not valued.

Everyone’s work must be visible. Newcomers should be able to see the great work of the more central participants just by looking around. This is probably the trickiest part. We tend to confuse accessibility with visibility. Yes, on an open source project, everyone’s contributions are accessible — if you can figure out github, and figure out which files are meaningful, and figure out who contributed which. Visible means that you can look around without overhead and see what’s going on.

I must be able to work alone. Everyone needs a lot of hours of practice to develop expertise. It can’t happen just in the meetup. There needs to be a way to develop one’s work alone, and share it in the meetup.

A Proposed Computing Meet-Up Context

Here are some early thoughts on what it might be like to create an environment for learning computing the way that the ukulele meetup works.

Years ago, the Kansas environment was implemented in the programming language Self. Kansas was remarkable. It was a shared desktop where all participants could see each other, see their cursors, and see their developing work.

Lex Spoon created a version of Kansas for the Squeak programming language called Nebraska (for another “large, flat, sparsely-populated space”). Nebraska in Squeak is particularly interesting for a meet-up because all the rich multi-media features of Squeak are available in both a programmable and a drag-and-drop form.

Here’s a sketch of what I propose, using a shared space like Kansas or Nebraska:

  • Participants come to a physical space with their laptops. Physical co-location is key for safe and easy peer communication. A new journal article on co-located viewing of MOOCs suggests that co-location may dramatically improve learning.
  • The participants log on to a shared Kansas/Nebraska server, which is displayed an ultra-high resolution display.
  • The participants work together to create a multimedia show.
    • Newcomers can build the graphical or audio elements (perhaps some developed at home and brought to the meetup). Building can start in drag-and-drop form, but can develop into code elements. If something doesn’t work, it might not make it into the show, but it’s a contribution to the shared space, and it’s visible for comment and review.
    • All participants can watch others work, and can walk over to them to ask questions.
    • Participants can specialize, by focusing on different aspects of the performance (e.g., music, graphics, layout, synchronization).
    • Those more central to the community can assemble components and choreograph the whole performance (much as in a Samba school).

Would this kind of meet-up be a way for adults to learn computation in a constructionist manner?

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  October 8, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Hi Mark

    To extend your musical analogies a little bit more…

    A great process for music learning has a few more elements (which I think are lurking in your post).

    1. private lessons once or twice a week

    2. “woodshedding” private practicing every day

    3. group joy — playing with others several times a week

    For a majority human beings (3) is a major payoff, and it’s the basic for the Samba and Uke schools you describe (there are even such payoffs for beginning pianists in the form of “group piano” and “piano band” — these are a lot of fun).

    An important point about these three processes is to really understand what happens best with each one, and why. For example, most of the improvement really happens in (2) and what to do there happens in (1). Number (3) is not very good for either (it may seem to be, but it isn’t).

    It *is* worth noting that regular schooling processes are pretty bad at all three!

    Another comment — which is outside of your post — is that this kind of approach by enthusiasts is great for the enthusiasts (and we’d definitely like to have everyone be enthusiastic about important subjects).

    But not everyone wants to learn to Samba or play the uke, or learn math or to read and write.

    Samba and Uke are free choices, and things work well. But for subjects that society decides everyone should learn regardless of intrinsic interest — for example, learning to read and write, math, etc, — this is not a solution for many. There are some cultural social pulls: if everyone was forced to go to a Samba school every day, but for many it won’t lead to real interest or needed fluency.

    If society needs fluency, what are ways to induce this even with low or medium interest without psychic damage?

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  October 8, 2014 at 9:09 am

      Completely agreed with all your points, Alan. There’s a big gap between the Meetups ideas and our ebook ideas. The latter is where we’re really trying to deal with your last point — inducing fluency (in our case, in teachers) with low or medium interest. I’m still interested in how we provide #3 in your list to create the “group joy” (nice phrase) in computing.

      Reply
      • 3. alanone1  |  October 8, 2014 at 9:21 am

        Hi Mark

        We see lots of “group joy” in researchers (most of whom love to give demos of their stuff to others — and many of whom love to do pair and trio programming) — and we see much of the same from children (which researchers and other enthusiasts resemble).

        I think the important point you mad about being able to hide in the group and still do what you can is critical here. This is what’s fun about orchestra rehearsal “score reading” or large choir practice vs chamber music. It’s also a big part of the entry to the exemplary musical learning process called “La Systema” that originated in Venezuela and is now growing rapidly in the US and Europe.

        And I think you are right when you say there is something that could happen in the shared experience of a Kansas/Nebraska. Back in the Vivarium days, our language then — Playground — also had a real-time shared part of its space. A favorite safe group activity was to have a constantly running staff of music that people could add notes too. It reminded me of a group mural that communities sometimes paint on the fences of construction sites. A kind of joint expression.

        It seems to me that we should be able to think up something much better along these lines for “group uke” in computing

        Cheers

        Alan

        Reply
  • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 8, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I suspect that what you propose will not be fun for the experts, so you’ll end up with a bunch of beginners and no one at the center. Dance and music are rewarding for experts in a group of mixed abilities, because they have an audience who can appreciate their expertise. Even people who know almost nothing about music or dance can appreciate a good performance.

    But for coding, there is little performance component—it is more like writing than it is like music or dance. I’ve not heard of many mixed-level writers’ circles that worked well—the good ones nearly always seem to be a group of people at about the same level, competing and cooperating. And good writing can be appreciated by people who can’t write well themselves, unlike coding.

    Personally, I think it may be more useful to look at maker spaces, where some people come to learn and some to work on projects. It isn’t necessary for everyone to work on the same project (though group projects are one of the attractions of maker spaces), but for there to be both informal and formal interactions between participants.

    Reply
    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  October 8, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      Definitely a possibility. It may depend on the particular experts. As Alan says, expert researchers like to demo their work. It may depend on how externally visible the expert’s work is. Some programming does have a performance component (like live coding). I love teaching MediaComp, and both the students and I are equally likely to come up with interesting and unexpected effects (and both quite often on accident). But I do see the concern you raise.

      Maker spaces are really a form of Meetup (or Samba school), don’t you think? The question is whether we can create a similar kind of space for the non-physical making part that teachers and similar adult learners might want to join.

      Reply
      • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 8, 2014 at 11:58 pm

        Maker spaces do seem to have the characteristics you describe for Samba schools. Often a fair amount of coding happens in maker spaces, because a lot of the maker movement artifacts include microcontrollers as components (for controlling motors, LEDs, and other outputs, as well as for integrating various sensors). The type of coding is generally more attractive to computer engineers than computer scientists or software engineers (bit twiddling, rather than grandiose algorithms, or large-scale software systems).

        Reply
  • […] newbies and make them teachers.  Make them assistants, or make them para-professionals.  Take a legitimate peripheral participation approach and let them help on the edges.  But keep the teacher front-and-center, valuing her or him for […]

    Reply

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