The challenge of turning business teachers into CS teachers: Where’s the passion?

November 1, 2014 at 8:24 am 15 comments

Josh Paley raises an important point here.  The best teachers are passionate about what they do.  Converting existing teachers (most often business teachers, since that’s how CS is classified in most states) into CS teachers may result in dispassionate, unhappy teachers. I don’t think it’s the only possible outcome, and I don’t think that hiring teachers with “CS background” (degrees? job experience?) is the only answer.  But he’s right that it’s not the same as recruiting someone who decided on a career as a Computing Teacher.

I think the same sort of thing applies in CS.  Many retrained teachers will be enthusiastic about computing, study it intensely and, in time, become experts.  Others will teach CS, but it won’t be their passion, and that’s often a recipe for unhappy students who see an unhappy teacher.  There are lots of other possible outcomes, some better than others.  No matter how you slice it, it isn’t the same as hiring a person with a CS background to teach CS.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 1, 2014 at 9:14 am

    This paints the situation with such a broad brush as to be a caricature. I’m certainly okay with the general premise that forcing a teacher to move completely out of their native discipline into CS is not likely to work: I saw plenty of that during the Internet boom of the late 90s.

    But there are other, lightweight strategies that one can use. For instance, Bootstrap uses math teachers to teach a math-oriented programming curriculum. It’s not the same as teaching all of CS, but it exploits the fact that we have friends already inside schools, and if we bring our curriculum to them (rather than forcing them to teach “programming” as construed by the masses), they are happy to embrace us and even invite us in the front door rather than us having to persuade or force them to do something unnatural.

  • 2. alfredtwo  |  November 1, 2014 at 11:00 am

    I’ve seen the lack of passion with converted math teachers as well. While some welcome teaching CS, some even prefer it, I’ve seen many who regard teaching CS as just a way they can have a full teaching load. This can have a negative impact on retention and recruitment. A math oriented curriculum, such as Bootstrap, can have a good effect on at least getting some computing into a school and doing so with some enthusiasm.
    I wonder if a business curriculum with computing would work as well with business teachers? Assuming someone with a passion for both could/would develop it. I would love to see computing used in many subjects since that is what happens in the real world after school – computing is fitting in everywhere.
    Ultimately people seem not to teach well material they don’t feel some level of passion about. People don’t go to school to learn to be a generic teacher willing to teach what ever subject a school needs to have taught. They study to be science teachers, or math teachers or what ever else they love to learn about themselves. Teachers who are second career teachers usually teach subjects that they were interested in enough to use for their first career.

    • 3. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 1, 2014 at 11:28 am

      Personally, I think one of the great unexploited opportunities is in the teaching of spreadsheets for computation. In the real world, all sorts of people use it as their primary programming mechanism; I argue that Excel is maybe the world’s most widely-used functional and reactive programming language. But CS departments have a tendency to look down their noses at mere Excel (and, hey, Excel is fraught with issues as a language…though not much more so than, say, Matlab or even JavaScript). [For Excel, substitute Google Docs spreadsheets as you wish.]

      About a decade ago I began the design of what we’d now call a “data science” course, targeted at non-majors, that uses Excel as the sole tool for 1/3 to 1/2 of the course. It’s both interesting and rigorous (not just “intro to Excel”), a great means to handle real-world data, understand some basic data structuring, teach clustering, etc. I’ve never really put the effort into taking it broadly outside Brown, but it’s the kind of content that would form a very good basis for Alfred’s suggestion to create a pathway for business teachers to teach real computing.

  • 4. Peter Donaldson  |  November 2, 2014 at 5:44 am

    From experience of talking to, and working with colleagues who are dual qualified in business and computing I’d have to say a large percentage of them that I’ve come across had no passion or much interest in teaching CS.

    That’s really not surprising if you think of their relationship as similar to the relationship between Art and English; Art regularly uses pencils and pens, amongst other things, but you wouldn’t automatically expect them to be able to effectively teach English or to love the written word as much as they love creating pictorial representations. Just because both subjects happen to use computers doesn’t mean they really have that much in common.

    Many aspects of business studies draw heavily from the social sciences with the more computational aspects tending to be presented as a discrete set of approaches to particular business issues. For example laying out a balance sheet often involves teaching pupils how to use wizards or shortcuts that mean they learn a particular version of excel rather than how to create a model using a spreadsheet.

  • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  November 2, 2014 at 7:17 am

    Interesting response from Eugene Wallingford: He’s right, of course. “Passion” is a big demand. I’d be happy with getting teachers to be “curious” about computing, as he suggests. But even that can be challenging when drawing in business teachers into computing.

    I agree, Shriram, that it’s easier to draw in mathematics teachers. But in most of the United States (and all of the Southeast), computer science is classified as career and technical education. These are the teachers who are considered “highly qualified” (in terms of the No Child Left Behind act) to teach CS, so those are the ones to whom we are asked to serve professional development. For most of our teachers, this is their professional organization:
    And we’re trying to draw them to this:

    • 6. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 2, 2014 at 8:16 am

      I like Eugene’s response—it’s a bit like calling out funding agencies for wanting everything to be “transformational” (or whatever the terminological state of the art is)—but I also chuckled a bit, because I’ve run into students with loads of passion but not much curiosity. And in general, even curiosity is too much to ask for. Competence and professionalism seem to about sum it up nicely.

      I understand your point, Mark. I see it as being the two ends of a pincer.

      • 7. Eugene Wallingford  |  November 2, 2014 at 12:18 pm

        I agree, Shriram. Curiosity can be a lot to ask for, too. It’s hard to succeed for long in computing without it, though, because the world is always moving around us.

        Passion without curiosity does seem to be the natural state of many students…

  • 8. Emmanuel Schanzer  |  November 2, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Mark, you raise two points in this post:

    1) You also point out the dangers in forcing or paying teachers to convert: if we push that hard, should we really be surprised by the lack of passion?

    2) You’re saying that people who started out in non-CS backgrounds are less likely to have a passion for CS: “most passionate in-service CS teachers are born, not made”.

    I strongly disagree with #2, and Peter’s (related) comparison of CS/Math crossover with Art and English classes both using pencils. But that’s a discussion for another time.

    I want to ask you how much of a factor you think #2 actually is, given the monumental forces at play behind #1?

    * Many CS classes have terrible content set in stone. I’ve seen dozens of schools whose CS final exam is just an outdated professional certification exam, with the whole class aimed at passing the exam. I posit that no teacher would take to this passionately, no matter what their background is.

    * The incentives currently used to coerce teachers into teaching CS are truly incredible. A stipend just for teaching 20 hours of material? An extra certification without classwork? The promise of an extra planning period?

    * Our materials have major UI problems. The majority of teachers look for lesson plans, learning objectives, homework assignments, product outcomes, assessments, etc. More often then not, we give them a program or a website for their students to sit in front of. Whenever I bring this up, someone from the CS-Ed community often tells me that maybe we need to re-think how teachers teach in the first place, which would make these materials are necessary. Maybe steering a car by clenching your butt truly_is_ better, but if GM made cars that way you can bet nobody would buy them (and if you had to pay people to buy them, they probably wouldn’t be very passionate drivers!).

    To me, these forces are so strong that they obliterate the effect of teacher background. A butterfly flapping its wings in Mumbai _might_ cause rain in California, but neither of us has the data to suggest either way given the larger forces at work. So given how bad this particular drought is, I say bring on the butterflies – no matter what they studied.

    I’ll take all the “gypsy maths” 😉

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  November 2, 2014 at 10:44 am

      Where are you quoting “most passionate in-service CS teachers are born, not made” from? It’s not in my post, nor in Josh Paley’s. I don’t agree with that statement, either. I’ve argued against the notion that teachers are born not made in the past.

      • 10. Emmanuel Schanzer  |  November 3, 2014 at 8:57 am

        I was paraphrasing a certain tone that I’m picking up more from Josh’s article than your comments on it, but I even after re-reading a few times I still believe it’s there. If I’m reading you correctly, you say that having someone switch disciplines is “not the same as recruiting someone who decided on a career as a Computing Teacher” (actual verbatim quote this time).

        I read that as you saying that a CS teacher who intended to teach it all along is likely to be more passionate than one who is making a content switch. Given that passion is construed here as one dimension of quality, it seems to me that you’re making a statement about getting better teacher quality. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting that sentence? If so, what do you mean by “not the same as”?

        And to clarify, by “in-service teachers are born” I mean that they enter the workforce after incubating as pre-service CS teachers, not that there’s some inherent personality trait at work. Teachers who switch mid-career, on the other hand, have already been “born” as history/ELA/math/etc teachers.

        • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  November 3, 2014 at 10:12 am

          I was explicit and obvious in my Blog@CACM post:

          Teaching is not an innate skill. I guarantee that I can help novices learn programming far better hour-for-hour than if the novices worked on their own or via a self-study service like Khan Academy or Code Academy. I don’t have special teaching genes. I am comfortable making that claim because I have worked hard at learning what computing students typically get wrong, how to diagnose the problems, and how to orchestrate learning situations where they develop more robust understanding. We can learn to be better teachers.

          I have never made any claim that teaching is innate, that people are “born” teachers. I don’t agree that pre-service education is a process of being “born.”

          Why does a teacher “convert” (the verb I use in the post) from a business teacher to a computer science teacher? If they do because they discover computing late, that’s great. Someone who goes to college with a motivation to become a computer science teacher most likely has a passion or a curiosity (to use Eugene’s phrase) for computing. Getting an undergraduate degree is hard work, and you have to have some kind of a motivation to get through it. If that motivation is to be a computer science teacher, I’ll bet that teacher has a passion or curiosity and is likely going to teach well. A business teacher who discovers computing late, may have a passion or curiosity for computing and may teach just as well.

          But that’s not the most common case, and that’s what Josh is talking about. Here in Georgia, Business teachers are being told that what they’re currently teaching is unlikely to keep them their jobs, so they should learn computing so that they can keep those jobs. The Business division is fiercely fighting off Mathematics from teaching any computer science, to preserve the jobs for their teachers. Those teachers are teaching CS because they view it as a job requirement, not for curiosity or passion. The CS10K effort is about getting 10,000 well-educated teachers teaching computer science. There’s no requirement for passion or curiosity, and Eugene’s right — that’s too much to ask.

          Josh was making an observation that there’s a difference, and I agree with him. I don’t agree that they only way to get passionate CS teachers is by getting people with a CS background into the classroom. I do think that we can inspire passion and curiosity, and the teachers who are passionate or curious will be more successful. But if that’s not a goal of PD, it’s unlikely to just happen.

          • 12. Emmanuel Schanzer  |  November 3, 2014 at 6:17 pm

            I clarified the “born” phrase at the end of my previous comment – I certainly don’t think you’ve claimed that teaching is innate.

            Perhaps I over-reached with the birth comparison when it comes to the launch of a new career. Certainly, Pre-Service Study vs. In-Service Development isn’t really Nature vs. Nurture, but there are parallels here that (admittedly) ruffled my feathers. What I argue in my initial comment is that there are many environmental factors that filter out passionate CS teachers and wring passion from those who make through – regardless of what they studied. I think it’s a stretch to make claims about the quality of a teacher in this environment based on decisions they made when they were 18.

            Teaching something is quite different than studying it, so perhaps a decent analogy to use would be driving a truck v. a Formula 1 car. If the current environment for CS education is a blizzard, I don’t think we can make claims about who’s a better driver based on who went to racing school.

    • 13. Peter Donaldson  |  November 2, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      Hi Emmanuel,

      I can’t comment on the classroom situation in America. My context is slightly different as I’m a Computing teacher in Scotland. However I do share your frustration with uninspiring Computing qualifications too often fixated on particular technologies rather than the underlying concepts.

      I don’t think your interpretation of Marks comment on an excerpt that “CS teachers are born and not made” is either fair or accurate. I would view it that there is rather a lot more to the discipline, even at a primary and secondary level, than most people realise. Without a considerable investment of time and effort you could easily end up with technicians that can deliver a pre-packaged curriculum rather than teachers who can enrich how learners view the world.

      When I incorporate writing into particular Computing activities the focus is on the Computing concepts with writing used a vehicle for them to express their ideas. I don’t expect to spend the majority of that time teaching them how to write. If computation is a powerful medium of expression we should expect to spend some time developing their ability to understand and work in the medium as well as being able to apply it to other areas of the curriculum. As a species, we’ve used information and specified and carried out processes for a long time however it’s only recently with the invention of the computer that there’s been a need to study them as objects in their own right.

      Having said that, the Bootstrap project is a fantastic piece of work and I admire how much thought and care has gone into gradually deepening novices understanding. The incremental approach and the scaffolding provided in areas that novices tend to find difficult is exemplary. The only issue I have is with the assertion that algebraic equations and S expressions in Scheme or any other computational abstraction are the same. An equation such as the area of a circle in Maths defines an equivalence whereas, even in a functional language, an expression in a program defines a computation. Writing x = 5 or 5 = x is perfectly acceptable in algebra however a computation in a particular language has a definite and specific ordering with the two parts on either side of an assignment being treated differently. There are also issues with the finite and discrete representations that computational devices are limited to working with versus the continuous and possibly infinite sequences that can be manipulated and reasoned about in mathematics.

      Mathematics is a highly important body of knowledge for Computing however unless you’re going to assert that Biology, Chemistry and Physics are just Maths I think our attempts to provide a better foundation for Computing in Primary and Secondary education as a coherent collection of powerful ideas is justified. That’s not to say that projects such as Bootstrap, Project GUTS or Shodor Project Succeed aren’t necessary it’s just that I’d like to see Computing taught as a distinct part of the formal curriculum and computation being used to enhance other domains rather than it being either/or.

      I’d also be really interested to hear why you completely disagree with my analogy. Comments on another persons blog might not be the best place but you can reach me via email on peter dot donaldson at computingatschool dot org dot uk.

      • 14. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 2, 2014 at 11:02 pm

        Peter, thanks for your thoughtful remarks. You are absolutely right that these are somewhat different computational models. There are numerous fascinating issues to resolve here; this is one of them, and there are indeed others such as discrete representations (and that’s even before we get to floating-point so-called-numbers).

        Bootstrap is just one component of a much bigger curricular effort, and some of these issues are eventually covered later in the effort. As for the former, it is true that we take some liberties (I like to say that all education is lying; the amount and timing of the lies determines the quality of the education). If we’ve taken an excessive liberty, by all means do call us out: please send us feedback. There may, for instance, be inadvertent wording that we need to fix.

        But let me reiterate something that may have been lost there: Bootstrap is just one component of a much bigger curricular effort. This effort points directly to _computer science_, not to mathematics. Even Bootstrap:2 (the follow-on curriculum) goes in the computer science direction, and the later material is most certainly computer science, evidenced not least by being used as the introductory curriculum at several major _computer science_ departments.

        I do have some thoughts on how to extend Bootstrap further into mathematics as well, but those are orthogonal and as yet undeveloped. And even if we develop these, it shouldn’t mask the fact that Bootstrap was designed by computer scientists (indeed, one of its key contributors has a Karl Karlstrom Award). For us there is no either/or.

  • 15. Emmanuel Schanzer  |  November 2, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Note to self: editing before coffee is bad.


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