Archive for October, 2015

Human students need active learning and Econs learn from lecture: NYTimes Op-Ed in defense of lecture

I’m sympathetic to the author’s argument (linked below), that being able to understand an argument delivered as a lecture is difficult and worthwhile. Her characterization of active learning is wrong — it’s not “student-led discussion.”  Actually, what she describes as good lecture is close to good active learning.  Having students answering questions in discussion is good — but some students might disengage and not answer questions.  Small group activities, peer led team learning, or peer instruction would be better to make sure that all students engage. But that’s not the critical flaw in her argument.

Being able to listen to a complicated lecture is an important skill — but students (at least in STEM, at least in the US) don’t have that skill.  We can complain about that. We can reform primary and secondary schooling so that students develop that skill.  But if we want these students to learn, the ones who are in our classes today, we should use active learning strategies.

Richard Thaler introduced the term “Econs” to describe the rational beings that inhabit traditional economic theory. (See a review of his book Misbehaving for more discussion on Econs.)  Econs are completely rational.  They develop the skills to learn from lecture because it is the most efficient way to learn.  Unfortunately, we are not econs, and our classes are filled with humans. Humans are predictably irrational, as Daniel Ariely puts it. And there’s not much we can do about it. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman complains that he knows how he is influenced by biases and too much System 1 thinking — and yet, he still makes the same mistakes.  The evidence is clear that the students in our undergraduate classes today need help to engage with and learn STEM skills and concepts.

The empirical evidence for the value of active learning over lecture is strong (see previous post).  It works for humans.  Lecture probably works for Econs.  If we could find enough of them, we could run an experiment.

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

Source: Lecture Me. Really. – The New York Times

A similar argument to mine is below.  This author doesn’t use the Humans/Econs distinction that I’m using.  Instead, the author points out that lecturers too often teach only to younger versions of themselves.

I will grant that nothing about the lecture format as Worthen describes it is inherently bad. But Worthen’s elegy to a format that bores so many students reminds me of a bad habit that too many professors have: building their teaching philosophies around younger versions of themselves, who were often more conscientious, more interested in learning, and more patient than the student staring at his phone in the back of their classrooms.

Source: Professors shouldn’t only teach to younger versions of themselve

October 30, 2015 at 8:49 am 11 comments

Professor wants to double the number of computer science teachers in Wisconsin: Color me jealous

The headline that a professor wants to double the number of CS teachers is cool, but as I dug into the piece, I grew jealous.  Wisconsin has CS teacher certification! (Even if “confused, disparate, and sometimes absurd.”)  They have pre-service teacher programs!  They need more CS Teaching Methods classes — I’ve taught CS teaching methods!  Are they hiring?  (Oh, wait — I’ve heard about what’s happening to Wisconsin state universities.)  Except for that university part, Wisconsin sounds like it has it good!

The second piece of the plan consists of easing the process for computer science teachers to receive their license. Getting certified is difficult, according to Brylow. According to one report from the Computer Science Teachers Association, the process is described as “confused, disparate, and sometimes absurd.”UW-La Crosse and UW-Whitewater are the only universities left in the state that offer programs to get certified, after many universities began dropping the program in the 1990s. “Whitewater has graduated three computer science teachers in the past five years and La Crosse has graduated zero in the past five years,” Brylow said. “So we identified that one of the problems is nobody knows how to teach this one critical course called the Computer Science Teaching Methods course.

Source: Professor wants to double the number of computer science teachers in Wisconsin | Local Education | host.madison.com

October 28, 2015 at 7:04 am 4 comments

Jeff Atwood says “Learning to code is overrated” but means “We need good CS teachers”

I’ve written responses to comments like Atwood’s before.  His perspective on “coding” is too limited, and he isn’t realizing that being a user and being a programmer is where most people will be (see the “fat line” blog post here).  That “provide them plenty of structured opportunities to play with hardware and software” is a pretty good definition of one kind of “teaching kids ‘computer science.'”  We need that.  But the kids who only need opportunities to “play” in order to learn tend to be highly privileged (see the “rich boys” blog post here).  Nobody wants kids to just “type in pedantic command words in a programming environment.” That’s a good definition of poor computing teaching.  We need good teachers who know how to support a range of students with different kinds of scaffolding.

So what Atwood is really saying that we need good CS teaching.  Yup, you need a lot of that in NYC — I agree.

If you want your kids to have a solid computer science education, encourage them to go build something cool. Not by typing in pedantic command words in a programming environment, but by learning just enough about how that peculiar little blocky world inside their computer works to discover what they and their friends can make with it together. We shouldn’t be teaching kids “computer science.” Instead, we should provide them plenty of structured opportunities to play with hardware and software. There’s a whole world waiting to be unlocked.

Source: Jeff Atwood: Learning to code is overrated – NY Daily News

October 26, 2015 at 7:55 am 9 comments

Teachers Aren’t Dumb: The importance of improved teacher development

A highly recommended piece in the New York Times is linked below.  I learned a lot from it.  I didn’t know that college graduates who teach are comparable in SAT averages to other college graduates.  The information about teacher preparation programs and about how little new graduates know about teaching was surprising and fascinating.  We’re not yet at the point where we can decry CS teacher pre-service development yet (because for the most part, it exists in only a few places in the world, and almost none in the US), but these are important points to keep in mind when we do have it.

It’s true that the average SAT score of high school students who plan to become teachers is below the national average. But planning to teach doesn’t guarantee that you’ll succeed in college, pass the certification test and be hired. The median SAT score for those who actually do end up teaching is about the national mean for other college graduates. (There is some variation, depending on teaching specialty.) Teachers are smart enough, but you need more than smarts to teach well. You need to know your subject and you need to know how to help children learn it. That’s where research on American teachers raises concerns.

Source: Teachers Aren’t Dumb – The New York Times

October 23, 2015 at 7:01 am 6 comments

Requirements for a Computing-Literate Society: VL/HCC 2105 Keynote

I gave a keynote talk at VL/HCC 2015 (see the program here) on Tuesday morning.  Here is the abstract, the short form outline, and a link to the slides on SlideShare.net.

Abstract: We share a vision of a society that is able to express problems and ideas computationally. Andrea diSessa called that computational literacy, and he invented the Boxer Programming Environment to explore the media of computational literacy. Education has the job of making citizens literate. Education systems around the world are exploring the question of what should all citizens know about computing and how do we provide that knowledge. The questions being asked are about public policy, but also about what does it mean to be expressive with computation and what should computing users know. The answers to these questions have implications for the future of human-centric computing.

Outline:

I. Our Job: The first computer scientists set the goal to achieve a Computing-Literate Society.

II. Challenges to Achieving a Computing-Literate Society
Access and Diversity
Inverse Lake Wobegon Effect
Unanswered research questions of policymakers

III. Inventing New Kinds of Computing Education
Story #1: Contextualized Computing Education.
Story #2: Understanding the Needs of High School CS Teachers.

VL_HCC_2015_Keynote__Requirements_for_a_Computing_Literate_Society

October 21, 2015 at 8:13 am 4 comments

More Students Taking AP CS Exams, but WAY more taking AP Physics

Surprising result!  We knew that AP CS was growing quickly (see Code.org blog post), but AP Physics just took a giant leap forward.  I wonder why that is, and what we can learn from that.

The number of students taking the physics test doubled between 2014 and 2015. The College Board, the nonprofit that administers the AP program, said that represents the largest annual growth in any AP course in history.

Source: More Students Taking AP Physics, Computer Science Exams – Curriculum Matters – Education Week

October 19, 2015 at 8:55 am 7 comments

New OECD Report Slams Computers And Says Why They Can Hurt Learning: It’s all about the pedagogy

My PhD advisor, Elliot Soloway, considers a new report on the value of computers in education, and gets to the bottomline.  To swipe a line from Bill Clinton, “It’s the pedagogy, stupid!”  Of course, I agree with Elliot, and it’s why Lecia Barker’s findings are so disturbing.  We have to be willing to change pedagogy to improve learning.

The findings are the findings, but what is really interesting is a statement that Andreas Schleicher, the director of OECD, made as to why the impact of technology is negative. In the foreword to the OECD report, he writes, “…adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.”WOW! In this one sentence, Schleicher names clearly what he sees as the root cause of the lack of technology’s impact on student achievement. While the NYT’s articles danced around the issues, Schleicher doesn’t pull any punches: The reason computers are not having a positive impact lies in the use of outmoded teaching practices that do not truly exploit the opportunities that a 1-to-1 classroom affords.

Source: New OECD Report Slams Computers — and Actually Says Why They Can Hurt Learning — THE Journal

October 16, 2015 at 8:06 am 2 comments

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