Archive for March 9, 2016

A Dagstuhl Discussion about Social and Professional Practices

Another of the breakouts that I was in at the recent Dagstuhl seminar on assessment in CS learning focused on how we teach and assess in CS classes social and professional practices. This was a small group: Andy Ko, Lisa Kaczmarczyk, Jan Erik Moström, and me.

Andy and his students have been studying (via interviews and surveys) what makes a great engineer.

  • They’re good at decision-making.
  • They’re good at shifting levels of abstraction, e.g., describing how a line of code relates to a business strategy.
  • They have some particular inter-personal skills. They program ego-less-ly. They have empathy, e.g., “not an asshole.”
  • Senior engineers often spend a lot of time being teachers for more junior engineers.

Since I’ve worked with Lijun Ni on high school CS teachers, I know some of the social and professional practices of teachers. They have content knowledge, and they have pedagogical content knowledge. They know how to teach. They know how to identify and diagnose student misunderstandings, and they know techniques for addressing these.

We know some techniques for teaching these practices. We can have students watch professionals, by shadowing or using case-based systems like the Ask systems. We can put students in apprenticeships (like student teaching or internships) or in design teams. We could even use games and other simulations. We have to convey authenticity — students have to believe that these are the real social and professional practices. An interesting question we came up with: How would you know if you covered the set of social and professional practice?

Here’s the big question: How similar are these sets? They seem quite different to me, and these are just two possible communities of practice for students in an intro course. Are there social and professional practices that we might teach in the same intro CS — for any community of practice that the student might later join? My sense is that the important social and professional practices are not in the intersection. The most important are unique to the community of practice.

How would we know if we got there? How would you assess student learning about social and professional practice? Knowledge isn’t enough — we’re talking about practice. We have to know that they’d do the right things. And if you found out that they didn’t have the right practices, is it still actionable? Can we “fix” practices while in undergrad? Maybe students will just do the right things when they actually get out there?

The countries with low teacher attrition spend a lot of time on teacher on-boarding. In Japan, the whole school helps to prepare a new teacher, and the whole school feels a sense of failure if the first year teacher doesn’t pass the required certification exam. US schools tend not to have much on-boarding — at schools for teachers, or in industry for software engineers (as Begel and Simon found in their studies at Microsoft). On-boarding seems like a really good place, to me, for teaching professional practice. And since the student is then doing the job, assessment is job assessment.

The problems of teaching and assessing professional practice are particularly hard when you’re trying to design a new community of practice. We’d like computing to be more diverse, to be more welcoming to women and to people from under-represented groups. We’d want cultural sensitivity to be a practice for software professionals. How would you design that? How do you define a practice for a community that doesn’t exist yet? How do you convince students about the authenticity?

It’s an interesting set of problems, and some interesting questions to explore, but I came away dubious. Is this something that we can do effectively in school?  Perhaps it’s more effective to teach professional practices in the professional context?

March 9, 2016 at 8:00 am 2 comments


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