Posts tagged ‘history’

Computer Science Teachers as Provocateurs: All learning starts from a problem

One of the surprising benefits of working with social science educators (history and economics) has been new perspectives on my own teaching. I’ve studied education for several years, and have worked with science and mathematics education researchers in the past. It hadn’t occurred to me that history education is so different that it would give me a new way of looking at my own teaching.

Last week, I was in a research meeting with Bob Bain, a history and education professor here at U. Michigan. He was describing how historians understand knowledge and what historian’s practice looks like, and how that should be reflected in the history classroom.

He said that all learning in history starts from a problem. That gave me pause. What’s a “problem” in history?

Bob explained that he defines problem as John Dewey did, as something that disturbs the equilibrium. “Activities at the Dewey School arose from the child’s own interests and from the need to solve problems that aroused the child’s curiosity and that led to creative solutions.” We don’t think until our environment is disturbed, but that environment may just be in your own head.

We each have our own stories that we use to explain the world, and these make up our own personal equilibria. Maybe students have always been told that the American Civil War was about states’ rights, and then they read the Georgia Declaration of Secession. Maybe they’ve thought of Columbus as the explorer who discovered America, and then note that he wasn’t celebrated until 1792, 300 years after his arrival. Why wasn’t he celebrated earlier, and why him and at that time? A good history teacher sets up these conflicts, disequilibria, or problems. Bob says it can be easy enough to create, simply by showing two contrasting accounts of the same historical event.

Research in the learning sciences supports this definition of learning. Roger Schank talked about the importance of learning through “expectation failure.” You learn when you realize that you don’t know something:

The understanding cycle – expectation failure – explanation – reminding – generalization – is a natural one. No one teaches it to us. We are not taught to have goals, nor to attempt to develop plans to achieve those goals by adapting old plans from similar situations. We need not be taught this because the process is so basic to what comprises intelligence. Learning is a natural act.

In progressive education, we’re told that the teacher should be a “Guide on the Side, not the Sage on the Stage.” When Janet Kolodner was developing Learning By Design, she talked about the role of teacher as coach and orchestrator. Those were roles I was familiar with. Bob was describing a different role.

I challenged him explicitly, “You’re a provocateur. You create the problems in the students’ minds.” He agreed.

Bob got me thinking about the role of the teacher in the computer science class. We can sometimes be a guide, a coach, and orchestrator — when students are working away on some problem or project. But sometimes, we have to be the provocateur.

We should always start from a problem. In science education, this is easy. Kids naturally do wonder why the sky is blue, why sunsets are more red, why heat travels along metal but not wood, and why stars twinkle. In more advanced computer science, we can also start from questions that students’ already have. I’m taking a MOOC right now because it explains things I’ve wondered about.

But in introductory classes, students already use a computer without problems. They may not see enough of real computing to wonder about how it works. The teacher has to generate a problem, inculcate curiosity — be a provocateur.

We should only teach something when it solves a problem for the student. A lecture on variables and types should be motivated by a problem that the variables and types solve. A lecture on loops should happen when students need to do something so often that copy-pasting the code repeatedly won’t work. Saying “You’re going to need this later” is not motivation enough — that doesn’t match the cycle that Schank described as natural. Nobody remembers things they will need in the future. Learning results when you need new knowledge to resolve the current problem, disequilibria, or conflict.

Note: Computer science doesn’t teach problem-solving. Dewey’s and Schank’s point is that problem-solving is a natural way in which people learn. Learning to program still doesn’t teach problem-solving skills.

June 10, 2019 at 7:00 am 1 comment

The Negative Consequences of Brown v Board of Education: Integrating Computing Education

The second season of Revisionist History has just finished.  This season didn’t have the same multiple episodes with tight ties to the issues of education as last season (as I described in this blog post), there was one standout episode that does relate to our issues: Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment.  The podcast deals with the negative consequences of the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case that declared that separate was not equal and forced schools to integrate.  The well-documented consequence of the integration was the closing of the schools for African-Americans and the firing of Black school teachers.  Gladwell first considers what the Brown family (named in the case) and the other families in the case actually wanted, and about the longterm impact that even today, there are disproportionately few African-American teachers in the US are African-American — and that leads to impacts on students.

When I studied Brown v Board of Education when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, we were taught a negative consequence that Gladwell barely touches on.  Gladwell mentions that there were few jobs for an educated Black person at the time of Brown v Board.  The Supreme Court’s decision, and the consequent firing of Black teachers, was an enormous blow to the African-American middle class in the United States.  Employment was lost at a large scale, and longterm impacts on wealth and prosperity can be measured today.

The connection to computer science education is part of the question of how do we reach everyone and help everyone to succeed.  Today’s computing education is de facto segregated — not in the sense of colored vs white classes, but in terms of only certain demographics are in CS classes and other demographics are not.

  • In many of the high schools we work with, even if white and Asian students are in the school population minority, the computer science classes are mostly white and Asian.
  • English CS classes are almost entirely male, maybe even more than in the US (described here).
  • US undergraduate CS classes don’t seem to be retaining women (blog post here).
  • classes have are almost half poor students (blog post here), and have excellent diversity (see their Medium post here). What are the rich students taking?  The diversity that is seeing is not reflected in undergraduate CS (see Generation CS report) which has little diversity and has mostly prosperous students. That’s important because undergraduate CS is the path that most students will take to the IT industry, which is mostly white/Asian and male.

How do we improve diversity in computing education?  Can we avoid a heavy-handed and expensive mandate like requiring CS for everyone? I side effect of requiring everyone to take CS might be that we get all the same kind of CS.  Can we provide equal access to everyone without the negative consequences that Gladwell describes from Brown v Board of Education?

Brown v Board of Education might be the most well-known Supreme Court decision, a major victory in the fight for civil rights. But in Topeka, the city where the case began, the ruling has left a bittersweet legacy. RH hears from the Browns, the family behind the story.

Source: Revisionist History Podcast

September 25, 2017 at 7:00 am 1 comment

The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’: Personalized Instruction and Teaching Machines aren’t new

When I was a PhD student taking Education classes, my favorite two-semester sequence was on the history of education.  I realized that there wasn’t much new under the sun when it comes to thinking about education.  Ideas that are key to progressive education movements date back to Plato’s Republic: “No forced study abides in a soul…Therefore, you best of men, don’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can also better discern what each is naturally directed toward.”  Here we have learning through games (but not video games in 300BC) and personalized instruction — promoted over 2400 years ago.  I named my dissertation software system Emile after Rousseau’s book with the same name whose influence reached Montessori, Piaget, and Papert decades later.

Audrey Watters takes current education reformers to task in the article linked below.  Today’s reformers don’t realize the history of the education system, that many of the idea that they are promoting have been tried before. Our current education system was designed in part because those ideas have already failed.  In particular, the idea of building “teaching machines” as a response to “handicraft” education was suggested over 80 years ago.  Education problems are far harder to solve than today’s education entrepreneurs realize.

Many education reformers today denounce the “factory model of education” with an appeal to new machinery and new practices that will supposedly modernize the system. That argument is now and has been for a century the rationale for education technology. As Sidney Pressey, one of the inventors of the earliest “teaching machines” wrote in 1932 predicting “The Coming Industrial Revolution in Education,”

Education is the one major activity in this country which is still in a crude handicraft stage. But the economic depression may here work beneficially, in that it may force the consideration of efficiency and the need for laborsaving devices in education. Education is a large-scale industry; it should use quantity production methods. This does not mean, in any unfortunate sense, the mechanization of education. It does mean freeing the teacher from the drudgeries of her work so that she may do more real teaching, giving the pupil more adequate guidance in his learning. There may well be an “industrial revolution” in education. The ultimate results should be highly beneficial. Perhaps only by such means can universal education be made effective.

via The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’.

The reality is that technology never has and never will dramatically change education (as described in this great piece in The Chronicle).  It will always be a high-touch endeavor because of how humans learn.

Education is fundamentally a human activity and is defined by human attention, motivation, effort, and relationships.  We need teachers because we are motivated to make our greatest efforts for human beings with whom we have relationships and who hold our attention.

In the words of Richard Thaler, there are no Econs (see recommended piece in NYTimes).

May 25, 2015 at 7:30 am 5 comments

The Day the Purpose of College Changed: What was the impact on CS Education?

The article linked below makes the argument that then-Governor Ronald Reagan changed perception higher education in the United States when he said on February 28, 1967 that the purpose of higher education was jobs, not “intellectual curiosity.”  The author presents evidence that date marks a turning point in how Americans thought about higher education.

Most of CS education came after that date, and the focus in CS Education has always been jobs and meeting industry needs.  Could CS Education been different if it had started before that date?  Might we have had a CS education that was more like a liberal education?  This is an issue for me since I teach mostly liberal arts students, and I believe that computing education is important for giving people powerful new tools for expression and thought.  I wonder if the focus on tech jobs is why it’s been hard to establish computing requirements in universities (as I argued in this Blog@CACM post). If the purpose of computing education in post-Reagan higher education is about jobs, not about enhancing people’s lives, and most higher-education students aren’t going to become programmers, then it doesn’t make sense to teach everyone programming.

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a similar piece on research (see post here).  Research today is about “grand challenges,” not about Reagan’s “intellectual curiosity.”  It’s structured, and it’s focused.  The Chronicle piece argues that some of these structured and focused efforts at the Gates Foundation were more successful at basic research than they were at achieving the project goals.

“If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized,” the editors wrote, “then it is nothing.”

The Times was giving voice to the ideal of liberal education, in which college is a vehicle for intellectual development, for cultivating a flexible mind, and, no matter the focus of study, for fostering a broad set of knowledge and skills whose value is not always immediately apparent.

Reagan was staking out a competing vision. Learning for learning’s sake might be nice, but the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for it. A higher education should prepare students for jobs.

via The Day the Purpose of College Changed – Faculty – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

March 27, 2015 at 7:50 am 13 comments

First PhD in CS in US went to a Sister

An interesting excursion into the history of computing.  One of the first two PhD’s in Computer Science in the United States went to a female and a member of a religious order!  I would never have guessed.

But at virtually the same time in June 1965, two other degrees were completed: Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, BVM, earned a Ph.D. from the Computer Sciences Department at the University of Wisconsin, and Irving C. Tang earned a D.Sc. from the Applied Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Washington University in St. Louis. The purpose of this article is to show that in the United States, Keller and Tang were not just earlier but also first, thereby providing a more accurate historical record.

via Who Earned First Computer Science Ph.D.? | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM.

February 21, 2013 at 10:18 am 2 comments

Top Secret Rosies: Rediscovering WWII’s female ‘computers’

Thanks to Fred Martin for forwarding this link.  What a great story!  Have to get the DVD.

Jean Jennings Bartik was one of the women computers. In 1945, she was a recent graduate of Northwest Missouri State Teachers College, the school’s one math major. She lived on her parents’ farm, refusing the teaching jobs her father suggested, avoiding talk of marrying a farmer and having babies. Bartik was waiting on a job with the military…

She learned the hand calculations, and saw the clunky old analyzer used to speed up the process. Its accuracy depended on the work of her colleagues, and a mechanic who serviced its belts and gears.

The war ended in 1945, but within a couple months of arriving in Philadelphia, Bartik was hired to work on a related project — an electronic computer that could do calculations faster than any man or woman. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, created by Penn scientists John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., weighed more than 30 tons and contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes. It recognized numbers, added, subtracted, multiplied, divided and a few other basic functions.

Men had built the machine, but Bartik and her colleagues debugged every vacuum tube and learned how to make it work, she said. Early on, they demonstrated to the military brass how the computer worked, with the programmers setting the process into motion and showing how it produced an answer. They handed out its punch cards as souvenirs. They’d taught the massive machine do math that would’ve taken hours by hand.

But none of the women programmers was invited to the celebratory dinner that followed. Later, the heard they were thought of as models, placed there to show off the machine.

via Rediscovering WWII’s female ‘computers’ –

February 10, 2011 at 11:44 am 3 comments

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