Posts tagged ‘teachers’

Marvin Minsky and understanding things in more than one way

Marvin Minsky died last month.  I never met Marvin. I met his daughter, and worked with people who knew him well.   He must have been a remarkable person.

The NYTimes piece has several quotes from Alan Kay about Marvin.  Below is my favorite.  I’ve heard it before, and I think about it often when designing classes and lessons.

I want students to understand what I do in class, but not memorize it. I want them to understand it in more than one way.  It’s why I emphasize revision and multiple iterations so often in a class.  I want them to understand well enough to transfer the knowledge, at least in near contexts.


For Dr. Kay, Professor Minsky’s legacy was his insatiable curiosity. “He used to say, ‘You don’t really understand something if you only understand it one way,’” Dr. Kay said. “He never thought he had anything completely done.”

Source: Marvin Minsky, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 88 – The New York Times

February 12, 2016 at 8:15 am Leave a comment

CS Teaching Faculty are like Tenant Farmers

There are many, many teaching jobs available in computer science right now. Scarcely a day goes by that there isn’t another ad posted in the SIGCSE Members list — sometimes for many positions at the same department. A great many of these are at Universities, with a clear statement that this is a Teaching track position, not a Tenure track position.

Many of these ads, when posted to SIGCSE Members, contain a paragraph like this (edited and hopefully anonymized):

(Highly-ranked University)’s full-time (without tenure) teaching faculty positions are called (pick one of:) Lecturers with Security of Employment, Professors of the Practice, or Teaching Professors, or Lecturers, or Instructors. These positions typically involve a teaching load of two courses each semester, advising responsibilities, and service (committee work) as well. (Highly-ranked University)’s computer science teaching faculty are NOT treated as second class citizens. We vote at faculty meetings, represent the department on university committees, and are generally well respected inside and outside the department. We currently are seeking more (see ad below).

From time to time, I write the person (almost always a teaching track faculty member) who posted the ad, to follow-up on the “NOT second class citizens” part.

  • Do teaching faculty get to serve on the hiring committee for teaching faculty? Usually yes.
  • Do teaching faculty get to serve on the hiring committee for tenure-track faculty? Usually not.  This question often results in a snort of laughter.  Why should teaching professionals be involved in hiring tenure-track faculty? That seemed obvious to me — teaching faculty are hired to be experts in teaching, and tenure-track faculty do teach.
  • Do teaching faculty serve on tenure-track promotion and tenure committees? Almost never, despite the fact that tenure track faculty are expected to teach and are supposed to be evaluated (at least in part) on that teaching. Shouldn’t professionals with expertise in teaching have a voice in evaluating teaching of tenure-track faculty?
  • Do teaching faculty have a voice/position at the Dean/Chair’s Cabinet/Executive Committee? I know of only one in the US.

Maybe I have been watching too much “Downton Abbey.” The treatment of teaching track faculty by tenure track faculty sounds like the relationship between the landed gentry and the tenant farmers. The University teaches as one of its primary roles, just as the estate survived through farming (and the sales and rent that were generated). The tenure track faculty (landed gentry) leave most of that to the teaching track faculty (tenant farmers). It’s a delegated responsibility, like custodial and lawn management services.  The teaching track faculty don’t own the department or programs (land). The tenure track faculty make the decisions about hiring and promoting the teaching track faculty. The teaching track faculty don’t make any of the decisions about tenure track faculty.  Of course, the greatest match with the analogy is that tenured faculty can’t be fired — like the landed gentry, they own their positions.  Teaching track faculty are rarely tenured.  One of the teaching faculty with whom I work has only a six month contract and can be fired with a month’s notice.

It is in our best interests for teaching track to be a profession. Teaching track faculty should be experts in teaching. Members should be expected to join professional organizations like SIGCSE (see previous post about the lack of membership in SIGCSE), to attend and present at organizational meetings, and to improve their practice. They should have a promotion path and evaluation as rigorous as the tenure-track promotion and tenure process.  I’m pleased to see these ads, because they suggest national searches for good teaching track faculty — as opposed to hiring (for example) graduate students and post-docs who don’t want to leave their home institution.

A first step towards professionalization of teaching track faculty is to treat them with the same respect as tenure-track faculty. Tenure track faculty are treated as experts in research.  Teaching track faculty should be treated as experts in teaching. If both teaching and research are important, then treat the teaching track faculty like the research faculty. There should be a comparable sense of responsibility, power, and ownership.


February 5, 2016 at 7:47 am 19 comments

Summarizing the Research on Designing Programming Languages to be Easier to Learn: NSF CS Ed Community Meeting

I’m at the NSF STEM+Computing and Broadening Participation in Computing Community Meeting.  At our ECEP meeting on Saturday, we heard from White House Champion of Change Jane Margolis.  She did a great job of getting our states to think about how to change their state plans to emphasize diversity and equity — more on that in a future blog post.


I moderated a panel yesterday on how to integrate computing education into schools of education.  Here’s the description of the session — again, more later on this.

Integrating Computing Education into Preservice Teacher Development Programs  

(Mark Guzdial (moderator), Leigh Ann DeLyser, Joanna Goode, Yasmin Kafai, Aman Yadav)

For computing education to become ubiquitous and sustainable in US K-12 schools, we need schools of Education to teach computing.
  • ​What should we be teaching to preservice teachers?
  • Where should we teach CS methods in preservice teacherdevelopment?
  • How do we help schools of Ed to hire and sustain faculty who focus on computing education?
Panelists will talk about how CS Ed is being integrated into their preservice teacher development programs, and about alternative models for addressing these questions.

Yesterday, our other computing education research Champion of Change, Andreas Stefik presented a summary of the empirical evidence on how to design programming languages to make them easier to learn.  Follow the link below to get to the two-page PDF pamphlet he produced for his presentation — it’s dense with information and fascinating.

This pamphlet is designed to provide an overview of recent evidence on human factors evidence in programming language design. In some cases, our intent is to dispel myths. In others, it is to provide the result of research lines.

from Programming Languages and Learning by Andreas Stefik

February 2, 2016 at 8:58 am 5 comments

White House Backs CS for All: Giving Every Student an Opportunity to Learn Through Computer Science For All

I don’t usually blog on a Saturday, but this is huge.

In this week’s address, the President discussed his plan to give all students across the country the chance to learn computer science (CS) in school.  The President noted that our economy is rapidly shifting, and that educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that CS is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity. The President referenced his Computer Science for All Initiative, which provides $4 billion in funding for states and $100 million directly for districts in his upcoming budget; and invests more than $135 million beginning this year by the National Science Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service to support and train CS teachers.  The President called on even more Governors, Mayors, education leaders, CEOs, philanthropists, creative media and technology professionals, and others to get involved in the efforts.

Source: Weekly Address: Giving Every Student an Opportunity to Learn Through Computer Science For All |

January 30, 2016 at 9:47 am 8 comments

Join us for a CSP Webinar on Teaching with Pseudocode

Should be interesting — see if you can guess where each of us sits on the Pseudocode question tonight.

Computer Science Principles (CSP) is a programming language agnostic course. CSP aims to teach students the fundamentals of programming and the process involved in building algorithms and solving problems. Pseudocode and flow charts are two common tools, but how useful are they? How best should they be used in a CSP high school classroom?

Come and listen to Deepa Muralidhar (our webinar host) and the following experts discuss these questions during our next CSPwebinar on Tuesday, January 26 at 4:30pm PT/7:30pm ET:

  • Dan Garcia – Professor, UC Berkeley
  • Mark Guzdial – Professor, School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Tech
  • Jill Westerlund – CS Principles Teacher, Hoover High School, Alabama

To join via Adobe Connect, go to Or call in at +1-8667678829.

January 26, 2016 at 7:51 am 10 comments

What’s the impact of the Hour of Code? It goes way beyond an Hour has just released an interesting survey about their Hour of Code initiative.  They’ve been criticized for providing only an hour and overly focusing on puzzles (see Mitchel Resnick’s article here).  The results suggest that they’re reaching a diverse audience, and having an effect beyond an hour — students keep going, and teachers start teaching CS.

Programming is a literacy, and no one develops any kind of literacy in just an hour of practice.  Games are not the most interesting and powerful kinds of programming activities.

But they’re a start.  Particularly when we get past the Inverse Lake Wobegon Effect of thinking about students as being like us.  We know from many studies that students are afraid of computer programming. I’m teaching Media Computation again this semester, and at least a third of the students who have come talk to me after class have started their conversation with, “I’m one of those people who just don’t do computers.”  And that’s just those self-reporting without prompting!  Students associate CS with being a geek and wouldn’t want to let their friends know they like computer science, even if they do.  Few students get any kind of computer science education outside of Hour of Code.

When we think about most people, sustained activity in programming for one hour can go a long way to reducing fear, increasing self-efficacy, and nurturing interest. (Consider an Hour of Code compared to less than <5 minutes typically spent at a museum exhibit.) Games are a useful place to start because they’re well-structured. Aptitude-treatment interaction tells us that more structure is better with students who have less background in a subject.  Open-ended, constructionist activities like those that Mitchel is promoting are more successful with more privileged students, those who have more experience which results in higher-ability students. The Hour of Code can help inspire students to get that additional experience needed to develop more ability.)  An Hour of Code is a good first step for the remedial state of computing education in the United States today.

Hooray for Hour of Code, and thanks to for promoting it and for sharing these data.

The onus is on us to turn the Hour of Code into a Lifetime of Computational Literacy. 

After the Hour of Code, we asked participating organizers how it went and got some fantastic news for our field.

  • 98% had a good or great experience.
  • 85% of those new to computer science said the Hour of Code increased their interest in teaching computer science.
  • 49% said they plan to continue teaching computer science beyond one hour.
  • 18% said they began teaching computer science after a previous Hour of Code campaign!
  • 87% said their students did more than just one hour of coding.

Source: What’s the impact of the Hour of Code? |

January 22, 2016 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

The Inverse Lake Wobegon Effect in Learning Analytics and SIGCSE Polls

I wrote my Blog@CACM post this month about the Inverse Lake Wobegon effect (see the post here), a term that I coin in my new book (link to post about book).  The Inverse Lake Wobegon effect is where we observe a biased, privileged/elite/superior sample and act as if it is an unbiased, random sample from the overall population.  When we assume that undergraduates are like students in high school, we are falling prey to the Inverse Lake Wobegon effect.

Here’s an example from The Chronicle of Higher Education in the quote below. Looking at learning analytics from MOOCs can only tell us about student success and failure of those who sign up for the MOOC.  As we have already discussed in this blog (see post here), people who take MOOCs are a biased sample — well-educated and rich.  We can’t use MOOCs to learn about learning for those who aren’t there.

“It takes a lot of mystery out of why students succeed and why students fail,” said Robert W. Wagner, executive vice provost and dean at Utah State, and the fan of the spider graphic. “It gives you more information, and when you can put that information into the hands of faculty who are really concerned about students and completion rates and retention, the more you’re able to create better learning and teaching environments.”

Source: This Chart Shows the Promise and Limits of ‘Learning Analytics’ – The Chronicle of Higher Education

A second example: There’s a common thread of research in SIGCSE Symposium and ITICSE that uses survey data from the SIGCSE Members List as a source of information.  SIGCSE Members are elite undergraduate computer science teachers.  They are teachers who have the resources to participate in SIGCSE and the interest in doing so.  I know that at my own institution, only a small percentage (<10%) of our lecturers and instructors participate in SIGCSE.  I know that no one at the local community college’s CS department belongs to SIGCSE.  My guess is that SIGCSE Members represents less than 30% of undergraduate computer science teachers in the United States, and a much smaller percentage of computer science teachers worldwide. I don’t know if we can assume that SIGCSE Members are necessarily more expert or higher-quality.  We do know that they value being part of a professional organization for teaching, so we can assume that SIGCSE Members have an identity as a CS teacher — but that may mean that most CS teachers don’t have an identity as a CS teacher. A survey of SIGCSE Members tell us about an elite sample of undergraduate CS teachers, but not necessarily about CS teachers overall.

January 18, 2016 at 8:03 am 3 comments

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