and I'm all out of bubble gum…

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Even as the end-of-year to-do lists are approaching critical overload, I find that one of the joys of the spring is the contemplation of what I will be working on next year. Not so much in a “next year I’ll do this all differently” kind of snit, but with more of a “year in review” focus: spring and graduation makes me sentimental and reminiscent.

With that in mind, in the past week I have come across two interesting resources both for teaching in general and for thinking about our work as “knowledge workers” in the 21st century (to infinity and beyond!). First, Merlin Mann discusses how we do (or do not) allocate our time and attention to getting our projects done. Thoughtful, provocative and entertaining stuff. Second, Williams College’s Project for Effective Teaching has gone online with a truly exciting, provocative array of professorial reflections and questions around specific aspects of classrooms and teaching and learning. Enjoy!

How, you might ask, do videos like these fall into my hands? I follow-up on the sources of interesting articles that I see. And then on the sources of those sources: I like to find where the ideas are swimming around raw and unfettered. I do this by following a boat-load of interesting “edu-bloggers”, by following (and engaging with) other teachers on Twitter, and by doing a lot of skimming.

May 13th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip. This one is, perhaps, particularly our-setup-specific (My Classes, Handins, Returns, etc.), but I think that the core ideas are worth sharing to the world.

One of the real challenges that we confront when teaching in a digital classroom is that there are a tremendous number of documents, spread across a tremendous number of computers, often in tremendously varying states of completion. A team of faculty is coalescing around digital portfolios this spring, and file management is the single greatest challenge that we’re looking at initially.

With that in mind, it seems timely to suggest some best practices for working with files in the My Classes folder on FirstClass:

  • Email attachments hurt. If students are turning in their work an email attachments, it counts against their disk quota (which is pretty slim by this point in the year). And you have to open each and every single message to download the attachment so that you can read it. That’s a recipe for frustration. Instead, have your students upload their files directly to the Handins folder — they can just drag them from their computer desktop into the FirstClass folder (or choose Upload… from the File menu in FirstClass). Files in the My Classes folder do not count against anyone’s disk quota. The best part: you can now select a group of files in your Handins folder and drag them to your computer desktop to download all of them all at once (no more opening every individual email).
  • File names matter. Ask your students to include both the name of the assignment and their name in the name of the file that they’re uploading. If the students don’t put their name on their files, it’s a hassle to figure out who turned in what. And likewise, if they don’t put the assignment on the file, you’ve got to open the file to find out. The file names don’t need to be Homeric epics: “Feb. 18 Essay – Seth B.doc” works great as a file name.
  • Students can’t cheat from the Handins folder. They aren’t able to open other people’s work (or even their own), nor can they remove their work once it’s turned in (so no coming back with an “improved” version after the fact). In fact, the only person who can open the files in the Handins folder is… the teacher.
  • Students need to be told about the Returns folder. Every class has a Returns folder that has an individual folder for each student in the class. You can drag files you are returning to those students directly into those folders (from, say, your computer desktop). Only the student whose folder it is can open the folder and read the files (and they can’t change them). Plus, now you don’t have student files cluttering up your inbox and counting against your disk quota as email attachments!
  • Be clear, but firm. You’re teaching technical skills, and your students won’t get it right at first. Help them to turn in their files correctly (i.e. in a way that is easy for you to work with), rather than fixing their mistakes. Every mistake you fix will end up being a mistake you have to fix every time.

Obviously, the list goes on, but these five best practices should help cut through some of the chaos and confusion accompanied by the proliferation of documents produced by a digital classroom!

February 18th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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This write-up is an articulation of an idea that I first stumbled across last spring, in conversation with my colleagues around technology and academic integrity. I am enormously grateful to Lynette Sumpter and Ned Sherrill for pushing me and supporting me and challenging me and engaging me in the discussion that led me to this idea.

Let me preface this by noting that I am not a history teacher. Or a writing instructor. Or a teacher of social studies or literature.

But, I have played one on TV. And I have spent the last few years faking it in various settings (for example, teaching Third Form Seminar at St. Grottlesex, a studies skills class thinly disguised as a history class — or my current role teaching Media Studies, which is on the cusp of becoming Mark Taylor and teaching “liberal arts” as a discipline unto itself).

Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

I have been struck by how we teach our students to take part in academic discourse. I fear that we are teaching them to be fearful, rather than confident, outspoken and — above all — well-spoken. When I work with ninth graders writing their “big research paper”, it is clear that they are already viewing the process with trepidation. Not because they are not looking forward to the work (in fact, they often become absorbed in their research and legitimately excited about their chosen topic). They are terrified that they will do something that causes me to nail them to the wall for plagiarism. They are absolutely terrified that they will screw up their citations, botch their bibliography, accidentally confuse a quotation with a paraphrase, or in some other way incur the wrath of the gods of academic integrity.

This is ridiculous. And they come to me this way, already scared.

Why Cite Sources At All?

Let’s take a step back from the panicking ninth graders.

Let’s consider how we live our lives, as adults, day to day. Consider, if you will, a conversation with your friends. Better still, a conversation with my friends (they’re loads of fun): we’re talking about something that we have to do that feels ironically poorly suited to our temperment and someone around the table mutters “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Yes, we’re pathetic tools of popular culture. But we’re also making a reference to a known source. A reference that everyone around the table recognizes and appreciates.

In fact, by making that reference, we’re using a short hand phrase to conjure up a whole idea. At the most crass level. We’re probably not going to swing into the pharaohs’ catacombs on our bullwhip, blazing torch in hand, Nazis on our tails. But we’ve connected our plight to Indy’s, in our friends’ minds. Usually, among my friends, this then generates snickers. I am not someone who would plausibly swing on the end of a bullwhip.

This, at its core, is the purpose of citing another author: to make use of that author’s ideas in support of your own. To reference a whole, complex argument, made elsewhere, by selecting a short, notable phrase that stands in for the more complex idea. When we refer to “trickle-down economics”, we’re using an opaque term to describe a whole theory of how the world works — whether or not we agree with it, this provides a shared reference point between us and our interlocutors. By providing this shared reference point, we are providing an anchor on which to build our own arguments, share our own ideas, develop our our creations — in a way that will be more easily understood. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.

When we cite other sources and authors, we select sources that lend credibility to our own point of view, by dint of the the sources’ own credibility. Our arguments are stronger when we cite well-known and well-respected sources. Our arguments are stronger when we can clearly connect them to sources that are clearly well-founded, or are clearly connected to well-founded sources.

Thus, if we want our argument to have credibility, we want to connect our argument to other well-respected sources. We want to make those connections explicit, rather than making that argument in a vacuum. We want to accessorize our argument with the respect and credibility already carried by our sources.

So, What’s the Big Deal?

The big deal is that this isn’t how or why I was taught to cite my sources in academic papers. And it isn’t how I’ve seen students being taught to cite their sources. I have seen only fear and intimidation: “if you do not cite your sources, you will be penalized for plagiarism. If you are penalized for plagiarism, you won’t get into the college of your choice or you’ll be expelled from the college of your choice or you might become Vice-President of the United States.” <shiver> I don’t see anyone making positive arguments for academic citation when we are introducing it to our students. We only threaten the students with punishment.

I don’t know about you, but I tend not to really enjoy doing things that I’m doing out of fear. I often dig in my heels (I’m an ornery S.O.B.). I certainly don’t try and do what I’m doing better because I’ve been intimidated into doing it (in fact, I’ll probably passive aggressively do it worse). And it takes me a long time (20+ years) to find any real purpose or excitement in something that I have been bullied into doing. I understand the obligation to do it. I do it. But I cuss about it. And drag my feet.

Technology has Changed Citation

At the start of every school year, one or the other of my colleagues will forward around the ever-growing list of things that our new students won’t be familiar with (the original Star Wars, Indiana Jones movies that aren’t execrable, tape cassettes, a time before white earbuds, etc.). What bears more than a little examination are the things that our students are familiar with.

I have a whole digression about the issue of digital natives, and whether or not it’s even a defensible opinion, let alone a fact of life. Let us at least stipulate that our students have a different relationship with technology and media than we did growing up, and that that relationship is increasingly facilitated by technology.

How about a bizarre mash-up video that combines clips from television shows that are, at best, unfamiliar to us with music we think is terrible? How about a collage of corporate slogans standing in for a personal statement? What are these moron kids up to now? Isn’t this entirely beneath our dignity and station to even pay lip service to the activity that’s going on here? Well, this is the students having a conversation. Their conversations are moving out of “meat space” and online (note the rise of concern about cyberbullying and sexting — these aren’t new phenomena, they’re just moving from behind the gym to the digital realm).

In fact, on the creative front (moving away from a digression on online agression), these collages and mash-ups and massively uncited multimedia conglomerations are the same kinds of conversations that my friends and I have. Only we have them in person. Where I grew up with VHS and quoting movies endlessly, today’s students are able to literally quote movies. And music videos. And magazines. And web cites. And anything else that has floated across their consciousness in the form of bits. Even their teachers (and the first time I was an unwitting component of a student video mash-up was over a decade ago).

These videos, which are clearly violations of copyright law, intellectual property treaties and, often, good taste are just our students engaged in conversation. Online and digitally.

Transitioning from Conversation to Academic Discourse

Understanding that what we see as recreational plagiarism and piracy is, in fact, informal discourse is the first step towards connecting the dots with our students. What we need to help our students do — what our role as teachers is — is to engage in code-switching: when is it appropriate to have an informal conversation? When do you start to cite your sources? What are you doing — for yourself and your sources — by citing them? What standards can we use to cite sources? When do those standards apply?

Overall: what’s the point of this exercise? Are we doing it because we’re afraid that somebody will use Google to find out that a dozen other people have had this same idea, and we want to get there first? Or are we doing it because we’ve read something powerful, insightful, revelatory… and we want to share the impact of that source with our own audience? Are we sharing our sources because if we don’t someone will accuse us of falsifying our research, or because we have come across a marvelous, well-researched data set that, with our analysis, screams in support of our conclusions? Are we citing the work of others out of a grudging sense of obligation to them for work already done, or because making reference to other works makes our own easier: we are bringing worlds of ideas into our effort through the careful selection of a word or phrase?

In the past two years, this is what I have started to try to do with my students: rather than threatening them, engage them in that part of the world of research and ideas that I find so invigorating and exciting. Rather than whaling on them for botching a quotation, explain to them why getting their quotations and citations right (for their context) is meaningful.

For the first time, last week, when I was grinding away on my students to include links in their blog entries, and I asked why, one of my students said:

“Because you might want to read them too?”

December 24th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

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This is perhaps one of those midrashim that strive to unnecessarily explain the inexplicable…

It is, perhaps, worth noting — in my endless struggle towards internal consistency — that I’m still on board with what I wrote about striving to be less authoritative in my own classroom (as a means of pushing my students to be more active and independent learners).

The term “Expert Plan” that I was throwing around last weekend (and that, in fact, has become a whole category unto itself on this blog) is not of my devising. And is, in fact, my department head’s effort to do exactly as I aimed to do in being less authoritative: distribute leadership, push the folks doing the learning to take control of their learning, and generally promote active, independent learning… among faculty in preparation for going 1:1.

I am working on an “Expert Plan” for using laptops in education wearing my classroom teacher hat, not my educational technologist hat (although, perhaps, documenting with the educational technologist hat in the vicinity).

November 26th, 2009

Posted In: Ouroboros, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

This is actually a classic use of wikis — the one for which they were developed, in fact — and one that I have found very useful in the past. By documenting my work on a project in a public, shared space, I am both sharing information that needs to be known and inviting other participants to contribute their knowledge as well. I use wikis both for shared projects with my colleagues (as a way to guarantee that only the most current documentation is available, rather than distributing instantly out-dated paper handouts) and as a way of pushing my students to document their own work so that I can grade them on process. Additionally, wikis are a way for me to document my own thought process for both professional development and future planning purposes.

In Practice

Shared Projects with Colleagues

I have found that many of my colleagues (both at [my current school] and [at previous schools]) are hesitant to edit existing documents. The most reliable contribution that I have found my colleagues make is on meeting minutes, when I invite those who did not attend a meeting to insert their contributions to the meeting as comments on the page.

When working on a project with a similarly technically-inclined colleague (say, in the Education Technology department), the process is more likely to be more collaborative, as we edit each other’s work more liberally (although even this is not a guarantee).

Student Documentation of Process

Students don’t document their working voluntarily. I have only had success in asking students to document their work when I have both assigned the documentation for a grade (usually a grade separate from the end product of their work, so that I can distinguish between process and outcome not just in narratives but also in my gradebook).

The closest that I have come to developing a true classroom culture of collaborative documentation was last spring at [my previous school] in my Application Design classroom. In this case, I worked with the students to help them select and design an open-ended project for which they had to do immense amounts of research (they were creating a computer-controlled CNC lathe). I found that there was an inverse relationship between the amount of expertise that I demonstrated and the amount of work and thought that my students contributed: when they could rely on me for answers, they were lazy about documenting their work and finding their own solutions. When I professed no knowledge (often truthfully), students were far more likely to both do much more exhaustive research and to present their findings more clearly.

Professional Development

One challenge of creating a truly collaborative wiki environment (whether with colleagues or with students) is to get all of the participants to read, respond, revise and/or react to each other’s contributions. For example, I am doing a miserable job, on this page, of linking to the work of others in the Laptop Leaders program. I suspect that a major part of this is simply the “drinking from the fire hose” feeling incurred by the stream of data as everyone contributes simultaneously. In a classroom, I have had some success dividing students into groups around a shared research interest. To that end, I need to sift through the other Laptop Leader documentation that refers to, say wikis.


At the basic level, my sense is that wikis represent such a shocking change in paradigm for how the web is used that the average user is either befuddled or intimidated by them. I found that I was explaining how wikis work to my classes and the students were fascinated and mildly horrified at both the ease with which they could make changes and the ease with which I could track their use of the wiki. I don’t know for certain, but I wonder if my colleague’s reluctance to update wikis is a combination of fear of the unfamiliar (editing the wiki) and fear of speaking out (publishing their words/ideas to a broader arena in a way that feels more permanent than, say, an email — more on par with a faculty meeting).

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I started off using this model in both my [high school] classes. I post an outline of the class to the wiki before class. At the start of class, as I discuss the agenda for the day with the students, I project the outline on the board. After discussing the agenda (my plan, their questions, etc.), I ask for three volunteers: one to take notes into the outline during class, one to review those notes for content before the next class, and one to review those notes for clarity before the next class. The content reviewer is responsible for correcting any mistakes (or omissions) that the original notetaker made. The clarity reviewer is responsible for proofreading and correcting the notes into a readable, standard English format.

In Practice

I found, almost immediately, that while the [media design] class was (grudgingly) willing to do the notetaking, the [computer animation] class revolted against it. The revolt in computer animation had a lot to do with the difficulty of simultaneously following along with the processes that we were learning in a computer modeling application and also keeping a browser window open and taking notes into the wiki. Theoretically, a dual display setup might have ameliorated some of those concerns (screen real estate was demonstrably at a premium as they were trying to use both applications, the browser and the 3D modeling tool). However, the real issue lay in the division of attention.

I have stopped asking the computer animation class to take notes into the wiki, but continue to encourage them to take their own notes (a practice that none of them engages in voluntarily — and their difficulty grasping new concepts reflects real difficulty storing the concepts for reflection, whether in their heads, their notebooks or their computers).

I have substituted somewhat more detailed notes of my own in the outlines for computer animation, or links to more detailed tutorials online covering the same concepts that we are learning in class, or links to screencasts demonstrating the concepts and processes we are learning in class. (One challenge that I have run into is that, using Blender, many of the tutorials and screencasts assume a great deal of prior familiarity with the materials, if not the tool, so I have been working on recording more basic level screencasts for that class).

On the flip side, we have settled into a routine in [media design] in which I ask for a notetaking team only on days when I know that we will be having a concept-based discussion/critique/lecture (as opposed to process or application-based lessons). A core of students have stepped up as fairly reliable notetakers, although I am working to spread the responsibility out across all students in the class — although I have set up no formal system of rotation (this lack of a formal system is actually based on previous experience with rigid rotations on what is, essentially, a creative task: it’s lousy. It works far better to set up an expectation that everyone will do it, and then ask for volunteers in the moment, while creating a (public) tracking system to ensure that no one is left out.

One issue that I have run into, particularly over a span of project-based lessons which are not discrete lessons but actually the continuation of a single idea (editing a video, for example), is that I lose track of time and forget to keep the wiki up-to-date. I focus my attention on the process occurring in class, rather than in documenting the process. Since my rationale for documenting the process is provide a resource for the students, this is deeply problematic and something that I need to address.


Early on, I realized that I should have made more of an effort to distinguish between concept-based and practice-based classes, and to create different models for collaborative notetaking in each of those environments. My computer animation class did well in articulating their frustration (mostly) respectfully, and speaking up for their own needs and learning styles.

I have not incorporated the notetaking into the students’ grades (which was, really, something that slipped my mind), framing the notetaking not as an assignment, but as a collaborative study tool. I’m not sure that this is a winning motivator for students. I think it works in my [media design] class because they are a) intrinsically interested in the material at a more conceptual level and b) generally a year or two older on average than my computer animation class. That maturity is reflected across the board — preparation, classroom demeanor, participation, actual product. It would, of course, be easy to connect a grade to participation in the notetaking (do some math, figure out how many times everyone needs to do it to cover the semester or quarter and assign it that many times).

The other missing component, and this has much to do with my teaching style, is adequate review of the student notes, to provide feedback on quality (and quantity). Early(er) in the year, I should have dedicated much more of a class period to going over the previous period’s notes and pushing each of the members of the notetaking team to be more accountable. To be honest, the switch from meeting my classes 4-5 times a week to 2-3 meetings (yay for changing schools!) left me running ragged trying to keep up with material, and process fell by the wayside.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

As part of my education technology role at my school, I am a member of our high school “Laptop Leaders” group. A few weeks ago, at the end of our first quarter, the Laptop Leaders were asked to document the work they were doing, to create a shared resource, both for themselves and for other teachers. Ultimately, this is preparation for more large-scale adoption of laptops and technology in general as teaching tools in the high school.

The teachers in this Laptop Leaders group were selected last spring, so I joined the group late, at the beginning of the school year and had, really, only a sketchy plan for what I would be working on. The outline (lightly revised) is below. My intention is to share my various write-ups related to this process in this space.

Collaborative Writing and Editing

I’m working with students to develop a class wiki as a collaborative information source, with students contributing class notes, screencasts and other updates and expansions on course content.


I’m working with students to use the class blog as a publication platform for ideas/questions relevant to the greater community in their discipline (e.g. develop [my class] blog into a discussion of [media and design] and related ideas in the outside world).

Social Bookmarking

I’m working with faculty (and students) to use social bookmarking tools (specifically Diigo) to create dynamic and annotated resources for each other (and for and by students).

Social Media

I’m working with faculty and students to develop personal learning networks that tie together all of these Web 2.0 tools to create an online identity and a group of “fellow travelers” studying and exploring the same area. In students’ case, we’re working on this as a class (blogging), but for faculty tools like Twitter (and personal blogs) may also be useful. Also looking at other sharing sites (e.g. Flickr) for use as collaborative tools.

Useful Tools

In the interests of sharing, when I was at my last school, I sat down and created an profile of the handy applications that I use day-to-day. I’ve added this to my profile [on the school wiki], along with a (slowly growing) list of tools that I’ve built for special purposes around school.

Updated November 22, 2009: I should mention that I have Bowdler-ized some of these posts to protect (at least a little), the identities of my students. When posted to our school wiki, there are a number of links to examples. If you pop me an email or a comment and identify yourself, I’m happy to share these examples. Just trying to do some due diligence with regard to my students’ privacy.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On an anti-rubric argument

Shelly Blake-Pock has written a very thoughtful, honest and, in many respects, bang-on attack on rubrics. He clearly defines the extreme ends of the spectrum for disastrous rubric usage:

First of all on the issue of transparency. Most rubrics come in one of two varieties. Either they are extremely didactic in a step-by-step hold-your-hand IKEA instruction manual sort of way or they are touchy-feely rubbish where you get a ‘1’ for ‘not demonstrating significant understanding’ but a ‘5’ for ‘demonstrating unique depth and content mastery’. Rubrics of the latter variety are meant to satisfy the political needs of institutionalized learning, while rubrics of the former are theoretical expressions of teaching to the lowest common denominator.

I’m pretty solidly on board with everything he says here. I don’t want my students to think that the one true way to do anything is to haul out my rubric for the assignment and fill in all the squares completely. I want them to think critically, to creatively synthesize ideas that we have learned together and to develop analyses, ideas and outcomes that are novel and unexpected — and well-supported, thoughtful and demonstrate clear connections to the ongoing work of the class. I don’t want my students to think that life is simply about checking off boxes on someone else’s list.

Point #1: Rubrics are a covenant between a teacher and a student

But here’s the rub, he goes on to attack the idea that rubrics can act  as a tool that promotes objectivity by the teacher:

I don’t want students to do ‘what I want’. I don’t want students to follow ‘objective’ rules. In fact, that’s entirely the type of behavior I’m trying to break my students out of.

I hear his argument that it’s counter-productive to educate our students for their lives to come by aiming them at expectations based on our own experience. Clearly, new contexts require new ideas and new expectations, and our goal should be to help our students learn to develop those new ideas free from the constraints of our own, out-dated thought patterns.

But, we also need to help our students develop skills and techniques for critiquing their own work, for judging whether or not it is objectively good for what it was meant to do (or even serendipitously good for something unexpected — therein lies a window into the power of portfolios, but I digress). A number of commenters suggested working with students to develop collaborative rubrics.

And, I say, this is exactly what we are doing whenever we challenge a student to identify their audience, to present their ideas, to argue for and support their own efforts and creativity and analysis and learning. In fact, there is an implicit rubric at play every time we work with our students to develop qualitative understanding of how they can improve their work.

In this case, the rubric is not a checklist, and it is not an attempt to trample the students’ learning with “my” objectivity: it’s a contract that I am making between myself and my student. “Here, this is what I am looking for in your work — and what you should be looking for in your work.” I believe that there is real value in making this contract explicit where possible, by developing rubrics for and with my students to anticipate what areas of their work I should be focusing on when evaluating drafts and final submissions.

And I think that this idea of the rubric as contract is particularly important because what it really represents in a covenant between the party with power (myself) and the party with less power (my student). I didn’t choose to set the stage this way, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who is entering grades for this student, and it is my evaluation of this student that will be definitive for this course. By making this covenant, an agreement between a party with power and a party lacking in power that effectively binds both parties, I am helping my student not only to focus their efforts, but hopefully alleviating distracting pressures by agreeing not to evaluate on certain aspects of his or her work.

Point #2: Not all learning is divorced from specific facts and skills

The flip side of this rubric conundrum is that not everything that I teach (or that is worth learning) exists without an objective, clearly-defined, body of specific facts and skills that must be mastered by the student. For example, if I were teaching Latin, I would need to work through at least some specific grammar, vocabulary and idiom as a foundation for more open-ended and creative learning. And I would have an objective standard for determining whether or not a student gets it — why would I not communicate that standard to my students? Why would I not give them a target to aim for?

I recall my high school graphic design teacher putting forth what I believe to be a sensible argument during a discussion of the rules of composition. Someone had pointed out that there were great works of art that violated all of these rules, and yet were still great: why should we have to follow them? And Denny Heck responded: “You don’t get to break the rules until you understand the rules.” Yes, she wanted us to learn the rules of composition, but she also expected us to be creative and find ways to violate them and still achieve successful compositions. But those violations would be educated, conscious decisions, aware of the challenges that we were facing — decisions made thoughtfully, well-supported and judiciously.

For assignments at lower levels and earlier in my courses, I do favor rubrics as a way of framing the goalposts for my students. I think that giving them a target to aim for when working to master concrete concepts and facts is a solid support of the education. In providing the rubric, I am also acknowledging that I am not looking for a total understanding of everything, that there could be some confusion in some areas, without the student being entirely at sea when it comes to building on that knowledge. The rubric lets me show my students that there is a “good enough” knowledge of the subject matter that will let us converse about more complicated concepts fluently and without distraction by their confusion.

August 21st, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

Tags: , , , , ,

I’m in the throes of reworking my Introduction to Computer Science course for the coming fall. I was thoroughly dissatisfied with how I taught the course this year: I’m at the stage of teaching where I know how I want it to go, but can’t always make it happen. Of course, this may not be a stage, but could, depressingly, be the existence of a grown-up.

I have divided the course into three broad areas that I think are most important to cover: computer science (as a discipline: concepts like variable scope, Boolean logic, object-oriented design, and so on), programming in Java (concrete details like how a for loop works or how to declare a class) and design and implementation. Design and implementation is actually really the core of my fascination with this course: how do you teach problem solving? And how do you get students to apply those skills.

In doing this, I’m plowing through a lot of articles.

  • Jason Tselentis does a great job of identifying the challenge (with a special focus on graphic design problem solving and software, to be honest), although what he’s really talking about has more to do with my general challenge in academic computing: developing able and fearless tinkerers.
  • Anthony Cowling goes into much deeper, and more software specific, detail, pushing the idea not just of scaffolded design education, but helping students learn to assess the quality of design (subscription).
  • Phillip Greenspun tackles not just the problems of teaching problem solving and design, but discusses MIT course 6.916, on developing web applications with an eye towards developing broadly competent and self-reliant alumni. Again, his basic ethos flows directly into my primary concern in any approach to academic computing: are we teaching a shamanistic approach to computers (“follow these specific steps in this order and it works.”) or are we supporting the development of true independent learners who can sit down and “just figure it out.” Greenspun and I are in the same camp, supporting the latter option.
  • Gary Pollice wrote a great article describing his introductory software engineering class — which touches not just on design, but on teamwork. Again, he’s preaching somewhat to the choir as I read about his students working on semester-long courses with real clients.

Of course, the challenge is now to boil down all these design concepts into something that is useful not in a first-year computer science or software engineering undergraduate course, but in a first-semester high school course. How much do my students really need to know about UML, CRC cards, flow charts, eXtreme Programming, incremental development, rapid prototyping, functional requirements and use cases? Not a whole damn lot. Mostly, I want them to learn to enjoy the process of rigorous problem solving as manifest in learning to program a computer.

But I’d certainly like them to not be starting down the garden path of bad habits based on ill-considered pedagogical frameworks.

Ah, for the days of Pascal as a first programming language!

June 26th, 2008

Posted In: Computer Science, Educational Technology

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Having just struck upon the similarities between Pink’s six new senses and Gardner’s multiple intelligences, I continue to be fascinated by examples of folks employing these ideas in creative ways: enter Basildon Coder, recently highlighted on Slashdot for describing a Wodehouse-ian approach to code refactoring. As always, I look at this and start to ponder how to use it in the classroom with my students: one of the real challenges that my students face is not the development of new code (although that is challenging) but figuring out how to use a body of code written by someone else (me, their classmates, some godawful Windows GDI API, etc.). I have been struck by the difficulty my students have faced this year in grasping the 50,000 foot view of coding — perhaps a visual representation like this might be a first step. Sort of a Powers of 10 for programming.

March 23rd, 2008

Posted In: Computer Science, Educational Technology

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