EppsNet Archive: Education

Teaching Computer Science: Incentives (or Lack Thereof)

22 Mar 2015 /

According to this article on TechCrunch, “Every California high school must establish computer science courses as part of its core curriculum.” From the same article: “Most California teachers have little or no training to teach computer science.”

Do you see the problem there?

I’ve been a programmer for many years . . . I’d be glad to teach computer science to students, teachers or anyone who wants to learn it if there were even a modest incentive to do so. Which there isn’t.

One way to measure how much people want something is how much they’re willing to pay for it. There’s no shortage of people talking about teaching programming and computer science, which is free (the talking, that is), but without the incentives ($$$) very little is going to actually happen.


Big Fishes in Small Ponds

14 Mar 2015 /

Big fish, small pond

A colleague and I are discussing an article about too many kids quitting science because they don’t think they’re smart, in which Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, says, among other things:

Being a good parent has become synonymous with giving out ability praise. Parents still think this is the greatest gift they can give to their children, and as a child gets more and more insecure, they give more and more of it. And, by the way, a lot of employers and coaches have said, “My employees cannot get through the day without accolades and validation.” Even professional coaches have said they cannot give feedback without these people feeling that they’ve crushed them. We’ve created several generations now of very fragile individuals because they’ve been praised and hyped. And feel that anything but praise is devastating.

My colleague mentions Malcolm Gladwell‘s book David and Goliath, in which Gladwell claims that while the worst STEM students at, say, Harvard may be as smart as the top third at a lower ranked college, the Harvard kids feel stupid and unsuccessful because they compare themselves to their Harvard peers. Gladwell then goes on to recommend attending non-elite institutions — to be a big fish in a small pond — in order not to have your dreams and confidence crushed.

“Why don’t kids just forget about four-year institutions completely and attend their local community college?” I reply. “They can test their mettle against classmates with no academic qualifications whatsoever. That should provide a much-needed confidence boost.”


Teaching Computer Science: Pro Tips for Finishing a Project

5 Mar 2015 /

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.

  1. For many (most?) students doing an object-oriented development project for the first time, this assignment is too difficult to do without a lot of guidance. Therefore: ask for help early and often.
  2. If you wait till the night before a checkpoint, you won’t have enough time to finish and we won’t have enough time to help you effectively. Therefore: ask for help early and often.
  3. I’m seeing students struggling to write code that we’ve already given you. That’s not a good use of your time. Know what we’ve given you and use it.
  4. This is what your program needs to do: [Feature list goes here].
  5. Pick a feature and try to implement it (or part of it). If you can’t do it, come to class tomorrow and ask a question.
  6. Repeat Step 5 until done.

Teaching Computer Science: Ski Week

3 Mar 2015 /

Skier

Corona del Mar High School doesn’t just take Presidents Day off . . . they take the whole week off and call it Ski Week.

It’s a total non sequitur in terms of paying tribute to our nation’s greatest leaders. George Washington didn’t ski. Abraham Lincoln didn’t ski.

“How do you know Abraham Lincoln didn’t ski?” a student asks.

“He was too busy writing the Gettysburg Address.”

“He wrote that in 20 minutes.”

“There was the whole Civil War thing going on. He didn’t have time for ski trips with his buddies.”

It’s hard to think of a notable historical figure who also a skier. If you want to accomplish great deeds, you have to give things up. You can’t get bogged down in nonsense.


Lasts

14 Jan 2015 /

End-of-winter-break dinner at BJ’s Brewhouse, after which the boy headed back to school for his final semester . . .

BJ's Brewhouse


Teaching Computer Science: Today Was Not the Best Day to Say What You Just Said

14 Jan 2015 /

Class website

I asked the class to pass in today’s homework and a student said, “I couldn’t figure out what homework was due today.”

I wasn’t feeling at my best to begin with. I was tired because I was up late making sure the class website was updated with all relevant materials, homework assignments were listed at the top of the page under the Homework header with due dates listed in bold font next to each assignment so that there’s no way anyone looking at the website, assuming they’re old enough to read, could fail to understand what is the homework and when is it due.

So when that kid said that he couldn’t figure out what the homework was, I felt the futility of life grabbing me by the throat and I was mad . . .


The Public School Monopoly Provides Little Incentive to Supply Good Education

31 Dec 2014 /

[The public-school monopoly] is yet another scam that inflicts disproportionately great damage on people who are the poorest and least advantaged. How could it not? Those who run K-12 government schools aren’t paid by customers who voluntarily send their children to those schools and who could easily choose to send their children elsewhere. Instead, these teachers and officials are paid by governments that tax citizens regardless of how many children those citizens have in schools and regardless of how well the schools perform. Therefore, with funding that is independent of customer choice — and with each child assigned to a particular public school — public-school officials have little incentive to supply good education.


60 Million Students

29 Dec 2014 /


Teaching Computer Science: Those Who Don’t Like to Read

16 Dec 2014 /

Students with books

I recommended a couple of books that I’ve read recently and liked — Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman — to the class in case anyone was looking for a book to read over winter break or maybe as a holiday gift.

“What if you don’t like to read?” someone asked.

“Well, in that case you can spend your entire life inside your own head and never know or care what life looks like to other people.”

In hindsight, it occurred to me that I could have suggested audio books for people who don’t like to read, but . . . woulda coulda shoulda, you know what I’m saying?


Many Have Long Known …

14 Dec 2014 /

Many in academia have long known about how the practice of student evaluations of professors is inherently biased against female professors. . . .

 
  1. Group A getting better evaluations than Group B is not evidence of bias.
  2. Asserting that something is true doesn’t mean it’s true.
  3. Asserting that many people know something to be true doesn’t mean it’s true.
  4. Most college students (i.e., the people evaluating professors) are female. What, if anything, does this fact suggest?

Teaching Computer Science: No School Before Thanksgiving

26 Nov 2014 /

There was no school today because a lot of kids don’t like to show up the day before Thanksgiving, so the district decided not to have classes on the day before Thanksgiving. Once they get used to having Wednesday off, they won’t show up on Tuesday and we’ll have to give them Tuesday off. Then of course there’s no sense in having a one-day school week so we’ll give them the whole week off.

And since they’re already off on Veterans Day and the day after Halloween, let’s just give them the whole month of November off.

I’m concerned that American education is getting worse faster than we can lower our standards.


I’m in Semi-Solidarity with the Protestors

26 Nov 2014 /

http://www.dailycal.org/2014/11/19/100-individuals-occupy-wheeler-hall-wednesday-night-protest-tuition-hikes/

I support the UC Berkeley students protesting tuition hikes but maybe with a little less conviction than I used to because my kid is a senior and no matter how high tuition goes I won’t be paying it anymore so I hope the boy was in class yesterday and not out causing a disturbance . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Exam Tips from the Pros

18 Nov 2014 /

When I cover something in a review session or study guide, it’s because I know it’s going to be on the test. There were questions during this morning’s test about the workings of several Java methods, all of which were covered in the review session and the study guide. I can’t answer questions like that during the test so if you have questions about review topics, ask them in advance of test day.

Some people seem to think that having an excuse for not knowing something is as good as actually knowing it. “But we hardly spent any time on Topic X in class.” “But we just learned Topic Y yesterday.”

Even if either one of those were true, what difference would it make? It’s on the study guide and it’s going to be on the test.

Given a choice between knowing something and having an excuse for not knowing it, always go with the first option: knowing it.


Teaching Computer Science: Mindset

17 Nov 2014 /
Studying

Photo Credit: dongga BS

I’m not comfortable giving people advice that they didn’t ask for, so I usually preface it by saying “Feel free to ignore this . . .”

That being said, I want to talk about the mindset I think you should have for this class, maybe for other classes, maybe even for things outside of school.

Feel free to ignore this . . .

Education has allowed me to make a living doing things that I like and things that I’m good at. A lot of people are not able to say that. Most people, I think, are not able to say that. Most people are like “I hate Mondays” and “Thank god it’s Friday” and that sort of thing.

I have had jobs where I spent the day doing things that I don’t like and I’m not good at and it’s painful. And the amount of money you get paid to do it doesn’t seem to make it any less painful.

I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins . . . some of them were serious about education and some of them weren’t. And the ones who weren’t, I don’t want to say they’re all losers, but they’re all . . . disappointments. As I expected they would be. My wife doesn’t like when I say this — she thinks it’s bad karma or something — but I like it when people screw around in school and go on to have disappointing lives because it reinforces everything that I believe to be true about life.

It’s satisfying when people make bad decisions and suffer the consequences, isn’t it? I think it is.

My own mindset, and this doesn’t apply just to school, is that no one is going to outwork me and no one is going to outlearn me. If you’re working on homework or a programming assignment, or you’re studying for a test or quiz, and you get stuck on something, and you try to get unstuck by reading the textbook, or going to the website and reviewing lecture slides or handouts or watching a video or posting a question to the Facebook group, you’re doing things the right way. You should do well in the class, you should do well on the AP exam and I’ll do everything I can to help you do well in the class and on the AP exam.

If you hear yourself saying things like, “I spent the weekend playing 47 straight hours of video games, and by the way, I have no idea what’s going on in this class,” you’re unlikely to do well.

If you’re asking questions about assignments on or after the due date, you’re unlikely to do well.

If you miss a class and don’t check the website to see what you missed, you’re unlikely to do well. Everything we cover in class is on the website, plus a lot of extra stuff as well.

“Nobody’s going to outwork me and nobody’s going to outlearn me.”

Again, if that doesn’t make sense to you, feel free to ignore it . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Diversity for Girls Only

27 Oct 2014 /

NCWIT photo

I called the class’s attention to the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing, which honors young women at the high-school level for their computing-related achievements and interests. Awardees are selected for their computing and IT aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education.

The website features a photo of a black girl, an Asian girl, a white girl, and in case you’re not in any of those groups, there’s an ethnically ambiguous girl on the left you can probably identify with. Diversity and inclusiveness for all. All are welcome.

You still have to be a girl of course, they’re not that inclusive . . .


HIS and HER

24 Oct 2014 /

I work at an educational non-profit. Whenever I type the abbreviation HSI (High School Intervention), Microsoft Word automatically “corrects” it to HIS. When I worked at a healthcare organization and typed EHR (Electronic Healthcare Record), Word helpfully “corrected” it to HER.

There’s a nice symmetry to that: HIS and HER.


Common Core Testing

18 Oct 2014 /

A colleague posted this on the office discussion board:

OK. So a good friend of mine teaches Math in our Middle School and we’re constantly talking about the various standardized tests that we subject our kids too (he currently has my 7th grade daughter for Intermediate Algebra).

The students are taking ForeSight tests this week. Sort of a practice for the PSSA tests later in the year.

This morning he texted me a math problem from the 7th grade ForeSight test and asked if I could solve it.

So I solved it using simple amortization, but none of the possible answers match (or are close to) my solution. So I went online to solve it and got the same solution that I got by hand.

Anyone care to take a crack at this problem – a typical example of a 7th grade standardized test math question?

PS. My teacher friend couldn’t solve it either.

PPS If you feel like the problem might be missing some information, welcome to the club, nevertheless, this is how the kids have to solve it.

Math problem

I don’t have a kid in school anymore so I’m missing out on all the fun related to Common Core and whatever ForeSight and PSSA are. I hear a lot of parents and teachers complaining about Common Core. I know Bill Gates likes it and he’s a smart guy.

The complaints from parents, like the one above, seem to be mostly about testing. Most of the respondents on the office discussion board agreed that this was a terrible question but I don’t have a real problem with it. “Net worth” is used a little bit loosely as it doesn’t take into account the value of the car, but I think it’s obvious what the question is asking.

I remember when my kid was taking junior high math that there was an emphasis on estimation and “ballparking” calculations. Don’t do more work than you need to. So I’d expect to see someone solve the problem like this: After making 6 payments, Jessie shouldn’t owe more than he borrowed so eliminate B and C. Answer A suggests that he’s paid down 800-something dollars, which is wrong because 6 times 112 is less than 800. So the only possible answer is D. Trying to do an amortization calculation is not the right approach to the problem.


Teaching Computer Science: Applause

23 Sep 2014 /

Applause

We did an interactive exercise to write a simple program that prints numbers and the squares of the numbers — a for loop, basically. We went around the room with each student providing one element of the loop and me writing them on the whiteboard: for, open paren, int, i, equals, 1, semicolon, etc.

I thought it went very well. The timing was good and it was obvious that most of the class understood what was going on. When we got to a girl who’s usually ahead of everyone and knows all the answers, what we needed from her was “curly bracket” but what she actually said was “semicolon” and there was a collective groan from the rest of the class.

When the last student said “close curly bracket,” there was spontaneous applause, immediately, before I even wrote it on the board. It wasn’t like a concert at the high school auditorium where a piece ends and there’s a gap — “Is it over? Do we clap now?” It was like a classical concert with a high-brow audience that knows exactly when the piece ends and when to clap.


Teaching Computer Science: Asking for Help

15 Sep 2014 /

I’m not sure students are asking for help enough despite my repeated admonitions to do so.

On the first day of class, I said, “Ask for help early and often. If you ask for help when you’re in trouble, you waited too long. Ask for help when things are going well. That’s a good heuristic in this class and in other areas of life as well.”

Later I said, “Learn to distinguish between persistence and floundering. Persistence is good. Floundering is bad. Don’t flounder.”

Yesterday I said, “You may think, ‘Well, if I was a better programmer, I wouldn’t have to ask for help.’ That’s incorrect. As you get to be a better programmer, you’re given harder problems to work on. I’ve been programming for 30 years — almost — and I ask for help every day.”

Honestly I feel like a mental case repeating the same thing over and over and yet out of 34 students in the class, 12 didn’t turn in the first assignment, most apparently because even though they finished it, they didn’t know how to turn it in (via an upload link on the class website) and didn’t ask for help or couldn’t figure out how to locate Java files in a project directory and didn’t ask for help . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Remembering Names

3 Sep 2014 /

I’m teaching AP Computer Science . . . today was the first real day of instruction. Yesterday was just introductions and housekeeping.

The first kid I called on to answer a question was named Sean. The second kid? Also named Sean.

“Is everyone in the class named Sean?” I asked.

Unfortunately they weren’t. It would have made it a lot easier to remember everyone’s name.


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