Teaching is about conveying a way of thinking

As I build out the elmcity network, launching calendar hubs in towns and cities around the country, I’ve been gathering examples of excellent web thinking. In Ann Arbor’s public schools are thinking like the web I noted that the schools in that town — and most particularly the Slauson Middle School — are Doing It Right with respect to online calendars. How, I wondered, does that happen? How does a middle school figure out a solution that eludes most universities, theaters, city governments, nightclubs, museums, and other organizations with calendars of interest to the public?

It’s not technology. Slauson Middle School is using the same web services (in this case, Google Calendar) available to everyone.

It’s not budget. The web services required for this solution are free.

It’s a way of thinking. I wrote to Slauson’s principal, Chris Curtis, to congratulate him on the excellent example his school is setting, and to identify the thinker responsible. That thinker turns out to be Chris Curtis himself. And it’s no accident that the implementation pattern on display at Slauson is also evident at Pioneer High. Chris did the same thing there before coming to Slauson.

Now I am not an educator, I only watch from the sidelines. But to me the K-12 “computer skills” curriculum seems uniformed by the kinds of core principles that will make students effective in a web-augmented world. So I asked Chris:

What you’ve done at Pioneer and now Slauson builds on an important conceptual foundation. Do you think that K-12 education could build that foundation?

Here’s what he said:

I agree with the notion that the basic principles of computer science should be generalized more broadly across the curriculum. In many ways, teaching computer and technology skills courses absent a meaningful application of them is ineffective and silly. We wouldn’t teach driver’s education and not let students drive. We don’t teach a “pencil skills class” in which we learn the skills for using this technology tool without an immediate opportunity to apply the skills and then begin to consider and explore the many ways that the pencil and writing change how we organize, perceive, and interact with our world.

This issue gets at the heart of the challenge of technology and education. Often the world seems to divide into separate interest areas: those interested in technology and those interested in education. The result is often to send the technology nerds to a room and make them teach technology and send the other teachers to their rooms and let them teach. In order to be effective at integrating technology into the instructional environment there has to be a merger between a technology interest and and educational interest, within the same person. The awareness of what is possible via technology resources and the desire to perform educational functions can lead to the educator realizing that a task could be done differently, more efficiently, more effectively, with more precision, or in some other manner improved.

Of course the schism that separates technologists from educators also affects practitioners of all kinds. In his most recent essay, Bret Victor meditates on this point:

My piano teacher played the piano. Like, all the time. He had to; it’s not easy to make a living as a musician. Between tours, his band played restaurants, bars, weddings, anywhere they could get a gig. He chose this life because he loved music, and when he taught music, he was teaching what he did. In that way, his teaching was honest.

Back in high school, I was taught differential equations by a working engineer. He spent his days at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and for whatever reason, chose to spend his evenings at the local community college. Differential equations wasn’t some abstract arcana to him. It was his bread-and-butter, and he apparently found it important enough to share.

My information theory professor would teach me information theory in the morning, and then spend the afternoon furthering the field. Sure, what she taught was somewhat elementary by her standards, but she was well aware that this elementary theory was the foundation on which her life’s research was built. It showed, and it stayed with me.

Real teaching is not about transferring “the material”, as if knowledge were some sort of mass-produced commodity that ships from Amazon. Real teaching is about conveying a way of thinking. How can a teacher convey a way of thinking when he doesn’t genuinely think that way?

I’m preoccupied with a related question. The way of thinking that I most want to convey is web thinking. Which is, by definition, openly available to anyone who wants to learn. Schools everywhere can observe and emulate what Chris Curtis is doing at Slauson. In so doing they can become practitioners in the way that Chris is. Their students might then see them as practitioners and learn from their examples.

I would be delighted if the elmcity project could help bootstrap that virtuous cycle.

16 thoughts on “Teaching is about conveying a way of thinking

  1. John Erickson

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and “Happy New Year,” Jon!

    The quote from Bret Victor’s essay resonates: “…Real teaching is about conveying a way of thinking. How can a teacher convey a way of thinking when he doesn’t genuinely think that way?…” When I was a kid, my K-12 prep school had a policy of only hiring “art” teachers — music, drama, 2D, 3D, etc — who were practicing professionals. Further, my dad, the long-time chair of that school’s science department, would steer hiring towards candidates with actual science degrees and, if possible, Real World(tm) experience. Finally, my favorite language teacher, fluent in seven languages, had been a CIA agent in Cold War Eastern Europe.

    The school’s goal of course was to raise the level of instruction and perceived relevance of the material by having it delivered by actual practitioners, skilled not only teaching but in their specific “arts.” Finding teachers and administrators like Chris Curtis who are skilled web thinkers will be a challenge but is an important objective in the coming years for our educational system.

    Reply
  2. jmyates01Jim Yates

    Happy New Year Jon,
    Perhaps there is a single letter that explains the difference you are searching for. T for Teach rather than P for Preach. A Teacher lights the curious wicks which exist in the student and the Preacher simply shines a momentary light on the very same wicks.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Teaching is about conveying a way of thinking « Another Word For It

  4. Dave P

    “In many ways, teaching computer and technology skills courses absent a meaningful application of them is ineffective and silly. We wouldn’t teach driver’s education and not let students drive. ”
    Computer skills in pre-University seems often to be defined as can you use the Microsoft Office suite. Is this too far removed from the processor to help students understand what computing is all about?
    raspberrypi.org is trying to provide kit to go back to the 70′s where a computer was defined differently than today. I like that idea.

    Reply
  5. Jon Udell Post author

    Is this too far removed from the processor to help students understand what computing is all about?

    People often say, I think rightly, that most people don’t need to know much about the engine’s internal combustion — or nowadays, its electronics — to drive. Everyone does need to know rules of the road, and the physical laws that do or don’t keep your car on the road.

    Similarly I don’t think most people need to know a lot about the processor but everyone does need to know the rules of the web and the principles that govern how information does or doesn’t flow.

    (All that said, the Raspberry Pi is wicked cute!)

    Reply
  6. John Erickson

    Jon says,

    Everyone does need to know rules of the road, and the physical laws that do or don’t keep your car on the road…Similarly I don’t think most people need to know a lot about the processor but everyone does need to know the rules of the web and the principles that govern how information does or doesn’t flow.

    And, as with driving, acting in the Internet space without some understanding of the “Rules of the Web” increasingly can have negative consequences. With the rise of online social networks comes pressure to participate in online life at an ever-younger age.

    The work of keeping our kids safe and teaching them to be contributing electronic citizens must now start at birth and be embraced as the responsibility of their entire community…

    Reply
  7. Tom

    “People often say, I think rightly, that most people don’t need to know much about the engine’s internal combustion — or nowadays, its electronics — to drive.”

    Douglas Rushkoff points out that the driver-engineer/mechanic analogy isn’t the best one for computers (http://www.rushkoff.com/program-or-be-programmed/), and that a much better one is driver-passenger. Being able to “drive” a computer properly isn’t about writing software, it’s about “computational thinking” as you say, without which, you’re just along for the ride (or in many cases, being shipped around as cargo.)

    Reply
  8. John Erickson

    I’ll like to suggest a complementary way to think about this, drawn from recent work on “expert performance” and “deliberate practice.” This concepts have been popularized recently as “10,000 hour theory” but have been discussed on and off by learning theorists over the last century; see Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice for a good summary.

    The core concept is this: Mastery requires deliberate practice, and deliberate practice requires careful reflection on what worked and what didn’t work. Skilled practitioners play a critical role as teachers/coaches in guiding such deliberate practice; indeed they provide the insight that guides and teaches the reflection and concentration that leads to mastery.

    In thinking about mastering computational thinking, we need to create environments that encourage deliberate practice, which must include mentoring from practitioners and hours allotted for reflection and concentration, repeated daily for years.

    Reply
    1. Jon Udell Post author

      we need to create environments that encourage deliberate practice

      Yes. Even more challenging than that, such environments must appear, to many people, to be “fun” and “easy-to-use” apps.

      Reply
  9. Parag Shah

    Great post Jon and a happy new year.

    Do you think a project based CS program might be able to do more justice to teaching CS?

    By project based, I mean all the students start working on real projects starting with a simple web site, going on to a simple web app, and then to more complex software.

    Along the path they will need to learn many theoretical concepts, which they would learn in the context of actual work. Some concepts would be taught by mentors by way of code reviews.

    They still might have to learn some concepts without the context of actual work, but that would be the exception rather than the rule.

    Do you think such a program might be a better way to teach CS ?

    Reply
  10. Dave P

    I’m with John on this. “Fun and easy to use” are great aids for children in learning. 10,000 hours might make a John Udell, but that sort of time isn’t available in many classes. Making a child eager to learn more == have more fun is a far better goal when dealing with youngsters.

    Dave

    Reply
  11. Jon Udell Post author

    I’m not really qualified to comment, because I have had only a glancing acquaintance with academic CS. But in general, for all kinds of things, I think project-based learning is critical. It’s a tough challenge for educators though. A real project would outlive the class and provide subsequent classes with the experience of iteration. But how then do you assess the work done for each iteration, at scale and consistently across iterations? Tricky.

    Reply
    1. Parag Shah

      Yes, I think assessing the work is the single biggest challenge in a project based learning program.

      That is also the reason I feel that we have to let go of good learning settings in order to make the programs amenable to assessment. If the assessment were done purely for giving feedback to the student, then it would not be a problem (because the project and code reviews will provide for sufficient opportunities for constructive feedback), but if the assessment is done to associate a grade, then we have to ensure that the assessment is fair for the entire set of students, and is scalable. This often messes things up :-)

      Reply

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