Monday, July 27, 2009

Who Cares If They Learn?

One of the commenters had this to say in response to my post awhile back on interactive teaching:

The "math class" approach you describe is for babies. It is the students' job to do this on their own, or have the TAs cover it in section.

With these approaches you cannot cover as much material. It is style over substance. But if you are going slowly and not trying to cover much material, I suppose it can't hurt.

Ignoring* the phrasing, the point here is one that I've heard many times - that somehow you do your students a disservice if you actually take the time to teach them the material. I believe the root of the disagreement is based in whether or not you believe that your job is to teach the material, or just present as much as possible. While I certainly don't believe it's my job to make the students to try to learn (in other words, if they don't do the homework there's only so much you can do), I do believe it's my job to actually teach the material. Yes, this involves doing examples in class. Ideally, I think it also involves doing your best to keep your students from falling asleep in your class, however early in the morning it might be. I think students learn best by interacting during class (plus it keeps them awake). And it's not just me that thinks this (see Freire, Dewey, Piaget, or generally constructivism).

I'm trying to teach in this style during the Algorithms summer term class I'm currently in the middle of. Unfortunately, I'm partially falling victim to the second argument - "but if you take the time to teach, you won't cover as much." Even though I fundamentally disagree with it (assuming that you want the students to actually learn the material, taking the time to teach it is never wasted), I can't figure out a good way to teach the vast number of algorithms that I think I'd be doing a disservice if I didn't teach, and still spend long enough on each one so that they really understand the underlying details. (This is made especially hard since the class meets every day, so there's no time for contemplation between classes.) I'm doing examples in class, having discussions about the algorithms, having them try sample instances, etc. Yet my idealist nature is somewhat unsatisfied.

On the other hand, I've assigned a half-term long programming project that does embody these values and which I'm very excited about. More on that later.

*Actually, I can't quite bring myself to ignore it altogether. While I'm glad not to be seeing a Barbie-style "math is hard," the idea that anything having to do with math class is "for babies" is rather absurd. Some things that are for babies; diapers, bottles, toys, mushed carrots. Things that are not for babies; Calculus, Algorithms, going to college, taking my classes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy Moon Landing

To mark the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, I want to bring up an article that marked the 50th anniversary of Sputnik (very un-American of me, I know). It was about how Sputnik spurred a new era in science education in this country. While many still speak of "new math" with derision, it was part of a wave of changes that energized science education and changed the way students thought about science. Science was no longer about boring equations, but about space and sending a man to the moon! Unfortunately, we've been on a downward spiral since the end of the cold war. It no longer seems urgent to understand science. It no longer seems exciting. And without the "red menace" to spur us on, we've become complacent. Perhaps some of the blame goes to the government, for mandating testing yearly only in Math and English. But there's plenty of blame to spread around. The curriculum is "too hard" for the students when it's interactive - or maybe just "too hard" for the teachers. Interactive teaching takes too long. All the bright scientists make more money not teaching. The list goes on. But something needs to be done. I imagine that every computer scientist has experienced the shock and awe and terror that accompanies admission of our job. It's just a symptom of the larger problem. And while perhaps science will never be (and should never be?) easy, it should certainly be exciting. After all, someone needs to create the next imagination-inspiring "moon landing."