TITLE: Instructor as Consultant
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: July 13, 2004 3:38 PM
DESC: Do students avoid risk when learning new practices?
I've been reading Gerald Weinberg's classic The Secrets of Consulting:
A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully. I heartily recommend
that you read just about everything Weinberg's written, whether you are a
software person or not. His books are really about being a better person,
whatever you do.
In The Secrets of Consulting, Weinberg says that he was often upset
with clients for being so reluctant to adopt his advice. But then one of
his clients enlightened him about the risk differential between the consultant
and the client:
Of course, as psychologists like Kahneman and Tversky have shown us, most
people will bear opportunity costs in order to avoid risk, even in the face
of potentially big payoffs. In this case, the client needs a pretty good
reason to choose to implement the consultant's advice.
I wonder if this dynamic is at play when students are learning new practices,
such as object-oriented design or agile methods? In some ways, the student
is in the role of Weinberg's client. If the student is comfortable with how
he goes about building software, then he may be averse to change. Adopting
a new practice may make his life better -- but it may make it worse! And
even if he is not all that happy with how he programs now, he may be happy
to maintain the status quo in the face of risk.
So the new practice either needs to offer the promise of a *big* payoff or
guarantee little risk of failure. And human psychology may get in the way
of the student risking a change even in that case.
The instructor is, of course, in the role of Weinberg's consultant, but with
a twist: if students don't adopt the new practice, the instructor may not even
face the loss of his 'contract'! Instructors don't always lose their courses
when students don't learn; sometimes they just muddle along, perhaps trying
something new next semester. And as a tenured member of our faculty, I face
little chance of losing my job, no matter how poorly my students do.
Where is the risk? Students may see the instructor as having no stake in
the risk of failure.
Whether this ideas applies directly to the student-teacher relationship or
not, I think that it does explain in some part the history of elementary
patterns in computer science education. A few years ago, several colleagues
and I began our work on so-called elementary patterns, those patterns that
relative beginners need and use when writing programs. After writing some
papers, we gave several workshops at conferences like SIGCSE, aimed at
helping other faculty reorganize their courses using elementary patterns
and write elementary patterns of their own.
The reaction we received surprised me at the time. Our workshops received
high ratings at each conference, and participants almost always came up to
tell us how much they enjoyed the workshops and to encourage us to do more.
But almost no one began to write elementary patterns, and almost no one
redesigned their courses around the idea. In retrospect, I realize that
we were asking them to make a pretty big change in how they did their jobs.
They were in the same situation as Weinberg's client above. The trade-off
between success and failure had to balanced against the option of doing
nothing and being happy with their current courses.
In retrospect, I can say that we didn't do a very good job 'selling' the
idea of elementary patterns. My good friend
always prodded us to create more and better support materials to ease
adoption of our ideas by others, and a few of us are
trying to do just that.
But I wonder how successful we will be.
Maybe a more evolutionary approach would work? What would that look like?
- From the consultant's point of view: If the client ignores his advice,
eventually he will lose his contract. If his advice is implemented,
then he might be a hero. If it fails, then he will lose the contract
-- which would have happened even if his advice had been ignored.
- From the client's point of view: If he ignores the consultant's advice,
then he is no worse off than he currently is. If he implements the
advice, then he might be better off, *but he might be worse off*.