TITLE: Balancing Confidence and Challenge, Anxiety and Boredom AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 17, 2004 6:55 PM DESC: Reading about Suzuki instruction in music jogged my mind on the design of programming curriculum for college students. ----- BODY: Just something rolling around my mind today... During my daughter's violin lesson earlier this afternoon, I was browsing a pamphlet on the Suzuki method for learning music titled "The Power of Simplicity". I've forgotten the author's name already... The purpose of the pamphlet is to support the ideas that make up the Suzuki method with references to research in psychology and education, as well as writings from philosophers and master musicians. I didn't get very far in thirty minutes, but the first chapter jogged my mind with its discussion of the Suzuki repertoire's design. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the technical idea of the Suzuki approach is a step-by-step mastery of specific skills via the mastery of a carefully arranged progression of musical pieces, some written specifically for the curriculum. As faithful readers know, practice and mastery have been on my mind lately. But the thing that grabbed my attention today was a reference to "the problem of the match", a phrase from educational psychology that refers to matching the elements of a curriculum to the needs of the learner. The author wasn't so much concerned with the technical details of the match (say, fingerings or chords) as with the learner's experience -- the balance between the learner's confidence and the challenge of the current piece. This brought to mind something Alan Kay talked about at OOPSLA, in reference to designing learning environments for children. Kay said that we should consciously seek to widen the path of flow for learners, between anxiety and boredom. My experience with the Suzuki piano literature is that it does a remarkable job of balancing confidence with challenge, of navigating between anxiety and boredom. It does so in many ways: by introducing only or two new skill elements at a time, by repeating skill elements in subsequent pieces for mastery through repetition, by occasionally dropping an "easy" piece into the curriculum to let the learner bask in confidence for a while, and so on. Many people, including Suzuki, Montessori, and Kay, have pointed out that this idea is essential when supporting children as learners. But they are just as important when working with more mature learners, including college students. Some computer science educators have written about Bloom's taxonomy as it applies to CS 1, and I've heard colleagues make arguments about what is and isn't appropriate for first-year courses based on the abstraction capabilities of typical 18- and 19-year-olds. Too often, though, our courses follow a path accreted over many years of programming language changes, textbook revisions, and little additions (and few deletions!) to our lecture notes. I've grown increasingly dissatisfied with my Computer Science II curriculum over the last few years. I can see now that one source of my dissatisfaction is the mismatch between what I ask students to do and what they know when I ask them to do it. Balancing anxiety against challenge is hard. My tendency is toward challenge, which often results in high anxiety and low confidence. I've made small changes to the course every semester, and a year or so ago I refactored the course a bit more substantially. But course offerings last for a semester, and with iterations that long refactoring works at a glacial rate. Besides, several Big Ideas have been taking root in my mind lately, and I want to redesign the course from the ground up to incorporate them. Given that opportunity, I want to design the course -- the concepts we cover, their order, my examples, my programming assignments, the whole bit -- taking my students' "flow" into account. Talk about a task that gives rise to anxiety. One way that I hope to alleviate my own fear is to develop the course in an agile way. But I want to begin the course with plenty of raw material that will allow me to respond to what I learn nimbly. I am glad to have stumbled across that humble little Suzuki pamphlet today, and to have been reminded of Alan Kay's discussion of flow. You never know where a little reading might lead your mind... -----