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.
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
as it applies to
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
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
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...