TITLE: The Passions of Students and Teachers AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 04, 2005 9:47 AM DESC: What can a panel on interaction design for children teach us high-falootin' university professors? ----- BODY: One of my goals this year is to not let paper bury me. So when the latest issue of Communications of the ACM hit my doorstep, I decided to deal with it in real-time. One article grabbed my attention for its protagonists: David Kestenbaum's "The Challenges of IDC: What Have We Learned From Our Past?", which is an excerpt of a panel at IDC 2004 that included Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, and Alan Kay. Someone in the audience asked these pioneers of interaction design for children to comment on how their ideas could be framed in terms of "people's everyday realities", because people understand things better when you express them in terms of everyday experiences. I think all three responses have something to teach us about teaching, even at the university level. (Emphasis added by me.) Papert:
You learn things better when they are connected with things you are passionate about. Connecting math to things that you don't care about doesn't help even if they belong to everyday life. ... What counts to you is your mental world of interests, dreams, and fantasies, which are often very far removed from everyday life. The key educational task is to make connections between powerful ideas and passionate interests...
The most important thing in learning is copying how other people think. I don't think learning by doing really gets one to emulate how other people think. ... We need a cultural situation where every child has an adult friend whom they can emulate. And communicate their ways of thinking to the child. Do something that gets each child to spend a few hours a month with someone worth copying. What we do now is to take a six year old and send him in a room full of six year olds. The result is that every person grows up with the cognitive capability of a five year old.
I completely agree. I go to a music camp in the summer. What you see there are people with different abilities playing in the presence of master players. The camp doesn't accept coaches that won't play in the concert. Imagine a fifth-grade teacher assigning a composition and actually writing one herself. Shocking! What teachers do is broadcast in every way possible that "I'm not interested in this at all because I don't do it." I think it's unthinkable to teach six year olds to be six year olds. You need to have these models. It's like grad school. You go there to find professors that are more like you'd like to be and try to understand the way they think.
These answers embody two key ideas, one I'm conscious of most of the time and one that challenges me to do better:
  1. Students prefer to learn from teachers who do the thing they teach. A programming teacher who doesn't program will lose students' attention as soon as he reveals through attitude or action that he doesn't care enough about the stuff to actually write programs himself. Besides, a programming teacher who doesn't program will almost by necessity be teaching programming out of a book, which isn't where the interesting part of programming happens!

  2. Students learn from their passions, not from any old connection to the "real world". I suppose I know this, but it's easy for me as an instructor to make a connection to some real-world scenario -- even a good one -- only to find students nonplussed. Usually, I've made a connection to one of my passions. The key is to connect to *their* passions. But that's much harder! Not to mention the fact that each student's passion is unique to her life and situation. This makes all the more important what Alan Kay said at OOPSLA about the power of 650 examples.
In at least one respect, getting better at teaching software development is no different from getting better at software development itself: It requires constant attention to practice and a willingness to change practice. And in the case of Alan's 650 examples, it requires teamwork. -----