TITLE: Exuberance and Fear in the Classroom
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: November 21, 2006 5:31 PM
One measure of how busy I am is how much outside reading
I am able to do. By that measure, this term has been
busier than most. In the last few days, I've tried to
catch up on some blog reading.
Last month Kathy Sierra posted two short pieces that ring
true as I reach the end of my first semester back in CS1
in oh so long. Her primary context is on the business
place, with managers and employees and products and users.
But her advice is a useful starting point in the context
of an academic department, with its chair and faculty and
courses and students.
Knocking the Exuberance out of Employees,
Sierra reminds us how easy it is to say that we
value creativity and curiosity yet create an environment
that not only devalues these traits but even penalizes
them. As a teacher, I say that I value creativity and
curiosity in my students, but I have to attend to creating
a course in which students feel free to have and express
I think that I have done reasonably well this semester in
not knocking the exuberance out of my students, at least in
gratuitous ways. With the media computation theme, I have
Earlier in my academic career, I was more prone to violating
the last two of these. I know that students in our department
struggle with the last of these in one course in particular,
especially in the form of ticky-tack style requirements. I
understand why some faculty impose rules -- they are convinced
that there is a right way to do things and want their students
to learn the right way sooner. Even if there is a right way,
though, instructors have to walk the line between helping students
learn to "do things right" while keeping them interested and
motivated enough to want to get better. I also know that giving
students latitude requires exercising latitude in judging how
far is far enough. Without confidence in one's own ability, an
instructor often feels safer within constraining rules. But
will students live comfortably there, too? Often not.
Sierra writes about similar issues from the user's perspective
Reducing Fear is the Killer App.
Users won't feel comfortable to cozy up to your product if
they are afraid -- of breaking something, of feeling stupid,
of most anything. Students are in a similar frame of mind
when they approach a course, and students who are just
beginning college, or their major, are most at risk. They
want to do well in the course. They want to enjoy their
new major. They want to master tools and ideas.
How can an instructor reduce fear? I can think of a few ways.
- present students with problems that they care about
- give them freedom in how they approach problems
- eliminate unnecessary constraints on their solutions
I don't think that my classroom or office say "comfortable"
quite in the way the dentist office or hospital do in Sierra's
pictures. My office certainly looks like a place that someone
works. (In the common phrase of the day, my office "looks
lived in".) I've tried to rely on my textbook authors'
sticking to the textbook
as much as my constitution allows, in an effort to take the
right sort of steps and set the right sort of problems before
the class. However, I'm not a "natural" teacher, at least
not the kind of natural teacher who makes instant personal
bonds with his students, who sets them at ease with the
twinkle of an eye. My hope is that, by consciously thinking
about the things Sierra writes about in these two essays,
I can at least do no harm.
- taking small steps in class material and in expectations
for student work
- using simple-enough tools, tools that do not cause or
- assigning approachable tasks, tasks that students have
the ability to solve by working just beyond what they
already find comfortable
- creating a warm environment in class and in the