TITLE: Let's Kill and Dick and Jane AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 08, 2007 3:40 PM DESC: ----- BODY: No, I've not become homicidal. That is the title of a recent book about the Open Court Publishing Company, which according to its subtitle "fought the culture of American education" by trying to change how our schools teach reading and mathematics. Blouke Carus, the creator of Open Court's reading program, sought to achieve an enviable goal -- engagement with and success in the world of great ideas for all students -- in a way that was beholden to neither the traditionalist "back to basics" agenda nor the progressivist "child-centered" agenda. Since then, the reading series has been sold to McGraw-Hill. Thanks to the creator of the TeachScheme! project, Matthias Felleisen, I can add this book to my list of millions. He calls Let's Kill and Dick and Jane "TeachScheme! writ large". Certainly there are differences between the K-8 education culture and the university computer science culture, but they share enough commonalities to make reform efforts similarly difficult to execute. As I have noted before, universities and their faculty are a remarkably conservative lot. TeachScheme! is a principled, comprehensive redefinition of introductory programming education. In arguing for his formulation, Felleisen goes so far as to explain why Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs -- touted by many, including me, as the best CS book ever written -- is not suitable for CS 1. (As much as I like SICP, Matthias is right.) But TeachScheme! has not succeeded in the grand way its implementors might have hoped, for many of the reasons that Open Court's efforts have come up short of its founders' goals. Some of the reasons are cultural, some are historical, and some are probably strategic. The story of Open Court is of immediate interest to me for our state's interest in changing K-12 math and science education in a fundamental way, a reform effort that my university has a leading role in, and which my department and I have a direct interest in. We believe in the need for more and better computer scientists and software developers, but university CS enrollments remain sluggish. Students who are turned off to science, math, and intellectual ideas in grade school aren't likely to select CS as a major in college... Besides, like Carus, I have a great interest in raising the level of science and math understanding across the whole population. This book taught me a lot about what I had understood only incompletely as an observer of our education system. And I appreciated that it avoided the typical -- and wrong -- conservative/liberal dichotomy between the traditional and progressive approaches. America's education culture is a beast all its own, essentially anti-intellectual and exhibiting an inertia borne out of expectations, habit, and a lack of will and time to change. Changing the system will take a much more sophisticated and patient approach than most people usually contemplate. Though I have never developed a complete curriculum for CS 1 as Felleisen has, I have long aspired to teaching intro CS in more holistic way, integrating the learning of essential tools with higher-level design skills, built on the concept of a pattern language. So Open Court's goals, methods, and results all intrigue me. Here are some of the ideas that caught my attention as I read the story of Open Court:
A teacher must dare to be different! She must pull away from monotonous repetition of, 'Today we are going to write a story.' Most children view that announcement with exactly what it deserves, and there are few teachers who are not aware of what the reactions are.s/story/program/* and s/children/students/* to get a truth for CS instructors such as me.
The quality of the Open Court program was a substantive strength and a marketing weakness. It required teachers to be conversant with a variety of methods. And the program worked best when used as a system... Teachers accustomed to trying a little of this and a little of that were likely to be put off by an approach that did not lend itself to tinkering.I guess I'm not the only person who has trouble sticking to the textbook. To be fair to us tinkerers, systematic integrated instructional design is so rare as to make tinkering a reasonable default stance.
Thus Open Court's usual problem was not that it contradicted teachers' ideology, but that it violated their routine.Old habits dies hard, if at all.
... the learned professions ...[in which] adaptation to the expectations of one's peers requires continual growth in knowledge and competence.In the professions, we focus not only on level of knowledge but also on the process of continuously getting better.
There are circumstances in which it is best to package our revolutionary aspirations in harmless-looking exteriors.... We should swallow our pride and let [teachers] think we are bland and acceptable. We should fool them and play to their complacent pieties, But we should never for a moment fool ourselves.Be careful what you pretend to be.
In an academic metaphor, [Open Court's] people had been the liberal-arts students looking down on the business school. But now that they needed business-school expertise, they were unable to judge it critically.Maybe a so-called "liberal education" isn't broad enough if it leaves the recipient unable to think deeply in an essential new context. In today's world, both business and technology are essential components of a broadly applicable education.
Teaching any skill requires repetition, and few great works of literature concentrate on long "e".My greatest inspiration in this vein is the Suzuki literature developed for teaching violin and later piano and other instruments. I've experienced the piano literature first hand and watched my daughters work deep into the violin literature. At the outset, both use existing works (folk tunes, primarily) whenever appropriate, but they also include carefully designed pieces that echo the great literature we aspire to for our students. As the student develops technical skill, the teaching literature moves wholly into the realm of works with connection to the broader culture. My daughters now play real violin compositions from real composers.